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This month, Andy and Gwen discuss a three graphic novels for young readers that are written by pairs of comics creators. Compass South (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) brings together Hope Larson (Chiggers; A Wrinkle in Time) with Rebecca Mock, a New York-based freelance illustrator, while the other two titles are written by Gene Luen Yang in collaboration with Mike Holmes on Secret Coders 2: Paths and Portals (First Second) and with Thien Pham on Level Up (Square Fish).
To begin the show, Gwen introduces readers to the premise of Larson and Mock’s exciting middle-grade graphic novel Compass South. Set in 1860, this fast-paced, colorful text follows the adventures of a pair of twelve-year-old redheaded twins, Alexander and Cleopatra Dodge. Orphaned as infants upon the death of their mother, the twins are transported to New York City to be raised by the kindly Mr. Dodge, a working class immigrant from Ireland who had once been in love with the twins’ mother. The children have received as an inheritance a pocket watch and a knife, and it turns out that these objects hold secret information that a corrupt pirate and his gang hope to uncover. When the twins’ father mysteriously disappears, Alex suggests that they travel to San Francisco and pose as the long lost children of a wealthy industrialist. In order to participate in the ruse, Cleopatra cuts her hair, dons boys’ clothes, and escapes with Alex to New Orleans. There, things become very complicated when they run into another set of redheaded twins, Silas and Edwin, who also plan to sail to San Francisco and present themselves to the industrialist. Chaos descends as the two pairs of twins are split up, and everyone from a street gang leader in New York and a violent, blood-thirsty pirate chase the children across the globe. Andy praises the novel for its character development and technical brilliance, and Gwen notes that the use of cross dressing allows Larson and Mock the ability to comment upon gendered expectations, both in the nineteenth century and today. Compass South ends on a cliffhanger that will be addressed in the second volume of the series, Knife’s Edge, coming out in 2017.
Next, Andy introduced Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes’s second volume in their Secret Coders series, a set of STEM-oriented graphic novel for middle grade readers. Set in the austere Stately Academy, Secret Coders 2: Paths and Portals takes up immediately where the initial volume ends, with friends Hopper, Eni, and Josh using the principles of coding to solve mysteries. Andy notes that readers will want to be sure to have read the first book before moving on to this second, but he explains that the effort will be rewarding. Secret Coders 2 is action-packed, filled with humor, and encourages young readers to learn more about coding. Gwen agrees, pointing out that even though a lot of instruction goes on in the text, Yang and Holmes present coding lessons as part of a well-integrated plot that follows the experiences of three highly developed protagonists. Gwen also encourages listeners to check out the Secret Coders blog for more information on coding for kids.
For their final review, Andy and Gwen discusses Gene Luen Yang’s collaboration with illustrator Thien Pham on Level Up, a coming-of-age graphic novel that was first published in 2011. The reissued volume is printed on a heavy, glossy paper stock that serves as an excellent medium for Pham’s masterful watercolor illustrations. The story follows Dennis Ouyang, the child of Chinese immigrants, who struggles to reconcile his love of video games with his desire to fulfill his parents’ wishes that he become a gastroenterologist. Given that the comic takes Dennis from grade school through to medical school, Level Up will be of interest to a wide audience, from middle school readers up to adults. After Gwen provides young listeners with an enthralling description of gastroenterology, the two PhDs consider how Level Up incorporates Yang’s interest in faith and magical realism, as well as his interest in describing the immigrant experience.