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Guest Post: 12 Graphic Novels with Black Protagonists

Today we are happy to present a guest post by Martha Cornog.

This year’s eclectic batch of African American-relevant graphic novels includes a generous assortment for youthful readers, from adventure tales to romantic comedies to black history—because as Joel Christian Gill likes to say, #28DaysAreNotEnough. 

Black Sands: The Seven Kingdoms by Manuel Godoy. illus. by David Lenormand. Black Sands Entertainment. 2018. Gr 4 Up.

A group of youngsters, all children of warriors and warrior gods, come into their powers in this epic adventure series. Places, characters, and events all have basis in Egyptian history and mythology; interspersed text passages explain the sources and how Godoy has tweaked the originals. What does it take to be Pharaoh? The rod—strength, iron discipline, win-or-die? Or the staff—strategy, diplomacy, compassion? The vibrant, glowing art brings to mind Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The Breakaways: Bad at Soccer, Okay at Friends by Cathy G. Johnson. illus. by author. First Second. 2019. Gr 2-5.

Fifth-grader Faith is the youngest misfit among misfits, all of them pushed into the lowest ranked soccer team at school. They make a terrible team since no one wants to play, and they don’t like each other much. But the shy Faith (who draws cartoons as a sideline) has good instincts for empathy, and catalyzes change for nearly everyone. The art is notable for its realistically unpretty depictions of the diverse kids, their life issues, and their turbulent emotions.

Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride by Joel Christian Gill. illus. by author. Lion Forge. 2019. Gr K-3.

Stringfield was the first African American woman to cross the U.S. on a motorcycle, breaking numerous barriers during the 1930s and 1940s and having many adventures. Here, Gill’s imagined younger Bessie proves to a group of boys that not only is she fast on her bicycle, she’s faster than they are. Inventive dream sequences show Bessie pedaling through outer space and across bodies of water, underscoring the theme of life’s limitless possibilities. Includes sidebars with anecdotes from the real Bessie’s life.

The Girl Who Married a Skull: And Other African Stories by various. ed. by C. Spike Trotman, Kate Ashwin, Kel McDonald, and Taneka Stotts. Iron Circus. 2018. Gr 9 Up.

The rousing opener to these fifteen stories introduces a crafty skull who camouflages himself as a swoon-worthy hunk to seduce a young lovely into marriage—yet with equal cleverness, she triumphs. In remaining tales, we meet an underhanded spider god and other misguided, mostly nonhuman characters who get their comeuppance, also. Adapted by different artists, all tales deliver surprising twists and a satisfying moral punch. The varied black-and-white art keeps things visually interesting. Unfortunately, no source notes are supplied. 

Luke Cage: Everyman by Anthony Del Col. illus. by Jahnoy Lindsay and Ian Herring. Marvel. 2018. Gr 7 Up.

Hyper-powered good-guy Luke Cage is living in Harlem with his family and coaching school basketball when local rich folks start dying of a strange malady. A mysterious “Everyman” is claiming credit, vowing vengeance against one-percenter greed for destroying the neighborhood. But why has Russian supervillain Omega Red become Everyman’s sidekick? Cage must unravel who’s doing what, save his buddy Iron Fist as well as Harlem itself, and overcome mysterious symptoms of his own.

Monster Mayhem by Christopher Eliopoulos. illus. by author. Dial. 2018. Gr 3-7.

Little Zoe-the-genius builds a small robot for company because she feels awkward with kids her own age. But she finds herself in bigger trouble than loneliness when a kaiju-type monster that she’s inadvertently summoned attracts fellow monsters that start eating the city. And now she must actually ask for help from the schoolmates she’s been avoiding—but that’s not so hard as she imagined. Lively color art similar to the Amelia Rules series.

New Kid by Jerry Craft. illus. by author. HarperCollins. 2019. Gr 3-7.

Caught between parents, personal dreams, and now two cultures, seventh grader Jordan Banks tries to fit in at his new private school where students of color elicit stereotyped assumptions from teachers and other kids. Actually, cartoonist-wannabe Jordan just wants to go to art school, and so the story incorporates his drawings about his true feelings. This empathic yet humorous story satirizes microaggressions against minorities from well-meaning white people while delivering a compelling account of Jordan’s “elite” education. 

Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell. illus. by Faith Erin Hicks and Sarah Stern. First Second. 2019. Gr 7 Up.

Shy Josiah (“Josie”) and bubbly Deja bonded years ago when working their city’s Pumpkin Patch harvest festival throughout high school. Now in their last year as festival teammates, Josie despairs of ever connecting with the girl he’s been crushing on, while Deja vows to help him despite her own feelings. It takes a whole evening of chaos involving a corn maze, an escaped goat, thieving kids, and numerous tasty concoctions to sort matters out. A lighthearted, feel-good story paying homage to rural America’s charms. 

Quincredible. Vol. 1: Quest to Be the Best! by Rodney Barnes. illus. by Selina Espiritu. Lion Forge. 2019. Gr 7 Up.

A meteor hitting New Orleans produced superheroes termed “the Enhanced” who get drawn into the ongoing urban unrest. Teenager Quin doesn’t realize he’s enhanced, only that nothing injures him. The tech-smart loner longs for attention from activist Brittany while keeping to himself, but when he gets woke by one of the Enhanced, he jumps in to disrupt civic sabotage by a misguided would-be savior. Fine writing and individualistic facial art sell the story with disarming realism.

Sanity & Tallulah. Book 1 by Molly Brooks. illus. by author. Disney-Hyperion. 2018. Gr 3-7.

Best friends Sanity and Tallulah live on a space station, where growing up includes schooling in super-advanced technology. In fact, the girls have an unusual pet that Sanity herself has bioengineered—and they keep it hidden from everyone else. But after Tallulah’s scientist-mom deduces the pet’s existence, the pet disappears and space station tech functions start malfunctioning. Is this the end of the pet, the girls’ futures, and the space station? Brooks’ mad science bubbles with charm, unique characters, and well-plotted technobabble. 

Shuri: The Search for Black Panther. Vol. 1 by Nnedi Okorafor. illus. by Leonardo Romero and Jordie Bellaire. Marvel. 2019. Gr 7 Up.

After her older brother King T’Challa goes off into space to investigate a black hole, Princess Shuri is in charge of Wakanda. But T’Challa doesn’t return when expected, and the brainy princess must draw on all her resources as well as on other Marvel superheroes to search for him plus handle multiple crises facing the kingdom. Don’t miss the giant space grasshopper.

Urban Legendz by Paul Downs and Nick Bruno. illus. by Michael Yates. BiG:Humanoids. 2019. Gr 7 Up.

Alligators in the toilet, gargoyles run amok, flesh-eating giant bedbugs…. What if they’re real? Transplanted from Illinois to Brooklyn after his mother’s death, young Dwayne joins up with fellow misfits Cashew, Mya, and Worm, kid-vigilantes investigating strange goings-on around town. But Dwayne’s police officer dad remains skeptical until things get completely out of hand. Is it all due to gentrification? The excellent art keeps the monster-Brooklynite encounters a bit funny while still scary.

Martha Cornog reviews graphic novels for Library Journal. She was a judge for the Glyph Awards for African American comics, and co-edited Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics.

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Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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