There are days when you need an impeccably illustrated magic school story to escape reality.* During the first week of January, when we in the DC area had a surfeit of snow days, I picked up and very much enjoyed Manu, Kelly Fernández's middle grade fantasy graphic novel. Manu is a magic school story with a twist. The twist? It’s set at an all-girls religious school with a mix of nuns, saints, and brujería, drawing on the author’s Dominican heritage, culture, and folklore. Oh, and it features a delightful, trouble-magnet heroine.

manu by kelly fernández book cover
Manu is always getting into trouble. The headmistress at school believes Manu has the potential to help people with her magic, but Manu would rather have fun than fit in. The other students claim she's secretly a demon and that she was raised by wolves. Manu doesn't care what people say about her… until an argument with her best friend Josefina ends with Manu getting cursed so she can't control her magic.

Manu is determined to break the curse and prove she's the best witchling at school. But great power comes at a cost, and it may be a price Manu isn't able to pay!

Manu – short for Manuela – always seems to attract trouble. Her magic is too strong, she’s using it for the wrong reasons (according to Mother Dolores, the headmistress), and she doesn’t really care about being kind and obedient, like her friend Josefina and the rest of the girls. Her idea of a good time is contravening the school’s rules, exploring the area around school, and practicing magic. When something “goes wrong” with her magic, Manu finds herself more of an outcast than usual, and, as one does, creates a small cataclysm. In Manu, author-illustrator Fernández integrates themes of identity, true friendship, and expectations vs. reality in a heartwarming and hilarious whole.


Manu is, more than anything else, a lot of FUN. It has magic and magic-gone-wrong, supernatural beasts with their own agendas, true friendship, and a mysterious origin story that takes the whole of the book to unravel. Readers in the target age group will love the trouble Manu gets into (and only sometimes gets out of!) and recognize the chaos and in-groups/outcast feeling of the school. It also will appeal for its setting and world-building. Fernández’s combination of brujería (witchcraft) with religious education is authentic to Dominican culture and will be familiar to those from many other Caribbean and Latin American backgrounds as well. Meanwhile, that mixture will likely seem unique and interesting to those with no previous exposure to it and draw them further into the story to find out what happens in the end.


Let’s go back to that true friendship bit I mentioned earlier. While Manu grew up at the school, her friend Josefina only started attending once she manifested her powers. Despite vastly different backgrounds, these two have a fast friendship: it has survived ups, downs, and Manu-created disasters. I think you could read their friendship as queer, but there is nothing overt – only a kiss on the cheek on the final pages. I’ll be interested to see if Fernández continues Manu’s adventures in a series and develops this hint any further.


Now onto the art! Fernández uses rounded black lines to delineate her characters and create the background and setting, combined with pastel brights (note: not a real art term) that are evocative of how bright sunlight can wash out vivid colors. Something like 98% of the book is illustrated in small sequential panels (3-6 per page), with the very occasional full-page image. The effect? A fun story told at almost breakneck pace: Manu keeps having (mis)adventures, and the next crisis is just around the corner/page.


In all, Manu is a delightful middle grade fantasy about figuring out who you are and how you fit in the world, complete with magic-gone-wild and exploding mangoes (read the book to find out more!).


Recommended for: fans of fantastical graphic novels for the middle grade set – anyone who liked Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Witch Boy series is sure to love Manu, and those interested in diversifying their graphic novel collection with characters of color and Caribbean settings.


*Reality = Teaching at a real high school during the pandemic, no magic included.


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

wake: the hidden history of women-led slave revolts

While I was in Las Vegas this last week with my sister, we chatted about our most recent reads, and which ones stood out weeks and months after the reading. For me, one of those reads was Dr. Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martínez's graphic novel memoir-slash-academic history Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. I picked this title up at my local library after seeing it mentioned in a newsletter from the publisher, and found it haunting and important.

wake: the hidden history of women-led slave revolts by rebecca hall, illustrated by hugo martinez
Women warriors planned and led revolts on slave ships during the Middle Passage. They fought their enslavers throughout the Americas. And then they were erased from history.

Wake tells the “riveting” (Angela Y. Davis) story of Dr. Rebecca Hall, a historian, granddaughter of slaves, and a woman haunted by the legacy of slavery. The accepted history of slave revolts has always told her that enslaved women took a back seat. But Rebecca decides to look deeper, and her journey takes her through old court records, slave ship captain’s logs, crumbling correspondence, and even the forensic evidence from the bones of enslaved women from the “negro burying ground” uncovered in Manhattan. She finds women warriors everywhere.

Using a “remarkable blend of passion and fact, action and reflection” (NPR), Rebecca constructs the likely pasts of Adono and Alele, women rebels who fought for freedom during the Middle Passage, as well as the stories of women who led slave revolts in Colonial New York. We also follow Rebecca’s own story as the legacy of slavery shapes her life, both during her time as a successful attorney and later as a historian seeking the past that haunts her.

Illustrated beautifully in black and white, Wake will take its place alongside classics of the graphic novel genre, like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. This story of a personal and national legacy is a powerful reminder that while the past is gone, we still live in its wake.

In Wake, Dr. Hall weaves together the process of historical discovery – detailing time spent in archives, attempting to cross-reference what fragments of source documents still exist, and the frustrations of accessing both – with the riveting histories of women-led slave revolts both on the Atlantic and in America. She combines a clear (and fascinating!) approach to the historical record with interpretation of what may have happened in the gaps – the untold stories – and her own experiences in academia as a Black woman investigating the horrific acts and legacies of slavery. Then she mixes in what she knows about her own ancestry. The resulting narrative is a fascinating intertwining of research and personal memoir that speaks directly to today’s issues of police brutality, protest, and white supremacy. 

“While the past is gone, we still live in its wake.”

What stood out most? I loved the insider's view of how anyone can go about “finding” women’s history. We are often told (or simply assume) that women were not instrumental in history because they are not mentioned in the historical record. But Hall breaks down that fallacy beautifully, showing that if you know how to search, if you look in the absences and margins, and dig, you can indeed find histories of women who changed the world, even in the driest and most difficult of documents. Her topic, of course, is women who led slave revolts. She refused to accept that it was always men who led slave revolts, and she was able to find evidence to support her hunch. 

One of the moments when I felt the most indignant about the content of this book (which after all would not exist without the inhumanity and banal evil of slavery) was when Dr. Hall was turned away from the archive at Lloyd’s of London. This former insurer of slave ship cargo (and now, just plain bank & insurer) cared (cares?) more about protecting its reputation than about the truth of the historical record. On their website they now claim to have taken responsibility and apologize for their part in the transatlantic slave trade in the wake of the George Floyd protests, but Hall points out that they care about profit and reputation than possibly connecting people who were forcibly stripped of their histories, culture, and lives with (any) closure. Hall is right to call them out, and I could feel the intensity of the moment when she recounted being escorted out of the Lloyd’s building by security deep in my chest. What cowards! 

Beyond the electrifying content, much of the success of a graphic novel depends on the interconnection of text and art. Hall and Martínez are a talented team – this story jumps off the page and into the light. The no-nonsense, realistic art style, in black pen on white background, puts the emphasis of the book on the very important content. That isn’t to say the art is neglected, no! There are feelings that are too much for words, and Martínez skillfully illustrates emotional, fraught, and frustrating moments so that the reader feels as if they are in them with the women of the story. The dust jacket is also gorgeous – with embossed layers, interesting fonts and illustration, and vivid color. 

In all, Wake is a powerful, instructive, and merciless look at the way history is made, recorded, found, and interpreted, and it is at the same time a very personal, familial story and a call to action. I felt deeply moved by this work, and I hope many will read and learn from it. 

Recommended for: fans of historical nonfiction and graphic novel memoirs, anyone interested in books that tie-in history and current issues for young readers (Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, for instance), and those looking for beautifully-constructed narratives that challenge them as readers, and challenge accepted history!
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