I don’t seek out graphic novel memoirs, but I almost don’t have to, because good ones keep finding me! Here’s a list of my faves so far. (Disclosure: Amazon links are affiliate links.)
Any book on this list I loved at the time I read it, whether I had a chance to write a review or not. Obviously a re-read years later might reveal a problematic aspect I didn’t pick up on back then. Please let me know via my contact form if you find something yikes in a book I recommend.
Excellent breast cancer memoir by a young, queer, mixed-race woman. Both the writing and art are quiet and reflective, and it’s stuck with me for quite a while after I finished it. Show up for the excellent personal memoir, stay for the thoughtful analysis and critique of various aspects of cancer care.
“At the age of twenty-five, Kimiko Tobimatsu was a young, queer, mixed-race woman with no history of health problems whose world was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. In an instant, she became immersed in a new and complicated life of endless appointments, evaluations, and treatments, and difficult conversations with her partner and parents. Kimiko knew that this wasn’t what being twenty-five was supposed to be like … but then, she didn’t have a choice.
With tender illustrations by Keet Geniza, Kimiko Does Cancer is a graphic memoir that upends the traditional ‘cancer narrative’ from a young woman’s perspective, confronting issues such as dating while in menopause, navigating work and treatment, and talking to well-meaning friends, health care professionals, and other cancer survivors with viewpoints different from her own. Not one for pink ribbons or runs for the cure, Kimiko seeks connection within the cancer community while also critiquing the mainstream cancer experience.”
I really enjoyed this memoir, which begins when Mapa learns her beloved father has passed away. She travels from Cana back to her childhood home in Manila for the funeral, which prompts memories of her childhood. Mapa does a great job weaving together and balancing personal and family memories with recollections of the 1986 revolution that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos and re-established democracy in the Philippines. Her art is clean and expressive, and her storytelling style had me completely absorbed.
Canada grew up in the South Bronx in the late 1950s. This masterful adaptation of his work traces the violence he saw growing up, that he ended up participating in, and that he finally committed his life to working against by building opportunities for youth. C-Man describes it as real, thought-provoking, but still compelling as a work of literature. I’d agree, and I think it’s because the book doesn’t spoon feed you. Instead it presents a series of quiet vignettes, with depth and human emotion for all parties involved.
“In this intimate and moving graphic memoir, Teresa Wong writes and illustrates the story of her struggle with postpartum depression in the form of a letter to her daughter Scarlet. Equal parts heartbreaking and funny, Dear Scarlet perfectly captures the quiet desperation of those suffering from PPD and the profound feelings of inadequacy and loss. As Teresa grapples with her fears and anxieties and grasps at potential remedies, coping mechanisms, and her mother’s Chinese elixirs, we come to understand one woman’s battle against the cruel dynamics of postpartum depression.
Dear Scarlet is a poignant and deeply personal journey through the complexities of new motherhood, offering hope to those affected by PPD, as well as reassurance that they are not alone.”
Quiet, interesting lightly fictionalized look back at the beginning of Tanaguchi’s career in manga in Tokyo in the 1960s. It’s not plot-driven, but rather a blend of character, environment, and nostalgia. One of those books that doesn’t hit you over the head with being about something while you’re reading it, but you’re left thinking about it long after you close the book. If you’re into new adult / coming-of-age / people finding themselves themes, this is definitely one you should check out.
Marzi is a memoir of growing up in communist Poland, with its hardships and political unrest. It’s also the story of a little girl’s family and friends, and the bright spots that keep them going. It’s not overtly focused on the political, but Marzi grows into understanding what’s going on around her. Especially when her father becomes active in the struggle for liberation. Even if you’re not interested in history, though, this is an excellent memoir. Sowa was willing to lay many things bare, such as her mother’s dysfunction and cruelty. It’s not sensationalistic, but it’s sobering. But in many ways her family was one of the lucky ones, finding ways to survive and enjoy parts of their lives even during hardship. This one stayed with me for a long while after I turned the last page.
A little uneven in structure, but this first long-form graphic novel by Walden really got my attention. It’s the story of Walden growing up heavily involved in figure skating, even though she mostly hates it, and her experience coming to realize she’s a lesbian. The art is so lovely, and Walden definitely became one to watch, having completed this at age 21 – whaaaa? If you’re at all interested in young women’s lives, queer fiction, coming of age stories, or figure skating, seriously consider giving this a try.
Content warning: sexual assault.
I’m a picky eater vegetarian who doesn’t like to cook, and yet I LOVED this book by an omnivorous chef’s daughter foodie. It transcends dietary preferences! It’s the story of Knisley growing up with food, and how it’s interwoven into her relationships, work, and life – intermixed with illustrated recipes for some of the dishes she describes.
Knisley is a wonderful cartoonist, and a thoughtful storyteller. Her encounter with a Richard Sera sculpture while working as catering staff at a museum party has particularly stuck with me, as an intersection in her life between food and art. If you’re at all interested in food, storytelling, autobiography, or books about families, please do check this one out.
Really compelling. Doesn’t sidestep any of the complexity, and though it’s depressing in many parts, I came away from it with a positive feeling.
“In kindergarten, Jarrett Krosoczka’s teacher asks him to draw his family, with a mommy and a daddy. But Jarrett’s family is much more complicated than that. His mom is an addict, in and out of rehab, and in and out of Jarrett’s life. His father is a mystery — Jarrett doesn’t know where to find him, or even what his name is. Jarrett lives with his grandparents — two very loud, very loving, very opinionated people who had thought they were through with raising children until Jarrett came along.
Jarrett goes through his childhood trying to make his non-normal life as normal as possible, finding a way to express himself through drawing even as so little is being said to him about what’s going on. Only as a teenager can Jarrett begin to piece together the truth of his family, reckoning with his mother and tracking down his father.”
Bell does a stellar job showing the emotional process she went through as a kid trying to fit in and find friendship. It can be tough when you have a giant hearing aid strapped to your chest during the school day! Anyone who felt out of place while growing up will appreciate kid Cece’s struggles. My husband was afraid this would be an after-school special about a Very Important Topic but after only a few pages, he was hooked. The book is both funny and emotionally real, and universal despite being “about” a specific topic. Also, the people are drawn as bunnies, which is a plus in my book. Don’t miss the author’s note at the end for more of Bell’s adult perspective.
Fantastic graphic novel memoir about a Black teenager in the late 80s finding punk (the music, and then the activism) while living in a mostly-white California desert town. It’s a long GN, but well worth it for the detail and complexity of the intertwined social and interpersonal issues the author focuses on from that phase of his life.
“Apple Valley, California, in the late eighties, a thirsty, miserable desert.
Teenage James Spooner hates that he and his mom are back in town after years away. The one silver lining — new school, new you, right? But the few Black kids at school seem to be gangbanging, and the other kids fall on a spectrum of micro-aggressors to future Neo-Nazis. Mixed race, acutely aware of his Blackness, James doesn’t know where he fits until he meets Ty, a young Black punk who introduces him to the school outsiders — skaters, unhappy young rebels, caught up in the punk groundswell sweeping the country.
A haircut, a few Sex Pistols, Misfits and Black Flag records later: suddenly, James has friends, romantic prospects, and knows the difference between a bass and a guitar. But this desolate landscape hides brutal, building undercurrents: a classmate overdoses, a friend must prove himself to his white supremacist brother and the local Aryan brotherhood through a show of violence. Everything and everyone are set to collide at one of the year’s biggest shows in town…
Weaving in the Black roots of punk rock and a vivid interlude in the thriving eighties DIY scene in New York’s East Village, this is the memoir of a budding punk, artist, and activist.”
have a soft spot for graphic novel memoirs covering tween/teen years where the kid in question is basically like “what the heck? how do I life?” and not always perfect while they’re figuring it out. (Who’s perfect anyway, among kids *or* adults?) So this was right up my alley.
“It’s hard enough to figure out boys, beauty, and being cool when you’re young, but even harder when you’re in a country where you don’t understand the language, culture, or social norms.
Nine-year-old Malaka Gharib arrives in Egypt for her annual summer vacation abroad and assumes it’ll be just like every other vacation she’s spent at her dad’s place in Cairo. But her father shares news that changes everything: He has remarried. Over the next fifteen years, as she visits her father’s growing family summer after summer, Malaka must reevaluate her place in his life. All that on top of maintaining her coolness!
Malaka doesn’t feel like she fits in when she visits her dad–she sticks out in Egypt and doesn’t look anything like her fair-haired half siblings. But she adapts. She learns that Nirvana isn’t as cool as Nancy Ajram, that there’s nothing better than a Fanta and a melon-mint hookah, and that her new stepmother, Hala, isn’t so different from Malaka herself.
[…] a touching time capsule of Gharib’s childhood memories—each summer a fleeting moment in time—and a powerful reflection on identity, relationships, values, family, and what happens when it all collides.”
“Gene understands stories―comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins. But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it’s all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.
Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well.”
And that’s the list! I hope you found something new and interesting for your TBR!