2 graphic novels capture the trials and tribulations of middle school

Books

★ Invisible

A fresh and cleverly conceived take on the beloved 1985 film The Breakfast Club, Invisible is a colorful and engaging tale written by first-time graphic novel author Christina Diaz Gonzalez and illustrated by Gabriela Epstein (Claudia and the New Girl). 

Diaz writes in both English and Spanish, the languages spoken by her archetypal characters. There’s George Rivera, the brain; Sara Domínguez, the loner; Miguel Soto, the athlete; Dayara Gómez, the tough one; and Nico Piñeda, the rich kid. Their heritage is linked to different places, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but since they all speak Spanish, the kids keep getting lumped together at Conrad Middle School by fellow students and school administrators alike. 

As Invisible opens, it’s happened again: Principal Powell won’t earn a community service initiative trophy unless 100% of students participate, so he informs George that he’ll be spending mornings with “students like you” helping grouchy Mrs. Grouser in the school cafeteria. The five kids greet each other with wariness that soon becomes bickering as they resist the idea they could actually have anything in common. Sure, they’re all varying degrees of bilingual, and yes, they’ve all been stereotyped because of it. But otherwise? Pfft! But when an opportunity to really help someone arises—one that will require creative thinking plus significant subterfuge—the kids have to make a decision. Can they work together to achieve a meaningful goal? 

Diaz Gonzalez’s previous novel, Concealed, won the 2022 Edgar Award for best juvenile title, and she builds wonderful suspense here as the students strive to find common ground. Meanwhile, Epstein’s art conveys the group’s swirling emotions, from Dayara’s frustration (ugh, homework!) to George’s embarrassment (oh, crushes!) to everyone’s wide-eyed worry that they’ll be caught breaking Mrs. Grouser’s rules. 

In an author’s note, Diaz Gonzalez explains that she knows what it’s like to be a student learning English as a second language “who may feel a little lost . . . when surrounded by words that they don’t yet understand.” Her own experiences fueled her desire to create “a single book that could be read and enjoyed no matter which language you [speak].” 

With Invisible, she and Epstein have done just that. The book’s visual context clues and helpful dialogue bubbles (with solid outlines to indicate speech and dashed outlines for translations) bolster an already meaningful coming-of-age tale. Invisible celebrates individuality and community while transcending language barriers. 

★ Twin Cities

Must a border also be a barrier? In their first graphic novel for middle grade readers, Jose Pimienta compassionately explores this question through the eyes of 12-year-old twins Teresa and Fernando.

The twins live with their parents in Mexicali, Mexico, just over the border that runs between the U.S. and Mexico. For years, they’ve happily been classmates at school and BFFs at home. They spend the summer after sixth grade in a bonanza of togetherness, filling their days with basketball and movies and tree-climbing, all portrayed by Pimienta in a kinetic, wordless double-page spread that hums with the joy of a strong sibling bond.

But the twins’ paths diverge when seventh grade begins. Teresa goes to school in Calexico, California, while Fernando stays in Mexicali. Fernando has noticed that Teresa has begun to rebuff their joint nickname, but it’s not until the first day of class that he realizes she is also eager to put space between them, to try new things alone. 

Pimienta uses evocative, parallel-panel sequences to illustrate the twins’ vastly different experiences, in different countries, just several miles apart. Fernando’s friends, Tony and Victor, join his sister at school in Calexico, leaving Fernando lonely and adrift—and excited to see Teresa when she gets home each day. Teresa, however, feels stifled by her brother’s attention. She has so much homework, and she wants to do well so that she can go to college and perhaps even work in America someday. Tension builds between the twins as they contend with new friends and chores-obsessed parents.

Middle school is never easy, but it’s even harder when you think you might lose your best friend for reasons you don’t quite understand. In Twin Cities, Pimienta addresses this possibility from a place of sensitivity, sympathy and personal curiosity: In an author’s note, they reveal that they also grew up in Mexicali and were offered—but declined—the option to study in the U.S. “I still wonder what would have happened had I made a different choice,” they write. 

That’s just one revelation among many to be found in Twin Cities’ notably substantive back matter, which also includes Pimienta’s musings on siblinghood and identity, character sketches, a map of both border towns and more. From start to finish, Twin Cities is a superbly crafted work of art and emotion that marks Pimienta as a creator to watch.

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