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⭐️ Book Review: Duel by Jessixa and Aaron Bagley

First, let me just say this: gosh, I wish the middle schools I attended had offered fencing as an athletic option! Alas, I can only imagine a world in which little Jennifer had picked up her foil and joined the fencing, rather than the debate, team. That said, if I put aside my jealousy of Lucy and Gigi, the sisters at the center of Jessixa and Aaron Bagley’s recent graphic novel, Duel, I’m left feeling incredibly attached to these two characters and the battles they are fighting both with and without their fencing knickers.  

Let me tell you some things I love about this book!

First, I love the dual (see what I did there?) perspectives in this tender and fun graphic novel about two sisters who are navigating grief, middle school and changing friendships and family dynamics, all while just trying to figure out how to get along with one another. One chapter from Lucy’s perspective (as she enters middle school in her older sister, Gigi's, shadow) is followed by a chapter from Gigi’s point of view (in which it feels like Lucy is constantly encroaching on every aspect of her life). These alternating perspectives cleverly remind young readers that while it’s sometimes tough to see the world beyond your own nose, every story and situation has multiple sides. 

Another thing I love about Duel is the way each chapter begins with an excerpt from a (fictional) book about fencing! Both Gigi and Lucy were taught to fence by their dad, who died not long before our story begins. The connection between the girls and their father fuels both their love of fencing and the very real strain in their relationship. By opening each chapter with a glimpse into what is, essentially, an instruction manual for the sport, not only do we learn a little bit about fencing itself, but each excerpt also gives us a clue into what moves each sister is about to make in the chapter to follow. These tiny bites of foreshadowing made my (former) English teacher heart burst!

Interior spread from Duel. Both images are chapter headings which feature a fictional excerpt from a book about fencing.

And speaking of literary elements, I also love the way Aaron Bagley differentiated flashbacks in the text from present day action by changing the coloring for those sections. While much of the book is presented in a beautiful combination of peaches, greens and blues, flashback scenes, which often feature memories of Lucy and Gigi’s dad, appear in gauzy shades of plum. Shifting color schemes coupled with the line work around panels/frames gives readers a visual clue about the changing timeline. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that this is such a great example of how complex graphic novels are as an art form, often requiring the brain to synthesize multiple elements (in this case text, images and craftwork) in order to fully understand and make meaning. **chef's kiss!**

Interior spread from Duel. Scene features a flashback featuring Lucy, Gigi and their dad as he teaches them to fence.

By contrasting the girls' life before and after their dad's death, flashback scenes also provide readers with a mechanism for understanding how grief's many tentacles wrap themselves around everyone who loves Lucy and Gigi. While the girls' loyal and caring friends do their darnedest to help them navigate a post-dad world that sometimes feels unfamiliar and adversarial, their poor mother is left at her wits end. I was particularly moved by Lucy and Gigi's mom who we see as loving throughout, but who appears exuberant and creative in flashbacks, while being utterly exhausted and overwhelmed in the present as she struggles to process her own grief while also trying to support her daughters as a newly single parent. These complex secondary characters add depth to a story this is, at its heart, about grief but that somehow also manages to be both funny and full of middle school charm.

And finally, the author's note at the end of the book is, simply put, not to be missed! This post-script to the story contains fascinating information about inclusivity in the sport of fencing, some photos of Jessixa as a young fencer and even the music that Aaron was listening to when creating the illustrations. Additionally, seeing how Aaron sketched out the floor plans to essential spaces in the story and learning that Duel was inspired, at least in part, by Jessixa Bagley's relationship with her own sister, Sisi, makes Lucy and Gigi's story feel even warmer and more authentic. I love this book, y'all. And I'm guessing your readers will, too!


ISBN: 9781534496545

Publication: November 20, 2023

Audience: While both Lucy and Gigi are in middle school, I think readers in grades 4+ will love Duel.

Bonus Content!

Both Jessixa and Aaron Bagley will join me (to chat about Duel!) for this month's Bookelicious Middle Grade Book Club! Registration for this event is FREE and there will be a recording, so reserve your spot today!

Also please enjoy a special discount of 20% off the titles mentioned in this post (or others of your choice) by visiting Bookelicious and using the code JENNIFERLAGARDE. Note: I do not make any money when you purchase books from Bookelicious, but I am delighted that you get to save some! HOWEVER, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that buying books from Bookelicious is the way we keep these events free while also supporting the authors and illustrators who join us each month, so... I hope you'll think of your book purchases from Bookelicous as supporting a good cause!


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