The Backstagers by James Tynion IV, Rian Singh, and Andy Mientus

Today I’ve got something to recommend for lovers of both prose chapter books AND graphic novels! The Backstagers, by James Tynion IV and Rian Singh, started out as a young adult graphic novel series, but then was adapted into middle grade novels of the same name by Andy Mientus, and both give you an avenue into a tale of high school theater as a gateway into fantastical realms.

Here’s the basics: a boy named Jory transfers to an all-boys private high school, St. Genesius, and is pushed by his parents to join a club. First he considers joining drama club, only to discover that it’s much more exciting (and welcoming) being a backstager, the techs behind the scenes that make all the magic happen. Magic in this case is also meant literally: the backstage corridors lead into wild and unpredictable worlds of odd creatures, shifting passageways, and general mayhem. Jory jumps in feet-first and quickly bonds with the Backstagers crew: Hunter, Aziz, Sasha, Beckett, and two kindly senior stage managers. Together, it’s their job to keep the theater safe AND make sure the show goes on. It’s not an easy task, but the power of new friendship and budding romance is more than up to the challenge.

I started with the graphic novels, and I thought the art style was charming and the characters were diverse and full of personality. I’m very excited to read the prose novels and see this world fleshed out in more detail, with new adventures to experience. If you were a theater kid, have a devoted squad of friends, or loved either Stranger Things or Ouran High School Host Club, I recommend you try reading about The Backstagers (one way or another)!

Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow

I recently came across this 2019 middle grade fiction book, Hazel’s Theory of Evolution by Lisa Jenn Bigelow, and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It covers heavy subjects (content warning: including miscarriage) and doesn’t shy away from hard feelings and uncomfortable situations, but it does these things with incredible gentleness, authenticity, and hope. If you’re looking for a warm and wholesome read about family, friendship, and personal growth, you may like Hazel’s Theory of Evolution.

The main character of this book is Hazel, a thirteen-year-old going into 8th grade at a new school, thanks to local redistricting. She refuses to be open or optimistic about this development, determined to keep her head down and “hibernate” her way through one last year before being reunited with her best friend in high school. Unfortunately for her, her best friend grows increasingly distant and mysterious, befriending Hazel’s longtime bully and trying out for cheerleading (which Hazel has always deplored as a ridiculous and sexist activity). Meanwhile, in her new school, a green-mohawked classmate starts pushing his way into her self-isolation, and she makes an unexpected connection with Carina, a fellow transfer looking for a fresh start. At the same time as her social life grows increasingly confusing, her moms announce that one of them, Mimi, is pregnant again…after suffering two miscarriages. Unable to face the agony of hope and loss again, Hazel tries to live in denial: the baby isn’t real until its born safe and healthy. But painful or not, some things can’t be denied or ignored, and Hazel will have to find her way through her new realities.

There are many good things about this book, as mentioned above, including positive representation of multiple identities (ethnic, religious, gender, and sexual identities), and positive parenting: Hazel’s moms do a good job talking to her about her feelings as well as their own, while giving her space to process what she’s going through. I also appreciated reading a modern and well-formed school Health class, complete with discussions of family relationships and positive and comprehensive sex ed. The book is also peppered with Hazel’s articles for the Encyclopedia of Misunderstood Creatures she’s writing, which make delightful educational asides. I recommend this book for a wide range of ages (though be prepared to cry); Hazel has something to resonate with anyone who’s struggled with change and feeling misunderstood or alone in the world.

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo

floraandulyssesHoly Bagumba!

Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo is delightful!  I was smitten with this charming, smart middle grade novel from page one.  DiCamillo (Tale of Despereaux, Because of Winn Dixie) is joined by illustrator K.G. Campbell to bring to life Flora Belle Buckman, a natural-born cynic in the body of a tween girl.  Armed with an extensive vocabulary, an abundance of comic book knowledge, and an eye for the truth, Flora makes for a wonderful heroine.

But she wouldn’t see herself as the hero of this tale.  The hero (I mean, superhero) is Ulysses, a squirrel who acquires the abilities to write poetry and fly after being sucked up by Flora’s neighbor Tootie Tickman’s  Ulysses Super-Suction, Mult-Terrain 2000X vacuum.  The story that follows includes a terrifying cat, temporary blindness, a shepherdess lamp, an unexpected villain, a giant doughnut, and much more.

While this comic book/chapter book hybrid is funny and silly, it is also very sweet.  The examination of changing mother-daughter dynamics as girls grow up is so beautifully executed and subtle that readers may not notice it until they’ve finished reading.  Flora and Ulysses is a great read for loyal readers of Kate DiCamillo and fans of Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead and Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman (or, really, anyone!)