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.

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