VLA Graphic Novel Diversity Award Winners for 2019 Announced

Celebrating our fifth year offering this award with 26 publishers submitting 93 titles in two categories: Adult and Youth. There were so many incredible books which made the selection of a winner difficult. We wish we could recognize every entry if it were at all possible.

Adult Category


Grass, written and illustrated by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim; published by Drawn & Quarterly.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity, Feminism

This powerful biography by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim tells the story of former “comfort woman” Lee Ok-Sun, who was kidnapped as a girl from her home in Korea during WWII. Unfolding via a series of interviews with the older woman, it is a tale of small, human victories amid a landscape of devastating tragedy and heartbreaking indignities. This moving graphic novel skillfully captures the grim, surreal nature of the events surrounding the subjugation of women during WWII and the lasting impact it had on the rest of their lives -- at least those that survived to tell the story. The image of a young girl sent away by a mother who loved her is juxtaposed with the old woman returning to Korea fifty-five years later to reunite with a family that she barely knows. The art style is poignant in its stark simplicity. This is a graphic novel that lingers with the reader long after the last page is turned.

Honor Books

Bitter Root, Vol. 1 by David F. Walker and Chuck Brown; illustrated by Sanford Greene; published by Image Comics.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity

Some say there’s nothing stronger than hate, and the way that it corrupts people--however the Sangerye family may have a few things to say about that. Set during the Harlem Renaissance is the story of a black family that have suffered their share of tragedy and loss at the hands of racism and violence, who have made a generational business of purifying the souls of those corrupted by hate called the jinoo. However, there is a new type of monster on the loose, one that challenges the Sangerye family as they continue to purify hate-filled souls. Not only does this horror book shine with diverse representations of black bodies and strong female protagonists, but readers can enjoy essays written by scholars on black history and race relations.

Excellence, Vol. 1: Kill the Past by Brandon Thomas; illustrated by Khary Randolph; published by Image Comics.

Theme: Race/Color/Ethnicity

Melding magical fantasy with Afrofuturism and a dash of hip-hop cool, Excellence, Vol. 1 follows the journey of Spencer Dale. He is the next in a long line of black magicians tasked with being invisible guardians to those deemed deserving of protection by an unseen Overseer. With detailed world building and strong visuals, creators Brandon Thomas and Khary Randolph have produced a story with as much to say about systemic racism as it does about sorcery.

Grease Bats written and illustrated by Archie Bongiovanni; published by BOOM! Box, an imprint of BOOM! Studios.

Themes: LGBTQIA+, Acceptance, Identity, Self-Worth

In a series of comic strips revolving around best friends Scout (lesbian) and Andy (genderqueer, bi, polyamorous), and their many and varied LGBTQIA+ friends, a wonderful and varied portrait of the gay community emerges. Through gentle humor and lovable characters striving to live their best lives and accept one another and themselves, this book welcomes readers to explore what it means to be queer and feel like part of the family. The characters' struggles are both universal--finding love and discovering identity, belonging, and self-respect--and specific to queer people, including the gender feels, the harm of misgendering and exclusion, and an elegy to the loss of queer spaces, which have been so important in providing the freedom to be oneself. Though many of the topics are serious and can be painful, the book has a lightness about it due to the strong and accepting bond between friends and their use of humor even in sad situations.


Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption written and illustrated by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom; published by Drawn & Quarterly.

Theme: Race/Color/Ethnicity

A palimpsest refers to a time before paper when writing surfaces were expensive to create, and so were frequently reused. These surfaces, made from animal skin, were scraped or washed to remove any ink, but remnants of the original text were often left behind. Creator Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, adopted internationally by a Swedish couple, started her life in Korea. Like a palimpsest, only traces of that first story remain. This graphic memoir follows her hopeful, yet frustrating journey to more clearly understand her identity, find her birth family, and write her own story.

PTSD written & Illustrated by Guillaume Singelin; published by First Second, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

Themes: Mental illness, Disability, Feminism

Jun is back from the war, missing an eye and treating her stress with drugs as she tries to navigate her new civilian life while simultaneously being homeless. PTSD is a uniquely stylized dive into Jun’s world where she must transition into a life outside the war while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a powerful story that brings an impactful message to the readers by shedding light and providing a window to observe Jun’s life during and after the war. Despite taking place in a fictional city after a nonspecific war, the reader can be left to question what their society is doing to help veterans and how mental health is handled by the government and by individuals.

Overfloweth Books

Carpe Fin: A Haida Manga written and illustrated by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas; published by Douglas & McIntyre.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity

 In this prequel to Red: A Haida Manga, Haida writer/artist Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas has created a masterpiece that is at once an engaging environmental parable and a deep dive into Haida myths. Pacific Northwest iconography fills each page, the powerful form lines shepherding the story of Carpe, a man who leads a group of hungry villagers on a doomed seal hunt after an oil spill has destroyed their ability to fish. With the energetic and casual tone of a personal story told by a friend, the modern characters and themes combine with the ambitious fusion art style for an exciting experience.

Hawking by Jim Ottaviani; illustrated by Leland Myrick; published by First Second, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.

Theme: Disability

A diagnosis of ALS couldn’t slow Stephen Hawking down and even as he began to lose his ability to move and eventually speak without the assistance of machines, his amazing brain was still in overdrive. Told through a first person perspective, Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick have crafted a straightforward graphic biography that sheds light on one of the twentieth century’s most impressive minds.

King of King Court written and illustrated by Travis Dandro; published by Drawn & Quarterly.

Themes: Disability

King of King Court is a memoir of Travis Dandro growing up and his relationship with his father, a man he has been instructed to call Dad Dave. Dandro recounts his volatile relationship with his father, who struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, trouble with authority, and Dad Dave’s relationship with Travis’ mother. As the reader is brought into Travis’ real life as well as his imagination, we grow up with him and try to make sense of Dad Dave’s behavior. Tragic and visceral, this story is a symbol of the author-illustrator processing his trauma in the way in which he learned to cope all these years--through art.

La Voz de M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo, Vol. 1 by Henry Barajas; illustrated by J. Gonzo; published by Top Cow, an imprint of Image Comics.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity

With a foreword by Frederick Luis Aldama about the importance of sharing Latinx history, this touching book documents the Pascua Yaqui tribe's fight to be recognized and continue to inhabit their land in Tucson, Arizona. Ramon H. Jaurigue, Barajas's great-grandfather, worked unflaggingly as an activist for the M.A.Y.O. (Mexican American Yaqui Organization) to improve their lives, even at the cost of losing his own family to divorce. A World War II veteran, Jaurigue was so humble about his own contributions that this history almost disappeared, even though he helped keep the tribe together (12,000 people spared displacement, 4,000 homes spared destruction) and ensure that the unique Tucson Easter Ceremony of the Yaqui Indians would continue. Painstaking research and extensive interviews create an authentic picture, while extensive source documents cap the volume in an act of archival preservation that creates a fitting tribute to the heroism not only of Ramon H. Jaurigue, but of an entire community.
Monstress: Book One by Marjorie Liu; illustrated by Sana Takeda; published by Image Comics.

Themes: LGBTQIA+, Forced Minority, Feminism, Color/Race/Ethnicity, Disability

This gorgeously illustrated graphic novel draws the reader into a world that resembles the typical epic fantasy, but nothing about this book is typical. With each page the plot is unveiled like a beautiful, but foul smelling, flower with each atrocity laid bare to the reader at the moment when it would be most emotionally impactful. The variety of unique characters and cultures creates an alien landscape that feels both like a dream and a nightmare. The settings -- from sea port to desert, from cosmopolitan cities to agrarian landscapes -- are portrayed as visually, culturally, and even linguistically unique. It’s impossible to read this story without being starkly reminded that it is the weakest and most innocent among us that often suffer the most for the sake of war and progress.

Saga: Compendium One TP by Brian K. Vaughan; illustrated by Fiona Staples; published by Image Comics.

Themes: LGBTQIA+, Race/Color/Ethnicity, Forced Minority, Feminism

An unusual science fantasy, Saga focuses on an interspecies family from two warring worlds and is told from the innocent and curious perspective of the child Hazel. The multi-generational “saga” of this small misfit family as they search for a place where they can simply live in peace manages to feel both vast and intimate at the same time. Along the way they encounter a diverse assortment of friends and enemies, each of which is portrayed with care and depth rarely seen in supporting characters. Though often funny and irreverent, this graphic novel tackles many difficult topics including violence against gay and trans persons and child sex trafficking with surprising thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

Theater of Terror: Revenge of the Queers by coeditors Justin Hall and William O. Tyler and creators Mariko Tamaki, Rachel Pollack, Sina Grace, Tana Ford, Terry Blas, Ed Luce, Brad Rader, Howard Cruse, Jennifer Camper, Justin Hall, Steve MacIsaac, Yves Navant, and 21 more contributors; published by Northwest Press.

Themes: LGBTQIA+, Race/Color/Ethnicity, Feminism

Within a loose frame, this collection of horror tales showcases a wide variety of LGBTQIA+ experiences and perspectives, with artistic and storytelling styles ranging from classic horror stories and fantasy and fairy tales, to historical and contemporary pieces. In addition to the sheer delight of a queer perspective, some stories directly presented challenges or threats to people of diverse genders and sexual orientations, providing realistic facts or transforming known history or tales to include a vital LGBTQIA+ viewpoint. Other stories delightfully delved into camp and wish fulfillment, using humor to cope with the hostility and harshness often experienced in the world outside the gay community. Despite the horror theme, this book creates a warm feeling of inclusion.

Waves by Ingrid Chabbert; illustrated by Carole Maurel; published by Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios.

Themes: LGBTQIA+

This story of love, loss and reconstruction is inspired by the writer’s personal experience. In the book, an unnamed woman and her partner lose a baby in a late term of a fraught pregnancy. Translated by Edward Gauvin from the original French with sparse dialog, the power of the story is delivered through the striking images that visualize her grief adrift in a small boat and the color palette that changes with the character’s emotional journey. The sweet romance of the two women and the frank depiction of postpartum grief create a work that is as inclusive as it is relevant to the many unspoken stories of loss carried by couples everywhere.

Youth Category



They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott; illustrated by Harmony Becker; published by Top Shelf Productions, an imprint of IDW Publishing.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity

They Called Us Enemy is a powerful graphic memoir written by George Takei, best known for playing Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek show, and illustrated by Harmony Becker, whose excellent manga-influenced art brings Takei’s story to life. In 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a four-year-old Takei and his family were forcibly evacuated from their home in Los Angeles after an executive order issued by President Roosevelt authorized the removal of Japanese Americans living on the west coast. The book depicts Takei’s experiences being held in multiple internment camps across the country during a period of four years, while also showing how his understanding of this period evolved as he reached adulthood. It is an important reminder of one of the darker, often overlooked chapters of U.S. history, when American citizens were treated as enemies by their own government, and it serves as a warning on the dangers of allowing fear and fanaticism to cloud better judgement. Despite the tragic subject matter, the story is still one of hope, in that it recognizes how great this country can be when it lives up to its ideals. As George’s father says in one of the most moving scenes, “our democracy is still the best in the world because it’s a people’s democracy, and the people can do great things.”



The Avant-Guards Volume 1 by Carly Usdin; illustrated by Noah Hayes; published by BOOM! Box, an imprint of BOOM! Studios.

Themes: LGBTQIA+

When Charlie, a former basketball star, transfers to the Georgia O’Keeffe College of Arts and Subtle Dramatics, she’s looking to put the pressures of collegiate sports behind her.  Instead, she finds herself recruited by the Avant-Guards, a newly formed basketball team looking for a final member.  She reluctantly joins, and is surprised to find herself with a new group of friends that don’t take the game as seriously as she thought they would.  This volume is full of color and charm, and the author deftly weaves together the college slice of life and sports plots the story focuses on.  Usdin has given readers a dynamic and realistic glimpse into college life, supported by a large cast of characters who really feel like a group of friends, all while planting the seeds for a romance between Liv and Charlie in later issues.  This volume is a breath of fresh air for the sports genre, focusing on a women’s basketball team and their friendship and enjoyment of the game over the typical competition-driven sports narrative.

Hot Comb, written and illustrated by Ebony Flowers; published by Drawn & Quarterly.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity

Each story in this collection by Ebony Flowers centers on African-American women and girls, with a particular focus on hair. That focus is present throughout the variety of slice-of-life stories, touching on themes of friends, family, and race. Stories vary in length, and in setting, but the stylized artwork gives the collection the cohesive feeling of flipping through the author’s sketchbook, filled with personal details and emotion.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki; illustrated by Rosemary Valero-O'Connell; published by Macmillan Publishers.

Themes: LGBTQIA+

Freddie Riley has a problem:  the girl she loves, Laura Dean, keeps breaking up with her.  Despite being thrilled to finally be dating her crush, their on-again off-again relationship confuses Freddie and is starting to negatively impact her relationships with other friends.  In desperation, Freddie writes to Anna Vice, an advice columnist, to try to figure out what to do before she ends up losing the people close to her.  This book deals with issues surrounding teenage love, toxic relationships, and dating troubles in a sympathetic way, chronicling Freddy’s journey through her turbulent relationship towards self-betterment and the realization that being with Laura Dean is changing her into a person she doesn’t want to be. 

Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell; Illustrated by Faith Erin Hicks; published by First Second, an Imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity, LGBTQIA+

Pumpkinheads is warm, humorous and bittersweet, and is also beautifully illustrated with charming characters and a cozy, autumnal color palette. Deja, a plus-sized, young LGBT woman of color, is an adorable, outstanding diverse character. 

It is the last night of the season in the Pumpkin Patch, where seniors Deja and Josiah have worked together throughout High School. Fun-loving Deja convinces mopey Josiah to enjoy the night and reveal his feelings to his long-time crush. Follow their adventures as they race across the patch sampling food and encountering friends, enemies, visitors and even a sassy goat. Knowing that their high school and Pumpkin Patch days are ending, facing uncertainty about their future, and seizing their chance to enjoy each other in the here and now is all perfectly balanced in a lovely, irresistible package.

Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children by Kath Shackleton (editor); illustrated by Zane Whittingham, published by Sourcebooks eXplore, an imprint of Sourcebooks Kids.

Themes: Religion, Race/Ethnicity

This collection of true stories achieves a great sense of balance in relating terrible historical events in a way that is accessible for young readers, without pulling punches on the facts. It is both sobering and uplifting, with hollow-eyed artwork that relates the horror these children experienced during the Holocaust as well as endnotes on the lives the survivors led after the war. The variety of real experiences told by survivors from different countries is of great educational interest for young readers. The text is supplemented by a glossary, timeline, and suggested list of websites.



Hotel Dare by Terry Blas; illustrated by Claudia Aguirre; published by KaBOOM!, an Imprint of BOOM! Studios

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity, Age, LGBTQIA+

Hotel Dare is a fun, surprising and fast-paced action fantasy that follows the adventures of three siblings as they spend their summer vacation with their taciturn Grandmother at her mysterious hotel in Mexico. The Latinx Dare family is made up of a diverse blend of biological and chosen family: Olive is LGBTQ, plus-sized Darwin is an adopted person of color, recently adopted Charlotte is white, and their Abuela, Lupe, is one fierce matriarch.

While cleaning and repairing the run-down hotel, the children discover an artifact that opens doorways to fantastical dimensions. As they race to unravel the mystery of magical worlds and missing family members, they discover the strength of their familial bond. The core theme that everyone belongs, the playful illustration of the alien worlds and the lively action scenes make this an exceptional graphic novel.

Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker; illustrated by Wendy Xu; published by Oni Press, an imprint of Lion Forge.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity, LGBTQIA+

Mooncakes follows two Chinese-American childhood friends, Nova Huang (a bisexual teen witch who uses hearing aids) and Tam Lang (a non-binary werewolf who uses they/them pronouns), as both are pulled into a battle with mysterious enemies who want to use Tam's wolf magic for evil. Nova and Tam develop a romantic relationship while working with Nova's grandmothers--a married same-sex couple who celebrate both Chinese and Jewish traditions--to deal with the encroaching threat. The atmosphere of the woods and the magic shop is cozy and believable despite the fantasy setting, blending slice-of-life realism with a warm color palette and charmingly understated fantasy elements. LGBTQIA+ readers of all ages need more stories like this, where the characters' orientations and gender identities are vital to the story but not a source of conflict in their relationships.

Sincerely, Harriet written and illustrated by Sarah Winifred Searle; published by Lerner Publishing Group.

Themes: Disability

When a recent multiple sclerosis diagnosis forces her family to move to Chicago, Harriet finds herself in unfamiliar territory, struggling not only with the move but also her disability, rejection from her friends, and trying to make new connections.  Through a burgeoning friendship with her elderly landlady, Pearl, and letters she writes to Pearl’s son Nicholas, who had polio as a child, Harriet begins to process her own emotions and combat the loneliness that plagues her.  The book deals with its themes subtly, allowing Harriet’s character to truly shine and inhabit a space outside of how her disability may try to define her.  Harriet’s character is flawlessly executed, showcasing what life can be like for those with invisible, chronic illness while also providing much needed relatability for young readers living with similar illnesses.

Stargazing, written and illustrated by Jen Wang; published by First Second, an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity

Stargazing is a fun and sweet graphic novel about friendship. Christine and Moon, two Asian American girls, couldn’t be more different. The reserved Christine is a diligent student who spends her after-school hours practicing violin, studying, and taking Chinese lessons, while the outgoing Moon fills her free time by drawing and dancing to K-pop. Despite these differences the two girls hit it off and become great friends. However, the friendship is tested when the most popular girl in school befriends Moon, causing Christine to doubt the closeness of their bond. Jen Wang brings these characters to life through her art and writing. One of the strongest elements is the detail Wang uses in depicting the Chinese American heritage of the two girls. In the afterward Wang writes that she wanted to show “the diversity of experience even within a very specific community,” and Stargazing excels at depicting real, complex characters of similar background but unique personality.

The Tea Dragon Festival written and illustrated by Katie O'Neill; published by Oni Press, an imprint of Lion Forge.

Themes: Nonbinary, LGBTQIA+, Disability

The Tea Dragon Festival, a companion novel to The Tea Dragon Society, follows the traditions of a small village as the villagers prepare for a local celebration of the small, domesticated "tea dragons" who live among them. The main protagonist, Rinn (a gender nonconforming person of color who uses “they/them” pronouns), helps the dragon Aedhen acclimate to the village again after being asleep for many decades. Many different types of diverse readers will see themselves represented in this gentle, slice-of-life story, which includes representation of deaf, POC, gender nonconforming, and LGBTQIA+ characters. It is impressive to see sign language portrayed in graphic novel format, including the guide at the beginning and more resources for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the back. The artist’s use of light and color is remarkable, including a smudging effect used to mimic the dappled light in the forest. Overall, it was a pleasure to spend time in this warm, homey setting, which depicted a simple and realistic way of life despite the fantastical elements.

Urban Legendz, by Paul Downs, Nick Bruno; illustrated by Michael Yates; published by BiG, an imprint of Humanoids, Inc.

Themes: Race, Class

Dwayne, called D, is far from enthusiastic about moving to Brooklyn and leaving behind his friends in Indiana. But after a dire warning from a homeless man, he finds himself caught up in a series of mysterious encounters with monstrous creatures. With the help of his diverse new cast of Brooklynite friends, D begins to take ownership of his new home and pushes back against the nefarious development project that has shaken these monsters loose from urban legends into the real world. A fast-paced adventure with the energy and style of a Saturday morning cartoon, Urban Legendz puts an important message about gentrification and class in an innovative package.

Witchy written and illustrated by Ariel Slamet Ries; published by Oni Press, an imprint of Lion Forge.

Themes: Race/Color/Ethnicity, Feminism, LGBTQIA+

In the kingdom of Hyalin there is a correlation between hair length and magical prowess, and Nyeneve hides her ankle-length tresses for fear she’ll meet the same fate as her father, who was pronounced an enemy of the kingdom and burned by the Witch Guard for being perceived as too powerful. Witchy is an exciting fantasy tale filed with adventure and fashioned with a memorable cast of, in the words of the author, “queer Asian witches.” Readers will be drawn into this unique world enchanted by the inventive story. Filled with bold colors and a kinetic art style, Witchy catches the eye and transfixes the imagination.