Age Category: Middle Grade
Publication Date: 2021
Manu is the resident troublemaker at an all-girls’ academy for witches, until the day a curse makes her lose her magical powers. Distraught at the idea of being without magic, Manu summons a demon to restore her powers. But Manu cannot control her too-strong magic and soon her presence endangers not only the academy but also the nearby town.
Manu by Kelly Fernandez joins a spate of middle grade graphic novels about witches that focus on changing friendships and recognition of one’s sexual identity. While the setting is novel–a girl’s school where apparently Catholic nuns teach witchcraft and pray to the saints–not much about the rest of the book stands out. Manu is a solid and a serviceable book, but not one I would recommend above its competition.
Readers, I suspect, will have varying reactions to Manu, based on sympathetic they are towards annoying characters. Though the storyline tries valiantly to make readers feel bad for Manu because the other students find her obnoxious, the reality is that Manu is obnoxious. And it is not just that she skips class and has trouble with authority. Manu repeatedly pulls “pranks” that end up causing physical injury to people and that her classmates are then obligated to clean up–which makes them feel like they are being punished for Manu’s crimes. The story keeps reminding readers that Manu is an orphan, an outsider–but no one in the story ever brings that up as an issue, until they reach a breaking point and are trying to explain Manu’s bad behavior. If Manu would stop hurting people, they undoubtedly would have no problem with her mysterious background. The students and townspeople are not exclusive or small-minded so much as they are fed up.
All this culminates with Manu making a pretty bad life decision by anyone’s standards–calling up an evil spirit to give her magical powers–leading to an epic showdown in which the sisters and her friend Josefina once again must clean up Manu’s mess. But the story ends with a feel-good message of acceptance of Manu (despite a shocking revelation about her past) and a hint at romance for Manu in the future. Probably Manu deserves none of this, but maybe that is the point. The love others have for her is unconditional.
The elements of the story will be nothing new to readers who are familiar with the current offerings of the middle grade graphic novel market. There is nothing that really makes Manu stand out or that would make it any sort of must-read for fans of the genre. It is a solid book, however, and for many that will be enough.