First Second Pubwatch: March 2020

FIrst Second Pubwatch Featured Image features a detail from Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me

Welcome to the new Pubwatch series for First Second Books! Stories about the magic of friendship and social issues that affect young people dominate my reviews of the graphic novels this month from the publisher First Second. This will regularly be the new place to learn about what’s happening with this innovative publisher for comics readers young and old.

While there are so many amazing books by First Second published in the last 14 years, this regular column will focus on their future! So be sure to check out their previous catalog when you get a chance. Right now, we’re gonna jump right into the contemporary stuff and there are so many good things to talk about this month!

In the News

The ALA Midwinter Meeting is an annual gathering of academic, public, school, and special librarians to discuss the latest in their industry and its future. It also features award announcements, education panels, and exhibitions for the book industry to promote their upcoming titles.

Horizontal Logo that says ALA Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits Philadelphia, The date January 24-28, 2020 is in the top right corner. ALA American Library Association is in small black letters under the graphic logo. The logo has red and blue graphic details.

This year it was held the weekend of January 24-28 in Philadelphia and included a lot of good news for First Second. Jen Wang’s Stargazing and Ryan Andrews’ This Was Our Pact were both nominated for the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)’s 2020 Notable Children’s Books list. This weekend Wang also received the Asian/Pacific American Award for Children’s Literature for Stargazing at the ALA Youth Media Awards. Meanwhile, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell took home the ALA Michael L. Printz Award Honor.

During the conference Executive Director Mark Seigel held a big talk about the upcoming World Citizen Comics series announced last fall on Forbes. The first book in the series titled Unrig is set to come out this summer and the full lineup will include a graphic novel adaptation of Dan Rather’s What Unites Us.

In acquisition news, it was announced that First Second will be adapting speculative fiction author Cory Doctorow’s award-winning novella Radicalized Bread and the non-fiction graphic memoir We Drilled He-Man into Their Pea Brains by Box Brown. It sounds like a cultural dive into the Reagan-Era marketing schemes of the children’s toy industry and how that advertising shaped many of today’s adults.

If you’re a big fan of The Adventure Zone, First Second is sending out promotional material for your next tabletop gaming or comic book club meetup! All you have to do is fill out a simple form to get some sweet TAZ merch straight from the publisher. Speaking of swag, if you preorder Sticks & Stones, the sequel to sports webcomic turned graphic novel Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu, you can upload your receipt here to receive an exclusive Eric Bittle pregame playlist poster.

Since the beginning of the year, First Second titles have been racking up awards and nominations! Bloom by Savanna Ganucheau and Kevin Panetta, called a “beautiful and refreshing” romance by our own Jameson Hampton, and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me were both nominated for the Outstanding Comic Book category of the GLAAD Media Award that recognizes excellence in depictions of LGBT people. Laura Dean was also announced as a finalist for The L.A. Times Book Prize and an honoree of the inaugural 2020 Bologna Ragazzi Comics Award in the YA category. Creative team Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell are on a roll and it’s still the first quarter! The Maverick Reading List by the Texas Library Association, which encourages K-5 readers to explore graphic novels, was studded with First Second titles including Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri, Mighty Jack and Zita the Space Girl by Ben Hatke, Nico Bravo and the Hounds of Hades by Mike Cavallaro, Science Comics: Cats: Nature and Nurture by Andy Hirsch, Science Comics: Solar System—Our Place in Space by Rosemary Mosco and Jon Chad, Stargazing by Jen Wang, and This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews.

And I saved the best news for last: First Second is getting its first musical adaptation! The Oscar award-winning creative team behind Frozen‘s “Let it Go” and Coco‘s “Remember Me” are working with a Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright to turn The Prince and the Dressmaker into a movie musical. The Prince and the Dressmaker, First Second, 2018The 2018 original graphic novel by Jen Wang is about a Parisian prince with a secret double life as Lady Crystallia and his talented best friend who creates the dresses that have made him a fashion icon. Last year it won both a Harvey Award and an Eisner. Comic book and musical theatre fans alike are rejoicing at this star-studded creative team.

Mini-Reviews: Love Loved!

Go With the Flow
Kaley Bales (Color), Karen Schneemann (Writer and Artist), Lily Williams (Writer and Artist)
January 14th 2020

Banner with big illustrated letters on the left saying Go With the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann and the slogan A friendship story. Period. A photo of a graphic novel standing up is on the right. 4 girls peak out from a bathroom door on the front cover. :01 First Second logo in the bottom right corner.

For some reason, I got it in my head that this was going to be an instructional how-to book for puberty. An updated and more modern version of the American Girl Care and Keeping of You that I grew up with. I turned out to be both very wrong while still kind of right. In the end, this book was a moving story of friendship that wasn’t always perfect (which felt realistic) and served in a way as a primer for practical steps young people can take to bring attention to an issue.

Tight friend group Abby, Brit, and Christine rescue new girl Sasha from every bleeding person’s nightmare – getting your period while wearing white pants. Now a fierce foursome they navigate sophomore year at Hazeltown High together including sports, dances, dating, and bullying. The summary makes it sound like all four girls go in together as activists trying to bring attention to period poverty. But in reality, it’s Abby the artist and budding activist who is the driving force behind trying to get practical change at their school. Her friends “go with the flow” as the title says but most of the time they seem to be humoring her more than supporting her. (Contrary to the book’s marketing which implies all the girls are with her from the beginning.) The pages with snapshots of Abby’s journals, doodles, and later her blog “The Mean Magenta” were a fun way to get a peek into her mindset.

Page from a handwritten journal with the title I'm so angry!! Doodles around the margin of a hand, a rough sketch of a face, pants, a sanitary pad, a tampon.

One of the things that resonated with me most was Brit’s story, which focused on her severe cramps and struggle with endometriosis. Like Brit, in high school, I would get cramps so bad I could hardly stand and have to miss school. The image of her with a heating pad was sadly familiar to me. Her friends, especially Sasha, support her and keep her from succumbing to fear or depression. To put the cherry on top, there’s a sweet subplot of what happens when you’re crushing on a friend that is somewhat resolved with a slow dance moment at prom. Overall a very good middle-grade graphic novel I would highly recommend to parents and a great way to introduce social issues faced by bleeding folx for teachers. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the brilliance of Kaley Bales’ colors. The book is brought to life with shades of peach, red, maroon, and soft mauve-pink, which is befitting a story about the struggles of friend love and menstruation.

Illustration of 4 girls sitting together eating lunch, a short girl with a black bun, a dark skinned girl with a high curly updo, a slender girl with blond bob and glasses holds a dripping sandwhich over one of the them, and on the right is a light skinned girl with long red hair, bangs, and black headband.

Kat Leyh (Writer and Artist)
February 4, 2020

Cover of Snapdragon - Illustration of a light skinned girl with two curly pigtails standing next to a bike with a white dog in the basket, they're framed by two trees and a light blue outline of a stage in the background of the forest scene.

I FRIGGIN LOVE THIS BOOK! There, I said it. I tried to hold back my love and make this review sound all professional, but I really can’t contain how much this story moved me. So much that my friends are probably tired of me talking about it and recommending it. I cried yet again just giving my partner a rundown of the basic plot and how perfectly it wove itself together. Snapdragon is a coming of age tale about a quirky loner who discovers the truth of a rumor about the town witch. She picks up a few stray animals and friends along the journey. It turns out that the creepy old witch in the woods is really just a quirky loner like Snap and the two kindred spirits bond over their love for creatures often overlooked by society.

What really elevates this story from a typical coming of age story with a dash of magical realism is the masterful structure. It’s broken into two parts and the first is entirely devoid of big Magic, but full of charm and heart. During this half of the story, I actually forgot there was a promise of magic and was drawn into the relationships between Snap and her single mom, Snap and her new neighbor friend as well as Snap and Jacks (the town witch introduced in the opening lines). The past and present are woven together with spooky ghost stories passed down through Snap’s family, then later in a flashback that reveals Jacks was connected to the main character long before they met on the first pages. Part 1 introduces many threads that then in Part 2 are infused with magic and create a beautiful quilt of relationships that wrap the main characters in a future full of potential. The magic and realism are intertwined to wrap up the different storylines in a really satisfying way.

(Did I mention that I cried more than once?)

One of my favorite things was how the story addresses the topic of gender expression and sexuality in many quiet but powerful ways. Speaking of quiet, the level of detail Leyh puts into the domestic parts of the story are what make the characters feel so real and dynamic. Whether it’s Snap’s mom retwisting her locs on their front steps or pulling a blanket over her exhausted mom asleep in the same place she sat down the night before, their home life is rich and fully developed without the need of magic to make it compelling.

Page of graphic novel 2 full width inset panels on top. First one is an extreme close up of carrion birds eating a carcass, second one pulls out slightly to see a bike wheel disturb the birds. Bottom panel takes up slightly more than half of page and fills margins, a scene of a forest with eerie moss covered trees. At the bottom is a path littered with leaves and the birds are descending back on the carcass as a girl on a bike drives toward the right of the page. Captions read: "Our town has a witch. She fed her eye to the devil. She eats roadkill and casts spells with their bones..."

Honorable Mentions

First Second has more great titles that I didn’t have time to cover such as The Golden Age (the art is seriously stunning), InvestiGators (02/25/2020) by John Patrick Green, which WWAC Pubwatch Editor Emily Lauer raves about here, and Dragon Hoops (forthcoming 03/17/2020) by Gene Luen Yang.

First Second’s History

Back in 2006, Macmillan Books created an imprint focused on book-length comics (aka graphic novels) called First Second Books. Driven by Editorial & Creative Director Mark Seigel’s experience growing up with European comics that favored book format and the growing popularity of manga, First Second Books quickly established themselves as a market leader and innovator. Whether you consciously chose to click on this or accidentally stumbled upon it like a fairy tale character, this first installment of the First Second Pubwatch is sure to be an adventure. Without further ado, here’s a little intro about who First Second is…

In the almost decade and a half since their inception, First Second has multiple best-selling books and their titles have won numerous awards including many ground-breaking firsts for graphic novels in general. One of their first and most well-known titles is Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, which became the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award. Gene Luen Yang would later get a second National Book Award nomination in 2013 for  Boxers and Saints. Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer would win the distinction of first graphic novel to receive a Caldecott Honor in 2015. One of their innovative strategies has been to pull popular children’s and YA book authors into the world of graphic novels such as Scott Westerfield, Rainbow Rowell, Cory Doctorow, and Shannon Hale. In 2018 they released the first graphic novel adaptation of extremely popular tabletop podcast The Adventure Zone including a promotional D&D module. In addition to many fiction and memoir graphic narratives, First Second has also published non-fiction works focused on STEAM and history like their Science Comics series for young readers. Their recent history anthology Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World won the 2019 Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of International Material.

Hopefully, you’ll start to look forward to these monthly romps with me. I have been a big fan of their work since my days as an indie bookseller. When kids were looking for something new because they’d already blown through the existing Raina Telgemeier books, First Second titles were my first recommendation. So I’m excited about this opportunity to catch up on what I’ve missed since I started teaching and keep up with their latest releases. Check back next month for more reviews and discussion of the latest from First Second Books.

Lola Watson

Lola Watson

I'm a community college professor, nerd, and mom who collects comics, knits, and procrastinates a whole host of other hobbies in my lack of spare time. My research focuses on using technology in the classroom, pop culture, children's literature, and comics.