Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola

Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships (Baltimore, #1)Baltimore, Vol. 1: The Plague Ships by Mike Mignola

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s dark and dingy but it has this throwback, homage feeling to it that really appealed to my sense of design. The story uses many archetypes and predictable twists and turns as there is a plague, and zombie-esque creatures and vampires, but really our hunter is fighting evil, and that never really goes out of style, does it? My favourite part is when the pretty sidekick (who just can’t seem to keep her blouse on her shoulders) escapes the onslaught of the zombies by hiding inside a submarine full of corpses. I’ll have to see what my secondary school readers think of it as they are always craving more brains….errr, zombies. More zombies! More zombies!

Baltimore reminds me more of something about the same age as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde then a modern day graphic novel. If you like fog and death, you’re going to love it.

Image result for baltimore the plague ships

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Essex County by Jeff Lemire

The Complete Essex CountyThe Complete Essex County by Jeff Lemire

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was deeply touched by Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, as to me, it portrays my version of home in Southwestern Ontario. The contrast between his drawing of Toronto’s hubbub and Essex County’s stark isolation is vivid and particularly resonates with my experience growing up in a rural community. His characters are so well-developed and the threads between them are surprising in their complexity. Their stories are intimate in a way that compels me to read more even though I feel like I’m intruding in their underwear drawers. I particularly fell entranced by reading the story of Lester and the complicated relationship between his father and his uncle. I found Lemire’s artwork to be mesmerizing as he uses broad brush strokes and intentionally muddies his images. A thought occurred to me the other day….that Terry Fallis should collaborate with Jeff Lemire and create a graphic novel version of “Best Laid Plans”.

Although this is part of my secondary library collection, I think it will come across to students a bit like Margaret Laurence’s Stone Angel…not relevant to their age of experience.  I will, however, recommend it to all the staff.  I’m going to rate it for senior teen, but not because of content, but because of themes.

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Drama by Raina Telgemeier

DramaDrama by Raina Telgemeier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am so thrilled that there is a female protagonist who loves theatre and isn’t dying to be onstage. Callie is a great role model for pre-teens and teens alike as she is the master of her own learning of stagecraft in order to help put on the school production of Moon over Mississippi. She encounters some very mature problems of how to work through her own limitations. She is also introduced to a couple of brothers who are new at the school and they teach her about making new friends. Telgemeier is able to call attention to the young character’s budding sexuality, openly recognizing that one of these characters are gay, without making it dominate the rest of Callie’s own story. The struggle she experiences is emphasized through the organziation of the novel into Acts, mimicking the structure of a play. I would recommend this book for students as young as grade 5 as long as they understand that it essentially explores ideas of romance. As a teacher, I think it could lead to some very real discussions with students who are confronted with the ideas of homosexuality for the first time in a school situation. I applaud Telgemeier’s bravery for writing this book. It’s not just a brave book…it’s a funny, endearing book about the awkwardness of first love.

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis, Volume 1 (Persepolis, #1)

I really enjoyed the tone of Satrapi’s writing….a combination of harsh truth and the quirky humour of a young teenager.  Whether Satrapi has written this memoir as a young woman or older, she remembers accurately what it was like to appear fundamentalist in her public life but to be a rebellious teenager in her personal life.  I found it to be educational to read this book because the voice was so accessible. I’m sure that the students in my secondary school library would feel the same way.  Her black and white illustrations filled with paradoxes between modern life and religious expectations are also nuanced with symbolism yet are invitational to the deeper subject matter.


I was particularly surprised to learn about the different Shiite rituals surrounding virginity and death for both males and females.  The book forced me to reflect on what I know about Iran and here are my 3 major influences before reading Persepolis:  1) The movie Argo, 2) being a fan of Jian Ghomeshi and 3) having taught a couple of students from Iran while I was working for the Peel Board of Education.  Then I was sitting eating breakfast in Connecticut this morning and this news story came on the news:  It seems that the religious extremism in Iran is still enough to chase out anyone who speaks up against it.

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Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki

SkimSkim by Mariko Tamaki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was actually first turned on to Mariko and Jillian Tamaki when I read Hiromi Goto’s young adult novel Half World, which was nominated in Ontario for a White Pine award. I just can’t get enough of Tamaki’s style of elegance and simplicity in her drawings. There are subtleties in her writing and art that let my imagination fill in the blanks and I like that. I feel like the Tamakis treat me as an intelligent reader rather than being explicit.

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Saga, Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga, Volume 1Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brian K. Vaughan has written the graphic novel that may be my entry point into adult graphic novels that will keep me hooked. The characters are likeable but deeply flawed. If the story had kept to the main plot of Alana and Marko’s journey to keep their family together, I could easily see bringing this story to my library. And then we get to the prince and his impotence….and suddenly the graphic novel is too graphic. I could even sort of justify the bordello scene because it isn’t the main character having sex….in fact he rescues the young girl from this life. But I can’t…there is genitalia everywhere in Chapter 3. Between this book and Scott McCloud’s deconstruction of all things comic, I’ve got big questions about how the visual image is so much more powerful than the written word when it comes to sex and violence. What I’m wishing is that Staples had created more gutters….places where the imagination could go…so that I could bring this awesome story and its further development into my secondary library.

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Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

“>Friends with BoysFriends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think my favourite thing about the main character, Maggie, is that her personality is so well-developed. Before the ghost is even introduced we find out that: she’s the only girl with 3 brothers, her Dad has a new job, and her Mom has left the family. Besides all the other normal angst that goes with being a teenager, she’s starting her first day of regular high school after being home-schooled her whole life. The jacket is very well done and I think the description:”… and, oh yeah, she’s haunted.” is sure to appeal to readers in my library. I also really like how the main conflict in the novel is really approachable for all teens: new friends, learning the grey areas of right and wrong, and, oh yeah, how to put a ghost to rest. Ok, maybe not that last one. Maggie’s brothers are also well-developed and have distinct personalities especially Zander who is both wise and immature. With all their cavorting about it makes me wish that I had brothers too.

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DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke

DC: The New Frontier, Vol. 1DC: The New Frontier, Vol. 1 by Darwyn Cooke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I selfishly chose to read DC: The New Frontier because I’m doing an assignment on DC and I wanted more meat. I’m a self-acclaimed noob when it comes to graphic novels and The New Frontier was my first foray into any superhero comics…..any….ever. This was my first. So I was completely blown away by how emotionally involved I became with the characters as they rushed to find a solution to stop the world from ending. I also found the artwork absolutely absorbing. There were 2 page spreads of one single frame, 2 page spreads split into thirds, and many many more combinations that I had never seen before. I think I may have developed a crush on Wonder Woman.


I’m also struck by how accessible this giant book is especially in comparison to the other DC comic I’m attempting: The Watchmen. The New Frontier is told from many many characters’ points of view but they all have a singular focus that brings them together. I will recommend this book to all the readers in my library.

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Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

Anya's GhostAnya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s not surprising to me that Vera Brosgol, author/illustrator of Anya’s Ghost, has chosen Neil Gaiman’s critique to highlight on her front cover of this graphic novel. I can make a direct comparison between Gaiman’s character Coraline and Brosgol’s Anya who are both ordinary and unsuspecting in their quiet gothic existence. Both girls are pre-teen in age, excited and curious but not driven by hormones or a desire to rebel. Other than a few key shots of thigh, Anya is seemingly unaware of her blossoming sexuality. Even Anya’s secret cigarette habit seems more driven by anxiety than as a social tool to garner favour with her peers.
I particularly enjoyed the illustration of the ghost’s duplicity as it oscillates between good and evil in order to manipulate Anya. I was surprised by the story arch as the ghost reveals that not only is she using Anya but she has done this before to her own family. I particularly enjoyed how the ghost tries to compare herself to Anya by pointing out her selfish behaviour. I’m convinced that Anya isn’t sure what to do until the ghost tries to push her back into the giant hole. The book was deliciously suspenseful from beginning to end.


If the ending had found Anya back in the hole, alone and afraid, then I would recommend this to a senior grade student. However, when everything works out alright and Anya grows in her appreciation of her family, friends and school life, I know that this graphic novel would be a good choice for junior students and older.














You can see the official book trailer here:’s%20Ghost%20by%20Vera%20Brosgol
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Comics in prison libraries? Huh.

In this article Martha Cornog, longtime reviewer for Library Journal, interviews Graterford Corrections librarian, Philip Ephraim, about the inclusion of comics in his prison library.  Ephraim talks about the circulation statistics of comics noting that they are a small portion of the collection but well-used by patrons.    As a result, Ephraim has observed an increase in patrons choosing more serious reading materials and becoming interested in the art of comics. Some of the appeal to the library patrons includes using them as reference or springboards for artwork and this has lead to the development of how-to draw books in the collection. Likewise, the drawing leads to the need to articulate dialogue in the creation of comics and so the study of writing has also increased in library patrons.  Most importantly, comics are signed out for entertainment which has a significant effect on the stress levels of the inmates, which in turn translates to pacifying the atmosphere of the correction facility itself.   Ephraim leaves the reader with a series of questions about the relationship between his inmate patrons and comics that he advocates should be researched. He wonders if there is a relationship between intelligence or reading levels and comics and how it can be measured. He is also curious about if the prisoners admire the characters they read about and wish to emulate them by performing good deeds.  Ephraim is trying to gather more data to persuade others that comics should be included in every prison library.

The interview with Ephraim about his prison library collection of comics and prisoners’ reactions left two lasting impressions of the dynamic in my mind: the increase in the pursuit of art-making and the questions of morality in comic book themes.  I can only assume that one of the factors that contributes to incarceration is illiteracy.  Certainly any kind of reading material that the inmates choose increases their exposure to text and the likelihood of reading activity.    While Ephraim agrees with current research that shows that reading comics can lead to higher literacy rates, his inclusion of comics seems to validate the reading decisions of his unique patrons.  Perhaps this is why they choose the creative act of art-making, rather than the destructive behaviour they’ve shown in the past.  This creation in itself empowers the same library users to ask for materials that they are interested in.  Having Ephraim purchase more texts that users request demonstrates that their interests have sway as the library collection is adapting to the users, rather than the users adapting to the available collection.

Furthermore Ephraim indicates his own interest in the grey areas of morality that are often emphasized in graphic novels.  As Ephraim does, I wonder if there is a measurable effect of the consistent good vs. evil themes in comics on the prisoners.  It seems obvious that this population would be interested in crime and the justice system.  I‘m just reading Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986) and in it the character Nite Owl says:

Some of us did it out of a sense of childish excitement and some of us, I think, did it for a kind of excitement that was altogether more adult if perhaps less healthy.  They’ve called us fascists and they’ve called us perverts and while there’s an element of truth in both those accusations, neither of them are big enough to take in the whole picture” (p. 8).

While Nite Owl was describing these heroes who dressed in costume to stop crime, he could easily be describing criminals. Especially in post-modern comics, we seem to see the duality of villains and heroes and how close to the edge of justice and injustice they both live.  I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these consistent themes are what appeals to the patrons of Ephraim’s library where they wrestle with the same moral questions about themselves.


Cornog, M. (2012, July 3). Q&A: Prison librarian Philip Ephraim on the positive

    effects of comics [Blog post]. Retrieved from Library Journal Reviews


Moore, A., & Gibbons, D. (1986). Watchmen. New York, NY: DC Comics.


A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel adapted and illustrated by Hope Larson

A Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic NovelA Wrinkle in Time: The Graphic Novel by Hope Larson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am at a disadvantage in reading the graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time because I don’t remember the original story enough to compare it.  The only thing I do remember is “It was a dark and stormy night…”.  At the same time, I have the advantage of reading the graphic novel fresh for the first time and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I found the illustrations in black, white and blue to highlight the surreal and stark settings as well as give a reminiscent feeling to the tale.  My favourite illustration in the book is on page 296 when Meg is entering the dark thing, but her father’s hand is reaching through the frame to pull her back.  The abstract combination of lines meeting Meg’s limbs somehow conveys that her soul in as much jeopardy as her body. I think this drawing of Hope Larson’s would make Picasso proud.

The story itself reminds me of The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn and The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis.  I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book that hinted at the mathematics and physics behind time travel theory as much as A Wrinkle in Time.  I’m also surprised how much spirituality is hinted at through references to the Bible and other philosophical works.  I suppose the spiritual questioning of Meg is why most of all this book reminds me of Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  This graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time is already part of my secondary school library collection and now I’m glad that I’ll be able to recommend it.

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Owly by Andy Runton

Owly, Vol. 1:  The Way Home & The Bittersweet SummerOwly, Vol. 1: The Way Home & The Bittersweet Summer by Andy Runton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t say this with any certainty but Owly has the feeling of being written for school-aged children. The pictures are sweet and the text is minimal but the stories themselves seem to have a moral impetus driving them….like you just know there’s a lesson at the end. Andy Runton even includes this teacher resource page on his blog:… …as if Andy Runton sat down one day and said “I have the perfect thing for those elementary teachers…” The pictures are sweet and the text is minimal which is certainly an achievement but the stories themselves seem to have a moral impetus driving them….like you just know there’s a lesson at the end. This makes the stories seem disingenuous and I have to question the validity of the purpose. However, there is a very nice storytelling moment when during their quest Owly and Wormy meet a pair of fireflies to light their nighttime path. The reader realizes that Owly released these two fireflies from a jar earlier in the story so they are repaying a favour to Owly.

And another thing….While I mostly like this cute character Owly, I’m a little miffed when in “The Way Home” that he can have worms as friends, because I think any owl with any self-worth would munch on that worm quick as can be. Owly just isn’t very ….owly. My son was given a book called “Ducklings love…” once when he was about 3 and it was super cute that the ducklings love something different on each page like: water, swimming, their Mommy and Daddy, and then the ducklings were said to love cats and dogs and I thought “Ducklings do not love cats and dogs or rabid-duckling-eating-wolves” and I threw it away. There’s something about Owly’s quirky relationships with much smaller animals that I find unnerving. Maybe the leap from personifying an animal to taking all of his animal characteristics away is just too great for me to take.

I appreciated “The Bittersweet Summer” a little more because of the natural cycles of migration that Owly discovers. I particularly enjoyed the pages where Runton conveys time passing through the calendar and the plants are starting to bloom again. Runton’s use of black and white does not diminish the emotions he’s trying to convey through Owly’s expressions. Only occasionally does Runton break his style to provide a whack of information regarding a plant or the hummingbird’s migration patterns in writing. The structure of the frames on a page is generally reliable and this would be comforting to a new reader of the comic genre.

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The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The universal human experience of moving or migrating is beautifully illustrated in The Arrival. The fact that the story is told without words somehow brings more emphasis to the language of the new city where the main character travels to. Anyone who has travelled can relate to the exhilarating and wearisome experience of trying communicate your basic needs to a stranger.url





I was struck by the characterization of the city itself in Tan’s illustrations and thought immediately that it looks like New York City. There seems to be a pyramid shape to the city’s landscape that reminds me of downtown Manhattan where the Empire State Building faces the Rockefeller Center. I had the opportunity to visit New York City for the first time last year and it is possible to see this view from Ellis Island of the Statue of Liberty.





Although the book is filled with whimsical and fantastical creatures, they don’t detract from the power of our main character’s experience in setting up a new life for himself and his family. On the contrary, he meets others like himself who tell their own story of escaping some kind of hardship (like the monster in our main character’s homeland) and then being greeted by a kind stranger in the new land. The final panel in the book communicates the cyclical nature of migration.



























Brian Kelley (2010) says:
Using images and illustrations, with or without words, is one of the many ways humans communicate.        Humans are visual beings as well as oral-aural beings. To process our world not only through language, but also through viewing, thus forming a deeper understanding of life and communication when our sense merge (pp. 6 – 7).

Shaun Tan accomplishes this merging through his book. I feel as if I have a deeper understanding of the immigrant experience having read The Arrival.


Kelley, B. (2010). Sequential art, graphic novels, & comics. SANE Journal,
1(1), 1-24.

Tan, S. (2006). The arrival. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.

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Using gaming and graphics to grab students

So many of the changes in our library, representing the new Ontario School Library Association’s document Together for Learning, are fundamentally shifting how we see popular culture’s role in education. The document recognizes the need for social networking and meeting the students where they are whether interested in graphic novels, anime or gaming.

I allow gaming before school, during lunch and after school but I haven’t done anything formal.  I tried to coordinate my committed players of Magic the Gathering together to organize cross-school tournaments, to recruit members and even go on field trips, but they were happiest playing Magic in their own social group.  I just attended a session at a conference where three elementary teachers had organized Minecraft clubs which included blogging about their experiences.  Most importantly they emphasized that gaming is another opportunity for teachers to nurture social activity in students who not otherwise have a place in a sport or other club.

Similarly in my library, graphic novels seem to reach an audience that I haven’t been able to reach otherwise.  Jonathan Seyfried (2008) had it right when he says “Students who had dutifully read only required books in the past, continued to return to the school library well after the elective was finished…” (p.45).  Their motivation to seek out reading material on their own proves the effectiveness of graphic novels.  Like Krashen,  I agree that “popular culture selections may serve as conduits…” (p. 25).  The body of struggling readers in my school are certainly attracted to the visual, but the most sophisticated readers in my library are also drawn to the nuance that text and visual graphics bring together in this unique genre.  We have a collection of at least 200 graphic novels.  An emerging subgenre in my library is non-fiction graphic novels.  A couple popular titles this year include: Two Generals and Cuba: My Revolution.  Both of these titles involve war and include some traumatic events, but the graphic artist is able to capture the violence in the visuals but emphasizes the horrors of war through the text.  History is often a topic that singularly captures the attention of teens but eludes their experiences. With this new found interest in historical graphic novels, I have recently purchased a graphic novel series called “Defining Moments in Canada“, which I believe has 8 titles so far.  Struggling readers or not, this series highlights Canadian history in a visual context that helps students understand the major players in these events.

One of the components to creating a true learning commons shift in school libraries is to design reading experiences “so that students will:

  • Pursue academic and personal reading and writing interests
  • Examine ideas, information and interpretations critically and creatively
  • Engage meaningfully with multiple kinds and levels of texts and multimedia in a resource rich environment (Together for Learning, 2010)

Both gaming and graphic novels help to motivate, connect and support readers of all types.