BrainCake

This website is sponsored by the Girls’ Math & Science Partnership, a program of Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. Their mission is to “engage, educate, and embrace girls as architects of change.” They work with girls ages 11 to 17, as well as parents, teachers, and mentors. The site points out that while girls are just as good at math and science as boys, they are culturally conditioned not to succeed in those fields. The site is dedicated to adjusting that gender gap. It is explicitly and implicitly aimed at young girls – the browsing is fun, the website is pink, and they have ways to connect via social media websites like Facebook.
The website provides a list of local event that involve math and science. It offers grants for math and science related activities and projects, specifically through the “Green for Your Dreams” initiative, which encourages girls to read about featured women and take a quiz about what they learned. They also have scholarships available. The website hosts a radio show and a forum on which girls can discuss their dreams and ideas. Girls can even talk online with women who work in math, science, technology, engineering, architecture, etc. The website has games, experiments, homework help, and all sorts of other resources for girls of all ages.

My favorite part is the Online Spy School, which works in concert with their “urban adventure camp.” Girls team up to solve a mystery, earning crime-solving credentials by applying the skills they learn. They use high-tech gadgets and build relationships with other middle school girls. I wish I had been able to do this in middle school!

Why I recommend this website:
This is a fantastic website. It is detailed and interesting and really appeals to the demographic. They are doing great work in providing role models and examples for young girls. Their parent/teacher page is full of great ideas and the site is guaranteed to get girls thinking about all of the great things they can do. The resources and information on this site are so thorough, I think teachers could use it for a class, perhaps as part of a research assignment on famous women scientists. I think this is a very necessary initiative, and it’s good to know that it’s out there.

BrainCake: Smart. Sweet. http://www.braincake.org/default.aspx

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Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures, Vol. 1., by J Torres and J. Bone

This collection begins: “Once upon a time, in the expansive sultanate of Shahrazad, within the arid region of Es-Sindbad, just outside the ancient city of Ala-Ed-Din, there was a bored little girl named Alison Dare.” This may give you a taste for the prose of this funny graphic novel series. Our heroine is 12 years old, the daughter of an archaeologist/adventurer and a librarian/superhero (the distinction between librarian and superhero is always fine, and here it disappears completely). Alison has several adventures with her two best friends, Dot, fashion conscious and feminine, and Wendy, a walking encyclopedia. The two of them are basically Daphne and Velma of Scooby-Doo, respectively. A significant portion of this collection relates the story of Alison’s parents – how they met and how her father became the Blue Scarab.

Alison is mischievous, intelligent, and adventurous. She occasionally gets into trouble, mostly through a lack of common sense. In the first story in this collection she summons a genie from a lamp her mother uncovered and asks him first to make her friends appear (they are less than pleased with the situation when they land in the desert!) and then to give them 1001 Arabian Nights. Through a miscommunication, the genie instead gives her 1001 Arabian Knights, who wreak havoc on the camp until Alison uses her third wish to put everything back to normal.
The other stories in this collection are very similar to Indiana Jones tales, except the hero is Alison’s mother. As in those movies, there is a German (Baron von Baron) who steals the artifacts she uncovers. In the climax of the graphic novel, he comes to steal another treasure. Alison’s mother, father, and super-spy uncle team up to stop him, but it is up to Alison’s quick thinking that saves them all.

Why I recommend this graphic novel:
This is a clever, fun adventure series starring a young girl. I wanted to hear more of Alison’s adventures, instead of her parents’, but there are several more volumes of the series that answer this desire. Alison is spunky and intelligent; if she sometimes disobeys her parents it is usually with good intentions. She gets into the kind of trouble any young girl might get into – as when she explores boxes she shouldn’t because she is bored. However, she always makes things right in the end. Girls who enjoy action and who (when they get older) may enjoy Indiana Jones will love this series. Alison is resourceful and isn’t afraid to kick some butt, and her mother is also a role model (like Alison, she is brave and intelligent, and she is in a traditionally masculine field – archaeology – while Alison’s father is a librarian). Unusual gender roles, exciting adventures, and funny moments make this a wonderful graphic novel for any child.

Torres, J. Alison Dare: Little Miss Adventures, Vol. 1. Illus. by J. Bone. Tundra Books, 2010. Gr. 4-6

Amelia Rules: What Makes You Happy, by Jimmy Gownley

Amelia Rules! is one of the best graphic novel series for girls. These books star a fourth grader named Amelia, her friends, and their life in elementary school. The art is cartoonish and often incorporates other art styles. For example, when Amelia looks into the past the art turns into traditional three-panel comic strips that strongly resemble the Peanuts cartoons; when her best friend Reggie is asked to define something the background becomes graph paper with typed words and labeled figures. The books are usually comprised of short, self-contained chapters. In What Makes You Happy, Amelia’s former-rockstar aunt is on the cover of a magazine and suddenly Amelia is the most popular girl at school. But her aunt is strangely unhappy with all the attention – until Amelia finds an old demo tape in her attic… In the next story, Reggie’s superhero club gets out of hand when he declares war on a neighboring ninja club. In another vignette, Amelia’s great aunt dies and she has a series of unfortunate kisses. Amelia goes to visit her father and realizes how much she misses her former best friend now that she lives with her mother far away. In the final story, Amelia learns that a “frenemy” can also be a friend.

This graphic novel has many funny moments. When Reggie defines “artist” he says “A true artist should have no skills, and if possible the work should look as if it were done by a deranged toddler” (p. 25). The stories have a simple narrative structure. They begin with a hook, Amelia backs up to explain how something happened, and they end with a lesson. The morals are pretty typical for children’s books, but no less meaningful: “Wanting something is always better than having it” (p. 39). “I think a lot of the important things in life you only learn by screwing up” (p. 92). “When you think about how everything changes, it’s scary!” (96).

Why I recommend this graphic novel:
This is a collection of cute, simple, fun stories with traditional morals. They focus on quotidian events and relationships. Amelia has to deal with many issues children face, like moving, divorce, and crushes. She is a lovable, self-centered tomboy who does her best to make good decisions. She has a non-traditional family (her parents are divorced and she lives with her mother and aunt). This graphic novel would be great for a young girl who loves school stories, and would also be engaging for any reluctant reader.

Gownley, Jimmy. Amelia Rules: What Makes You Happy. Atheneum, 2009. Gr. 3-6

The Wonder Woman Chronicles, Vol. 1, by William Moulton Marston

I had to include at least one traditional superhero comic on this list! The Wonder Woman comics have recently been collected into new books, giving her story in chronological order, the way it originally appeared. Wonder Woman’s first appearance was in All-Star Comics in December 1941. She was created by William Moulton Marston (aka Charles Moulton) in the beginning of the superhero craze of the ’40s, when Superman and Captain America were taking the world by storm. December 1941 was also the month America entered the Second World War, so it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the first villains sports a Hitler moustache and is addressed as Mein Herr. Wonder Woman is “a powerful being of light and happiness,” “as lovely as Aphrodite—as wise as Athena—with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules.” She “leads the invincible youth of America against the threatening forces of treachery, death, and destruction.” (All quotations from the introduction to various comics in this collection.) I love that the youth of America, clearly the audience for this book, are invincible!

The Wonder Woman comics are products of their time. They are often sexist and occasionally racist (this new edition has a footnote on the title page that says: “The comics reprinted in this volume were produced in a time when racism played a larger role in society and popular culture, both consciously and unconsciously.”). Wonder Woman was probably intended for a young male audience, rather than a young female audience, given her skimpy outfits and the sexism inherent in the times. However, superheroes are so ubiquitous nowadays Wonder Woman could appeal to any child and may now be better suited for girls, who can admire her strength and perseverance.

Why I recommend this graphic novel:
With all the above caveats, I’m still glad there was at least one female superhero in the cadre of men. Her stories have definitely improved over time, and she came to be a true feminist icon. As a feminist icon, she can teach girls how to be both strong and compassionate. It is good for girls to know that they can be anything, even a superhero. Moreover, these are fun, entertaining comics, perfect for anyone who loves all the comic book movies that have come out over the past decade.

Marston, William Moulton. The Wonder Woman Chronicles, Vol. 1. Illus. by Harry G. Peter. DC Comics, 2010. Gr. 5+

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, by Hayao Miyazaki

This manga series is by acclaimed director and animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose movies include Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. This is his first graphic novel series. Because it is a manga, it is read “backwards” – that is, starting at the top right page of the back cover and moving from right to left down the page. The story stars Nausicaa, princess of the Valley of the Wind. It takes place in a world long ago corrupted by mankind and their wars. The entire earth is being swallowed up by the Sea of Corruption, a toxic forest that emits a miasma so poisonous it kills anyone who breathes it in. The forest is also home to giant, ferocious insects. While most people hate and fear the forest and its creatures, Nausicaa has a special bond with them. She seeks understanding and tolerance and does her best to ensure everyone lives in peace. When the emperor calls the kingdoms to war. Nausicaa leads the army of the Valley of the Wind in her father’s place. In the first volume, she learns to fear the anger and hatred inside herself, and the reader learns that Nausicaa has a special destiny in store for her. Maybe she will learn the true origin of the Sea of Corruption – perhaps she can even discover a way to save her kingdom. This graphic novel is intricately detailed in plot and illustrations. The former is thrilling and engaging; the latter are beautiful, delicate, exquisitely detailed black and white sketches. Combined they make a graphic novel that will stick with you long after you’ve closed the front cover.

Why I recommend this graphic novel:
Nausicaa is a wonderful heroine. Not only is she strong and courageous in the face of danger, she’s also kind and compassionate. She loves her people, and they adore her. She isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right, but she prefers peaceful tactics to force. She wants to protect her kingdom and the innocent people and creatures who are being harmed by the war. The story emphasizes the importance of peace and tolerance and taking care of the earth – always good lessons! This graphic novel is definitely for more advanced readers or those already accustomed to manga, but I would strongly recommend it to anyone who likes a good story. It has also been turned into an animated movie, which I have not yet seen but which has received rave reviews.

Miyazaki, Hayao. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. VIZ Media LLC, 2004. Gr. 6+

Bone: Rose, by Jeff Smith

This is a great story for any child who loved the Bone books. It is a prequel of sorts to the original series, but it is not necessary to have read the Bone books to enjoy this adventure. The graphic novel is about a princess named Rose who, with her elder sister Briar, is learning about the power of dreams in preparation for one day taking over the kingdom. The two sisters could not be more different. Rose is headstrong, beloved by her parents and their subjects, and talented at the dream powers necessary to ruling. Briar, on the other hand, while older, is less talented and less eager to please than her sister. When a dragon attacks a village and the ancient evil Lord of the Locusts begins to stir, the sisters must choose their paths, for good or ill.

This tale would be perfect for any child who waited to know more about Granma Ben and the dragons. Vess is my favorite graphic novel artist and his work here is superb. The images are brightly colored and vivid, and he completely changes the style when the text is relating a fable or dream. And Rose is a perfect heroine. Like Rapunzel, she is feisty and adventurous. She does what she thinks is right (even when it’s dangerous or might get her into trouble); she is loyal and kind and fierce. Rose does not always make wise decisions and her impulsive behavior often gets her into trouble, like when she runs off into the night to fight the rogue dragon with no idea how to defeat it. Smith writes exciting battle scenes and wonderful myths and legends (dreamily illustrated by Vess). At the end of this book I found myself longing for the next installment. Adventure, suspense, mystery, romance – this story has it all!

Why I recommend this graphic novel:
As mentioned above, Rose is a wonderful character. Her story is entertaining and suspenseful – all the more so because the reader really empathizes with Rose. She is a very sympathetic character because she’s so passionate and headstrong. She is not afraid to stand up for herself. She owns up to her mistakes and tries to make them right. As always, it’s nice to see a heroine who isn’t perfect. I love the Bone books, so I highly recommend this graphic novel for any girl who wants to know more about her favorite butt-kicking Granma.

Smith, Jeff. Bone: Rose. Illus. by Charles Vess. GRAPHIX, 2009. Gr. 4-8

Girl Stories, by Lauren Weinstein

This graphic novel, which received a Publisher Weekly starred review, begins with a series of stories about Lauren while she makes her way through eighth grade. She has to deal with all the traditional tween issues. Her parents are lame, she’s not part of the cool clique, and when they finally go to her house they find her Barbies. The cool kids end up ganging up on her, she doesn’t have any friends, and the only person she truly connects with is a spirit of Morrissey. She tells the reader about her dislike for Christmas (she’s Jewish) and her hatred for volleyball (which is what she imagines hell looks like). Then Lauren begins high school. She goes egging with the cool kids, makes out with a skater boy, gets her belly button pierced, has a dysfunctional family Thanksgiving, crams for math tests, breaking up, best friends, and self-esteem.

The vignettes are all short, colorful stories about life for a 13- or 14-year-old girl. They are very honest, even manic at times, and deal truthfully with a wide range of issues. This graphic novel would appeal to girls in that age group who are facing any number of these problems themselves. I think middle school girls could appreciate the insanity of Lauren’s life and empathize with her melodramatic approach to life.

Why I recommend this graphic novel:
This is definitely for older readers, but would be great for any middle- or high-schooler. It would help these girls recognize they are not alone with their issues. My favorite part is about self-esteem: Weinstein writes a section called “Am I fat?” and then discusses the feedback she got from her original online comic on the issue. She concludes: “We all need to do something else besides worry about our weight,” and then offers a list of suggestions, like raising a puppy, getting a pilot’s license, discovering the cure for AIDS, or making a bust of Kurt Cobain out of macaroni (p. 206-208). It is always good for tween and teen girls to know they’re not alone. Lauren is not a role model, but she is an average, ordinary girl. That is what makes this graphic novel so appealing.

Weinstein, Lauren. Girl Stories. Henry Holt and Co., 2006. Gr. 8+

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