death & sparkles

Graphic novels are always on my radar: I’m interested in the ones for young adult readers for my classroom library, and the ones for younger readers for… the young readers in my life! I get such a kick out of kiddos connecting with graphic novels. They’re a great way to introduce a love of reading, and the art is fantastic too! When Chronicle sent me Rob Justus’ graphic novel Death & Sparkles, I knew immediately that I’d enjoy it, or at least be able to recommend it to a young reader who would. And I wasn’t wrong!


Being Death is a lonely job, especially when everything you touch instantly dies (not to mention the paperwork), but being Sparkles the Last Unicorn is not much fun either, since everyone just wants to take selfies with you or use you to sell stuff. But when Death and Sparkles meet between life and, well, death, it's the beginning of a friendship that just might change the world.

Death & Sparkles is volume 1 in a planned series about an epic friendship. But it doesn’t start that way, no. First, it introduces lonely, skeletal Death, burdened by paperwork and isolation. Everything he touches dies. Enter morbid humor! In another world, Sparkles the Last Unicorn has forgotten his life’s purpose entirely, and lives from cupcake to cupcake, while doing the bidding of his money-hungry manager without question. When his manager puts him up to a risky, extreme stunt the two finally meet. What follows? Adventures big and small: some involving ancient lizard people, one involving falling off a mountain, and yet another involving the very first party Death has ever attended (and his first cupcake!). By the end of the book, the two have learned what friendship means, and had their lives upended, in more ways than one.


Things I liked about this book: the odd couple combination of Death and a sparkly, snarky unicorn. The message of accepting your friends – and any slightly weird hobbies they have – on their own merits. Ancient, alien lizard people (what a choice!). The inclusion of climate action (not fully developed), and how people can be distracted from good causes by wealth and fame. Actually, the condemnation of consumerism and celebrity culture was handled really well overall. What I didn’t like: there aren’t many female (or female-coded) characters. I’d like to see more in upcoming volumes! Also, not all of the humor was for me, but it will hit well with the target audience. There’s just enough of a glimpse into the world of adults and adult-speak to make kids laugh but let the action keep moving onward. 


As befits a book featuring the last unicorn as a main character, Justus’ artwork is vibrant and fun. The digital art looks like a mashup between crayon and watercolor, and though there are bright colors on every page, the effect is not a paintbox explosion, but a joyous celebration. This contrasts nicely with the slapstick and (sometimes!) morbid humor throughout the book. I think the art is just right for the story – it’s a surprising choice for the subject matter, but the juxtaposition works.


In all, Death & Sparkles is a beautifully-illustrated graphic novel with tons of kid appeal and a good message under the childish humor.


Recommended for: fans of the Wimpy Kid, Captain Underpants, and Catwad series (basically, graphic novels for young readers with a little bit of an edge!), anyone who appreciates colorful sequential art, and those who appreciate humor with a message. 


Death & Sparkles will be available from Chronicle on October 5, 2021.


Fine print: I received an advanced copy of Death & Sparkles for review consideration from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

good girls don't make history

While I was visiting upstate New York earlier this summer, I spent a day at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls. It was powerful to experience the museum there, and visit the houses and places where Americans met and fostered a movement to win women the vote. What I appreciated most were the words of women long gone: women who believed with their hearts and backed up with their actions that change and progress were necessary, inevitable, and good. It was a pleasure to continue to think about those extraordinary women (and many more!) by reading Good Girls Don't Make History, a new graphic novel for young adults written by Elizabeth Kiehner, Kara Coyle, and Keith Olwell, and illustrated by Michaela Dawn and Mary Sanchez. 

History has rarely been told from a woman’s point of view. 

Good Girls Don’t Make History is an important graphic novel that amplifies the voices of female legends from 1840 to the present day. 
Reliving moments from the lives of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, and Susan B. Anthony, these inspiring stories are boldly told from one of the most formative eras in women’s history—the fight for the vote in the United States.

The tale begins at a modern-day polling station in California with a mother and daughter voting together, then flashes back 180 years to the World Anti-Slavery Convention where the women's movement got its legendary start.
The twists and turns take readers across the country and through time, illuminating parallels between epic battles for liberty in the past and similar struggles for justice today. 
A powerful and important examination of some key figures in the ongoing fight for equality,
Good Girls Don’t Make History’s accounts of bravery, perseverance and courage are truly inspiring for readers of any age.

Good Girls Don’t Make History isn’t quite nonfiction, but it reads like it. I say it isn’t, because it takes some creative license with the conversations historical figures may have had with each other, and it also includes some original characters for the sake of the narrative – to intro specific stories and vignettes. What it is: a collection of the experiences of influential women in the women’s suffrage movement. The book attempts to illustrate most of the important events from a history often excluded from mainstream U.S. History narratives. It does this by taking readers through a rough timeline of events in the suffrage movement, and by introducing many of the historical figures involved. The effect is a skim: for fully-fleshed out history and context (and to truly “meet” the characters and know all of their aims and dreams, and to read them in their own words), most readers will want to do additional research.


According to the forward, the team behind Good Girls Don’t Make History hopes to present women’s history that is glossed over in textbooks in an accessible, easily digestible format. The goal is to educate, to reveal hidden (or forgotten, or ignored) history, and to reach those who might not dive any deeper than their high school assignments for information about America’s past. While that is admirable, the book itself suffers from a lack of cohesive storytelling and from trying to pack too much history into a short volume. The sheer number of names, organizations, dates, and competing interests are confusing, even to someone with prior knowledge of the events covered.


One thing I appreciated about this graphic novel was that it complicated the view of suffragettes as heroes focused on equality for all. The book tells the story of Black women who were excluded from national suffrage organizations and points out that they did their own organizing as a result. Good Girls Don’t Make History also makes clear that many women of color did not receive the vote until many years after the passage of the 19th Amendment. This may, even in 2021, still be news to a lot of people.


Let’s talk about art! It was constructed digitally, with a watercolor-like look, in a palette of blues, reds, and yellows. My favorite page spreads were those with a short quote from an important woman in history one page, and a portrait of that woman on the facing page. I also appreciated the spreads with illustrated renderings of actual newspaper headlines from important dates and events related to woman’s suffrage. I would have liked to see a little more emotion in the art – the closeups of women’s facial expressions could have told more of the story instead of relying completely on the text or dialogue.


In all, Good Girls Don’t Make History is an introductory text that covers the timeline of an important history. While I didn’t find it compelling, I think it could spark conversation, especially if included in a library alongside graphic novels like Mikki Kendall’s Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists.


Recommended for: middle and high school libraries and classroom libraries, and those who may not know where to begin reading about the women’s suffrage movement.


Good Girls Don't Make History will be available from Wide Eyed Editions (Quarto) on August 31, 2021. 

Fine print: I received an e-ARC from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

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