It all started when I had to take my daughter to the emergency room and she was reading Smile by Raina Telgemeier in the waiting room. I read along with her to pass the time, and I was expecting something fluffy and vapid, but the book was a memoir with verve and I loved it. It's the story of a tween's loss of two front teeth, headgear, fake teeth, and braces. She faces boy trouble, petty friends, and gives hope to the lonely tweens who feel out of place in the world.
It was then that I began to wonder if there were more female protagonists in graphic novels, and the answer is a resounding YES! and they are delightful.
We searched through the shelves at Barnes and Nobel, which does not have a graphic novel section for school age readers. El Deafo was nestled in the books, as if it were just any old book. Cece Bell's graphic memoir captures the anguish and frustration of a young girl's maturation through her struggles in school as a result of hearing loss. Hearing or deaf, all readers will enjoy the protagonist and her Phonic Ear and can identify with the universal themes: her desire for a bosom friend, her need to fit in, her hope for the attention of the boy she likes.
I think the best graphic novel featuring girls is Tomboy by Liz Prince, which every student who has checked it out has devoured. Not only does the book speak to girls about their struggles as a non-girly girls in a male-dominated world, but it also helps them to understand the dangers of gender norming in American society. It isn't often that we read books that change us forever, that leave book hangovers that last for weeks, but this is one of those books. If every young person read this book, I think the world would be a better place. Prince models for all girls that anyone can be a comic book artist.
While Tomboy inspires young women to pursue their dreams and passions, Relish by Lucy Kinsey does the same. Kinsey's book catalogues her childhood through food as the daughter of a gourmet and chef, and explains her own journey to become a chef. In the process, she reminds us that food is connection, food is home, food is family, and food is art. The recipes are great, and the huevos rancheros are easy to make and delicious. Like Tomboy, Kinsey delves into a career dominated by males and shows her readers that she can do anything.
Both Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol and Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch feature ghosts who torment the protagonists and require them to find their strength to fight back and make the world right again. Hereville features an Orthodox Jewish girl who fights a pig and delves into the realm of fantasy much like a fairytale. Students will learn about Orthodox culture and a little Yiddish as they read, and also that girls are just as tough as anyone.
Two other graphic novels for more mature students are Lost At Sea by Bryan O'Malley (famed author of the Scott Pilgrim series) and This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki (authors of Skim, the graphic novel that artfully explores suicide, depression, and crushes). Both of these books explore the loneliness and despair teenagers experience as they grapple with the demands of the world around them, and these books are particularly poignant and must be finished for the powerful endings they both provide.
I also recommend Persepolis by Mariana Satrapi, a book my 12-year old daughter consumed with passion. Persepolis is a heart-wrenching historical memoir of a 10-year old's experience during the revolution in Iran in the 1980s. I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached captures the same nostalgia for homeland and horror for the war that ravaged it, but it is written as poetry, and the ending is perfectly evocative. Religion plays a role in the lives of these girls, and is essential in these stories.
Honestly, I had no idea there were so many graphic novels that would appeal to female readers, nor did I know they would be so profoundly well-written that they expand the genre and represent what is possible with the power of good storytelling.