In Tidesong by Wendy Xu, 12-year-old Sophie dreams of being a great witch. Her family wants her to audition for the Royal Magic Academy, and they send her to train with her great-aunt Lan and cousin Sage, who live on an island known for its magic. 

At first, Sophie is excited, but she quickly becomes disheartened at Sage’s nonchalant ease with magic and Lan’s cranky insistence on chores over spells. Frustrated with her relatives and anxious about her audition, Sophie tries to practice by herself but ends up entangling her magic with Lir, a young water dragon. Lir becomes trapped in human form, and Sophie must figure out how to undo her mistake. But can she find her own way forward at the same time?

This graphic novel borrows perhaps too much from Studio Ghibli in general, and from Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away in particular. But for those seeking a similar vibe in graphic illustrated form, this might be just the thing. 

Tidesong is a middle-grade graphic novel; while some of the writing might come across as heavy-handed for older readers, broad strokes and outsized emotions seem fitting for the target audience. But regardless of age, readers can relate to Sophie’s struggles with her family’s expectations. Her ordeals are familiar despite the fanciful setting, and it’s in those depictions that the book feels most personal. Sophie is young—sometimes impatient and selfish, but also enthusiastic and tenacious. Her endeavors to be a good friend while facing familial judgment and her own inner critic feel achingly genuine.

Like many books for kids, this story shows a young person growing through self-reflection—knowing when to admit she’s wrong and asking for help and forgiveness. But somewhat unusually, it also shows adults needing to do the same. Having parents/parental figures apologizing to their charges helps shift some of the dynamics among the characters and opens up further exploration of family issues. 

The art is unelaborate, but it’s easy to follow and carries the story well, with a thoughtful color palette that evokes a windy, wave-swept island life. The typically straightforward paneling sometimes becomes flowing or jagged, emphasizing moments of surging magic or emotional turmoil. The character designs (and cute magical creatures) are simple and appealing, though again certainly show that Ghibli influence.

While Tidesong may not be the most original, it is a solid book with an earnest heart. Xu tells a story of friendship and discovery, along with handling family and personal pressures. It’s a good read for young kids that recognizes the challenges of growing up—for both kids and the adults in their lives.

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