A trio of all-ages books is out from First Second press today. Some skew younger than others, and they’ve all got their charms. Here’s a rundown:
“Level Up” by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham – This is my favorite of the bunch, a whimsical story about serious issues, the biggest being living up to your parents’ expectations. I still haven’t read Yang’s award-winning “American Born Chinese,” but it’s on my shortlist now. Anyway, “Level Up” is the story of college student Dennis Ouyang, who’s on the verge of flunking out of school from lack of focus, the burden of his dead father’s wishes and an addiction to video games. He’s really good at the latter (an award winner, in fact), but that won’t help him become a gastroenterologist. Enter four cute, bossy angels from the cover of a greeting card he received from his father years before. They clean up his act enough to get him into medical school, but his inner turmoil still gets in the way. That’s not to say this book is all serious and dramatic. It’s actually quite funny in spots and has a lot of heart. Pham’s watercolor illustrations are a great addition, softening some of the story’s darkest edges while injecting a bit more humor with the angels. The two make a great team, and “Level Up” should be on every teen’s reading list as they consider college and the future. It’s a touching story of love and family pride that takes full advantage of the unique properties graphic storytelling offers. It’s a keeper. GRADE: A-
“Anya’s Ghost” by Vera Brosgol – This one also is for older readers, but it’s a good read. It’s about a girl going through all the typical stuff those without perfect figures go through in high school. And to top it off, there’s a lingering stigma from being the daughter of Russian immigrants. She gets by, but she’s not the happiest of students. Then she falls into an old well and meets the ghost of Emily, a girl who had fallen into the same well 90 years earlier and died. She can’t travel far from her bones, but a bit of her little finger winds up with Anya during a rescue. The two become friends as Emily helps Anya cheat at school and deal with the boy she likes, among other things. But what starts as the premise for a sitcom becomes increasingly dark and takes some surprising turns that lift this book above the typical ghost story. But it’s not just the ghost elements that take this above and beyond. In all the typical teen angst, there are some surprises, too. Brosgol’s moody, cartoony black-and-white art ups the gloom factor, and she does a great job with her facial expressions and body language. “Anya’s Ghost” is a fun, spooky ride — a harrowing campfire tale brought to vivid, visual life. GRADE: B+ See a step-by-step look at Brosgol’s artistic process at First Second’s website.
“Astronaut Academy” by Dave Roman – Roman will be at this weekend’s Kids Read Comics! convention in Chelsea, so I’m a bit bummed I didn’t like this book more. It’s the most kid-friendly and is good for some laughs. Roman also has an engaging, goofy art style. Hakata Soy, hiding from his supervillain nemesis, is attending Astronaut Academy, but with classes on wearing cute hats and riding dinosaurs, you know it’s not taking itself too seriously. The main story is really secondary, though, as the book is presented in a series of short (as little as one page) vignettes about various characters at the school. Sometimes it’s just a different take on a previous event. It’s a cute, effective device. But overall I found the book difficult to read because of the dialogue. Everyone speaks in a stylized, stilted way that trips you up grammatically breaks up the flow of the story. It might be cute if one or two characters had an affected speech pattern, but it’s virtually everybody. Maybe younger kids not so steeped in the “rules” of English will more easily “get it,” but any parent reading to a kid may have some issues and want to read through it themselves first for a practice run. GRADE: C+