Category Archives: Graphic Novel

I heart Binky, Maru’s brainy cousin

binkyIf you ask me, Binky is what might happen to Maru if he focused less on boxes, and more on the possibility that aliens could be trying to attack his family’s space station (house). Those who know me, know how much Maru means to me, so that is perhaps all I really need to say to tell you how much I love Binky, the crazy cartoon kitty, created by the always stylish, super-talented Ashley Spires.

But honestly, I have many more reasons why I think The Binky Adventures are pretty much purr-fect (absolutely could not help it). Let’s make a list, shall we?

1. It’s got huge kid appeal, for boys and girls. Not just sayin’ this folks, I’ve got the banged-up, always coming-and-going copies in my school library to prove it. Some girls might be picking it up because Binky is just so darn cute, but they’ll stay because he is hilarious. There’s sweetness, but there’s also a little potty humour. In Binky Takes Charge, Gordon the dog may be leaving coded messages for the aliens (flies) in his business (um… poop). Now that will make kids laugh.

2. An average kid reader could finish a Binky book in one sitting, not rushing, just having a good time.

3. Spires’ artwork has such clean lines and a neutral colour palette that the expressions on the characters’ faces really stand out. Also, the uncluttered design of the panels will help readers to hone in on the story all the more. Plus, there’s something about Spires’ illustration style that feels modern and hip – and we all know how important it is for kids these days to feel modern and hip (*wink wink*). Perhaps I should say that Binky will score their hipster parents’ seal of approval?

4. It is becoming harder and harder for me to track down and stock enough graphic novels for the library that are appropriate for smart, book-devouring younger readers. I’m talking about kids in Grade 2/3/4 who are desperate to leap onto the GN bandwagon and who are really not ready for the content, length, and language in some popular GN series. Binky is perfect for that kind of kid. So not only are hipster parents cheering, it also gets the Cool Librarian’s Seal of Approval.

5. When you read a Binky book, you feel like Ashley Spires gets how cats think. Ask any cat lover and she (or he!) will tell you that their cat could be Binky, and this is at once thrilling and terrifying. (Now that I think about it, Yoyo has been spending more and more time lately lying on top of the heating vent. Perhaps he thinks the aliens are going to break in via the magic hot air?)


The little rotter

In conclusion, Binky is for everyone from Grade 2 right on up to your crazy cat lady relative. Read all four and you’ll heart Binky too.

Binky Takes Charge and all the others in the series are published by Kids Can Press.


Feeling the Guinea PI(G) love: Pet Shop Private Eye

Okay peeps, if you know a kid who is suffering from a serious case of grouchiness, I can help. I can help because I have discovered a graphic novel series so adorable, so funny, so full of pep and personality that I can more or less guarantee that reading these books will turn any frown upside down. May I present, Guinea PI(G), Pet Shop Private Eye. If you haven’t already discovered this charming collection, you will thank me. (You will also probably be stealing them from your kid’s bookshelf because they are So Much Fun to read). Who says a grown up can’t read a book with a cartoon guinea pig on the cover, right?

When the “G” falls off of the GUINEA PIG sign on Sasspants’ cage, Hamisher, the new hamster in Mr. Venezi’s pet shop, makes the mistake of thinking that Sasspants is a private eye. Sasspants would much rather hang out on her own, reading books, but Hamisher won’t let up until she “helps” Sasspants to solve the mystery of the missing sandwich (book 1), discover the identity of the pet shop ghost (book 2), crack the case of the strange sign vandal (book 3), reveal the truth behind Mr. V’s new assistant (book 4), and track down the missing bookstore cat (book 5). The mysteries are small, the characters are small, the books are small, but the heart and the humour and the entertainment value are big.

These books make the perfect introduction to the graphic novel genre for young readers as the stories are just the right length and are easy to follow. Kids love scenarios featuring bumbling adults. Mr. Venezi, with his mislabeled animal cages (chinchillas are camels, mice are walruses), and his generally clueless nature, will definitely get kids smiling. The personality of each of the animals is distinctly kooky, as Colleen A.F. Venable nails the dialogue, packing it full of laugh out loud moments and plenty of sass. You get the feeling as you read that Venable really enjoys writing these characters. It’s hard to choose which one of the little critters is my favourite. Hamisher is pretty awesome, with his flair for the dramatic, Sasspants is ingenious, and the fish are hilariously stupid. The panel layout is nice and simple, and Stephanie Yue’s artwork is wonderfully bright and clean, with huge visual appeal. Plus, she doesn’t let Venable get the credit for all of the jokes. There are plenty of super funny moments added into the visuals. The animals’ facial expressions alone are smile-worthy.

Finally, each book finishes with two pages of related non-fiction info, such as how snakes swallow things that are four times the size of their heads, how mice squeeze through dime-sized holes, and everything you every really needed to know about ferrets, exactly the kind of stuff that kids cannot resist.

Guinea PI(G) Pet Shop Private Eye is just right, in every way. We need more graphic novels as clever and smartly put-together as this delightful series. A total crowd-pleaser.

Guinea PI(G) Pet Shop Private Eye is published by Graphic Universe.

Bake Sale

Bake Sale by Saran Varon is a quirky little confection from the talented lady who brought us the beautifully understated graphic novel, Robot Dreams. It is a treat to look at, and it has recipes from the story collected at the end, for any aspiring bakers out there.

Bake Sale is every bit as visually beautiful as Varon’s previous graphic novel, but I confess, it’s not as satisfying when it comes to the narrative. I really wanted to love this book (I mean come on, look at that cover! A-dorable). While I can say I love the soft simplicity of the illustrations, the storyline left me a little baffled. It’s never a good sign when it’s not easy to describe exactly what the book is about. Part of the problem for me here is I do not think that the concept is something that kids can connect to. They will see the cover and think, “I want to read this,” but then I’m afraid the story will leave some readers disappointed.

Cupcake enjoys his life working in his small bakery, hanging out with his band mates, and spending time with his best friend Eggplant. He starts to slip into a baking slump, so Eggplant shares that he is planning a trip to Turkey and he promises that if Cupcake comes along he can introduce his friend to Turkish Delight (Cupcake’s baking idol). This prompts Cupcake to do everything he can to raise money for the trip, but Cupcake never gets to go because he ends up giving up his earnings to fund Eggplant’s trip when he loses his job.  It feels like an odd and somewhat confusing combination of topics for a ten-year-old reader, right? The ending is very open, and I think that’s another thing that kids will find disappointing. I like an open ending. I find they are often the most realistic and rich endings in fiction, but this ending felt like an abrupt cut off, rather than a satisfying stopping point. The thematic threads related to following one’s passions, being selfless in friendship, and never giving up, are just not explored or developed enough to make this book completely successful.

Cute? Certainly. I bought it for the library because of its sheer cuteness. (Wait until you see the endpapers – maybe the most delicious I have ever seen!) I’m just worried that the reading experience for most kids will be a let down, the way some pretty cupcakes look much better than they taste, which can be really upsetting. I speak from experience. So I’ll let you know the kid-appeal verdict soon.

Bake Sale by Sarah Varon is published by First Second.


I know I tell you frequently about types of books that are pretty much guaranteed surefire hits for me (British settings with manor houses, stories with food connections, anything related to Paris…). I’m sure that at some point I’ve mentioned that books about animals with secret lives please me. This is one reason I picked up Dan Satat’s graphic novel, Sidekicks. Also because his artwork rocks. It’s so bold and clean and dramatic. I can tell you right now that kids in my library are going to be crazy for this book. It’s hilarious (at one point, the hamster character asks the dog, “Do I look okay? Is there anything in my teeth?” to which the dog replies, “YOU ONLY HAVE TWO TEETH!” Love it). Any story with a hamster dressed in a spandex superhero suit has got to make you stop and take notice. I like reading something where the reading experience can best be summed up in one word: Fun. Take a look at the trailer and you’ll see what I mean:

Visually, it doesn’t get much better than this. All of the rich dark colours in the night scenes heighten the atmosphere. There’s great expressiveness in the animals’ faces and the action sequences have a cinematic feeling. The ending leaves room for a possible sequel. Lucky us!

For teachers / librarians / really interested folks, Dan is offering a tremendous 275 page PDF all about the artwork and the process of creating the book. More info here.

Sidekicks is published by Arthur A. Levine books.

Alison Dare: The Double Blog Dare Tour

Welcome to Day 6 of Tundra Books’ Double Blog Dare Tour for J. Torres’ and J. Bone’s super-entertaining graphic novels, featuring the sassy and fearless tween adventuress, Alison Dare. Bring on the daring! Bring on the masked superhero and the evil baron and the lost treasure! First, here’s a bit on the author and illustrator dream team.

J. Torres is a Shuster Award-winning, Eisner Award-nominated writer whose credits include adaptations of Disney/Pixar’s WALL-E and CTV’s Degrassi: The Next Generation, the comic book series Teen Titans Go and Wonder Girl for DC Comics, as well as the graphic novels Lola: A Ghost Story and the YALSA-listed Days Like This for Oni Press. He has also written for children’s magazines, books, and television. The author lives just outside of Toronto, Ontario.

J. Bone is an Eisner Award-nominated illustrator of several critically acclaimed comic books and graphic novels, including Spiderman: Tangled Web, Batman / The Spirit, and Paul Dini’s Mutant, Texas. J. Bone lives in Toronto, Ontario.

12-year-old Alison has been described as Indiana Jones meets Lara Croft, which basically means that readers are in for a wild ride, packed with a lot of humor and action. Alison is the daughter of a world-renowned archaeologist and the masked superhero The Blue Scarab, so it’s no surprise that she finds rule-breaking and a craving for dangerous situations come naturally. In each of the books, you’ll find several short adventures as Alison and her best friends face villains and save the day, making it all look as easy as their math homework.

Alison Dare was nominated for an Eisner Award in the Best Title for a Younger Audience category, and I can see why. The books make a neat package, with fast-moving story-lines that will have you turning the pages and laughing too. They are a tad tongue-in-cheek, almost poking fun at the adventure-genre, which adds an interesting layer. The graphics are bold and not overdone, quite understated I think. I like that Alison has a wild imagination, and she’s fearless. It’s different to read an action graphic novel with a girl at the centre. At the same time, the book will certainly appeal to boy readers as well, what with the evil baron and the ninjas. I know that there will be many Alison fans when I surrender these titles to my gang of bookworms at school. They are speedy reads, perfect for summer reading in between swims.

Tundra is running a fun/funny contest in connection with the tour. All you need to do is take a photo of Alison in your area and then send it to Tundra to be entered to win an Alison Dare prize pack. Instructions for all of that can be found here.

I snapped Alison in action in Riverdale. Here she is, proving her awesomeness:

Alison Dare and the Globe Basil of Doom

Alison Dare and the Solar-Powered Flower of Destiny

She is remarkable, yes?

You can continue to the other stops on the tour for today, and for all the rest of the tour days, by clicking here for the full schedule.

Thank your to Tundra for supplying review copies, and for inviting me to be a tour stop.

Both Alison Dare books are published by Tundra Books.


There has already been a lot of love for Raina Telgemeier’s autobiographical Middle Grade graphic novel, Smile. I just finished it today, and so it’s my turn to chime in. It really is charming and touching, from beginning to end, and if ever you had a tooth pulled as a kid, or had more than your fair share of ortho appointments, you’ll appreciate it all the more.

In Smile, Telgemeier, the adaptor and illustrator of The Baby-sitter’s Club graphic novels, tells her own story of “family, friends, boys and dental drama,” and when she says dental drama, she’s not kidding. In her grade six year, after a night out at Girl Scouts, Raina fell and knocked out both of her front teeth. So began an incredibly long process of surgery and orthodontics and headgear and struggle for Raina back towards an ordinary smile.

I hope that Raina’s book marks the beginning of many more quality graphic novels for middle grade girls, and readers would be lucky indeed if they were this well done, this emotionally true. At several moments while reading Smile I thought how right it was that Raina didn’t shy away from how miserable the middle grade years can be, when it seems like the only thing you’re really good at is being awkward. I think most readers will have a few moments of recognition. I know I would have been comforted to read this book at twelve or thirteen, when I might have recognized a little bit of my own life on the page. Smile is a heartfelt, pitch-perfect read, sure to find many fans. So go read Raina Telgemeier’s story and get your smile on (with braces or without).

Smile is published by Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic.

Author/Illustrator Interview: Matt Phelan

stormI’m honored to have the amazingly talented Matt Phelan visiting Shelf Elf today for an interview about his upcoming graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn. His book is already snapping up many glowing reviews all around the kidlitosphere (right here, educating alice, Reading Rants, Welcome to my Tweendom) and I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if it’s on a fast train to Awardsville. This is a book to buy and linger over and read again and again. Welcome Matt!

How would you describe The Storm in the Barn to a potential reader?
The Storm in the Barn is a graphic novel set in the Dust Bowl about a boy who discovers a sinister figure hiding in the neighbor’s barn. It is part tall tale, part historical fiction, and part supernatural thriller.

What are you most proud of in this upcoming book?
The story was first and foremost in my mind. I wrote it first as a very detailed script, describing each individual panel. I started to worry about how it would look only after the story was set.

When you were working on this book, which came first, images or story?
Although I wrote the script before I began drawing, the initial inspiration for the book was visual. I was very influenced by the WPA photography of that time and it was those images of the Dust Bowl that started me thinking. Also, the villain of the story originated as an offhand doodle that I once made during a meeting at my old copywriting job.

In what ways do you think a typical urban kid in 2009 can relate to the experiences of Jack Clark, a kid growing up in the Dust Bowl?
I think Jack faces some universal challenges of being a kid: bullies, a feeling of uselessness, the desire to impress his father, the desire to save his family. I think most kids can relate to that feeling of being powerless yet wanting desperately to make things better.

The Wizard of Oz is an important element in The Storm in the Barn. Why did you choose to bring this text into your book? What did you hope it would add to the fabric of your story?
I wanted the book to be an American fairy tale and to incorporate elements of folklore and myth. The Jack Tales were the first stories I wanted to include, but since the story is set in Kansas, I naturally gravitated to the Oz books. They had been around for many years by the time this story takes place (1937) so I knew that these kids would be familiar with them (especially if you are a young girl in Kansas named Dorothy). Reading Ozma of Oz, I found some passages that I thought would work nicely as a sort of commentary on what was going on in my story. So I had Jack or Dorothy reading these passages out loud in two scenes. Continue reading

The Storm in the Barn

stormMatt Phelan’s upcoming graphic novel, The Storm in the Barn, is really something. It is a thrilling and moving piece of historical fiction set in 1937 Kansas, with beautiful muted illustrations that practically make you taste the dust.

Jack Clark hasn’t had an easy childhood. It hasn’t rained for years and the tension in his small town couldn’t get much worse. At home, his father and mother have shrunk into themselves, barely able to hang onto the dreams they once had, and the farm life they used to know. One of his sisters is sick, with “dust pneumonia,” and the doctor hints that Jack’s increasingly strange and withdrawn behaviors might be “dust dementia.” He gets bullied by a group of local kids and his father never gives him the chance to prove his worth. One night, Jack ventures into the abandoned Talbot barn and what he finds there could change everything, if he’s brave enough to go back and face what’s inside.

It’s pretty clear that Matt Phelan is a tremendously gifted illustrator. The emotion that he can convey with the most understated colors and simple lines is remarkable. There is a sequence with a jackrabbit drive that will make you ache, every bit as gut-wrenching as how it could be portrayed on film. I loved the way the color shifts throughout, mirroring the changing tone of the narrative.

Also, as a complete aside, what is it with being eleven? I’ve read so many books with 11-year old protagonists lately. It ain’t easy to be 11, that’s for sure.

The Storm in the Barn will take your breath away. I cannot wait to read the rest of the graphic novels floating around in Matt’s head. Absolutely stunning.

Now, it won’t feel quite so much like just a sneaky grab if I post the aweomse book trailer at the end of my review. Try and wait until September:

Here are a few other rave reviews:

Reading Rants
The Book Bench
educating alice

The Storm in the Barn is published by Candlewick in September 2009.

Nonfiction Monday: No Girls Allowed

Need a little girl power to kick start your Monday morning? Look no further. Kids Can Press presents No Girls Allowed, a new book written by Susan Hughes, and illustrated in rockin’ graphic style by Willow Dawson. This book hits the mark in many ways. It offers readers short tales, in graphic format, of women throughout history who disguised themselves as men in order to shape their lives on their own terms. You’ll find the story of Hatshepsut, the female pharoah, and the tales of Mu Lan and Alfhild, the Viking warrior. Each mini-bio is quite short, around ten pages, so I imagine there will be a lot of readers who want to learn more about the women they read about here. Good thing there’s a list of Further Reading suggestions on the last page. Susan Hughes’ afterword, in which she leads readers to consider why women have faced different treatment throughout history to the present, is a good introduction for all young readers to a complex subject.

This one belongs in classrooms, as it matches strong kid-appeal with worthy content, and a contemporary feel.