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.


Jenny @ Reading the End said...

Aw, this sounds great! I am adding it to my list so I can rec it to my little nephew when he gets a bit older.

Emma @ Miss Print said...

This sounds fun. I tried and really couldn't get there with the artwork but you're making me think maybe I should try it again.

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