Manu – written and illustrated by Kelly Fernández

Manu – written and illustrated by Kelly Fernández, Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic), 9781338264180, 2021 

Format: ARC, graphic novel

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 3

Genre: Fantasy

What did you like about the book?  Manu and Josefina both attend a convent school for witches or brujería in the Dominican Republic. The girls are devoted to one another, even though Josefina, the daughter of a wealthy family, is ladylike, while Manu is wild and strange. After a few too many tricks, Manu finds herself cursed and unable to perform magic.  In desperation, she turns to a secret ritual involving dark forces, which releases more power than she can handle. As Fernández unspools her story, it turns out that Manu is not a girl at all, but a demon who has morphed into a human through the sisters’ care. Can Josephina and the compassionate but stern Mother Delores save Manu and the town? Fernández has a lively graphic style that looks like a mashup of Little Lulu and vintage Archie comics. This retro vibe seems well-suited to a middle grade graphic novel, softening what might otherwise be a slightly scary story. Although the ARC I read had color added to only the first 15 pages, the mix of earth-toned and tropical hues looked attractive and helped me to differentiate between the characters. Many of the girls and the nuns had brown skin, mixed in with a few white faces. A map, a cast of characters’ list, and some preliminary sketches are included in the back matter.

Anything you didn’t like about it? I found the idea of nuns running a school for witchcraft hard to swallow, although an author’s note in the afterwards positions this book as an exploration of the intertwining of magic and Catholicism in the DR. Possibly it would have worked better as a graphic novel for adult readers, especially if the darkness inherent in the story was allowed to emerge. Although Manu is easy to pick out, I found that the visual sameness of the other characters, plus Josephina’s morphing hairstyles, sometimes made it tough for me to follow the plot.

To whom would you recommend this book?  Students in grades 5-8, especially those interested in Dominican culture or fantasy/witchcraft stories.

Who should buy this book? Middle schools, public libraries

Where would you shelve it? Graphic novels

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? No

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: July 2, 2021

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