MMGM (9/23/2019): Guts by Raina Telgemeier

Sorry about not posting these last two weeks, and sorry that I'm still reading the novel I promised I would review a few weeks ago! I am back, though, and I have a review of the graphic memoir Guts by Raina Telgemeier.

          If you've read Telgemeier's previous two graphic memoirs, Smile (review here) and Sisters, you know that they're not just about one topic, but rather a range of different experiences and ideas. Guts is no different, but, again like Smile and Sisters, it has a topic that tends to appear a bit more than others. In Guts, that topic is anxiety. Guts revolves around fourth/fifth-grade Raina, who is dealing with a lot. After a bout with the stomach virus, Raina finds herself beginning to panic about the possibility of vomiting. That anxiety is soon followed by more worries about food, germs, and more, and, to top all of that off, Raina begins experiencing stomachaches and other unpleasant ailments. Of course, none of this is happening in a vacuum: Raina is also dealing with living in a crowded, small apartment; the stress of school, friends, and a mean girl named Michelle; and the relief/stresses/embarrassment of her therapy appointments. Raina has to figure out how to survive all of these stresses while dealing with her newfound anxiety, a task which seems impossible—but maybe it isn't.

          I don't tend to make dramatic superlative statements about books, because I've read a lot of them. That's why I need you to pay attention when I say that this is the best book I've read this year, and, if not the best book I've read ever, then close. There is so much to love about Guts! First off, it's rare to see books that deal with topics such as anxiety. It's even more rare to see books that deal with topics such as anxiety in a multifaceted way that gets not just to the heart of what anxiety is and feels like, but to all of the other organs (to continue the heart metaphor) regarding anxiety's other effects and impacts on daily life. This book has it all: the worries about food/germs/etc., the (sort of) physical symptoms, the crushing sense of utter panic, the therapy sessions, the love/hate relationship with therapy sessions, the embarrassment about needing therapy sessions, etc. I have never seen (I'm using a lot of italics today, aren't I?) a more complete, empathetic, and real depiction of anxiety in any book, which is why Guts is so amazing (especially to me, an anxiety sufferer, and to any other anxiety sufferers who choose to read it).

          But that's not all. You might expect that so much discussion about an inherently unpleasant topic might make a book depressing or upsetting. One of Telgemeier's strengths, just as in Smile and Sisters, though, is keeping the story upbeat and enjoyable to read. Guts pays a lot of attention to the good things in life, especially friends and family, and for every sad moment, there's a happier one to balance it out. Telgemeier's art style helps quite a bit: there are a number of drawings that are so expressive and exaggerated that they're hilarious. The art as a whole is another great thing about Guts: characters have expressive faces that tell readers exactly how they're feeling, and art is used in a number of creative ways throughout the book. There's one page (page 120) of four panels, arranged vertically, with each panel being a fourth of Raina's body in a different location, helping to convey how her anxiety follows her from place to place to place to place. Art is used to show how overwhelming anxiety can be—more successfully, I think, than words would be able to. Ugly waves of green, literal spirals of fear, spiderwebs, falling, being small, and other graphic devices all help to convey to readers what being anxious feels like. There's a page (page 149) that has a genius visualization of the 1-to-10 scale that therapists and other doctors use to evaluate anxiety or pain, and there's also a series of pages (pages 189-191) that show the contrast between what Raina thinks she should be feeling in one situation and what she actually feels. Even non-reviewers will realize the sheer amount of creativity and thought that went into the art of Guts.

          The last thing I want to mention about Guts is how much I love the different events and characters in the story. In Guts, Telgemeier tackles so many subjects, all with aplomb, that it's absolutely amazing. School drama, from teasing to lunch-sharing to puberty to friends making new friends to students leaving, is completely fleshed out—so much so, in fact, that it honestly could have been its own book if not for the fact that it's thoughtfully interwoven into the book's other topics, especially anxiety. Drama at home isn't left out either, whether it's sharing a room with two siblings, being unable to escape your family and find privacy, or having a relative move in with you (as if it wasn't crowded enough). The plot jumps effortlessly between every topic, staying interesting and never feeling disjointed throughout all 213 pages. The characters of Guts are also wonderful. Raina feels like a real person (likely because she is—which reminded me to write the footnote below), with a personality and interests that make her extremely likable. The other characters of Guts are great as well, from Raina's mother (who is instrumental in helping Raina get through her struggles) to her best friend, Jane, and excellent therapist, Lauren (I want to mention again how realistic the depictions of therapy are in the book).

          I want to end this review with one more thing (and one more thing after that—see the second footnote below). I have never related more to a book than I have to Guts. It really feels like my life has been put into 213 pages for me to buy at the bookstore (or for you to borrow at the library, if you prefer doing that). I never expected to see such a real, thoughtful, and genuine depiction of the struggles that people with anxiety go through, which is no doubt why I love Guts so much. If you choose to read just one book out of the many that I have recommended this year, I want you to read Guts. Whether you are an anxious person, want to understand others with anxiety, or just want an amazing read for 10-year-olds and 80-year-olds alike, you will not regret reading Guts, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if it, too, became one of your favorite books ever.

* I wanted to mention one thing about Guts without shoving it in the paragraphs above [the following also applies to Smile and to Sisters (which I've read but never reviewed)]. I know that many of my readers/fellow MMGMers mainly read fiction, not memoirs, and it occurred to me that some of you all might be wondering if Guts might seem too different. That's why I wanted to mention that Guts feels like fiction. It's not one of those memoirs that jumps from event to event, packaging them inside neat chapters; instead, it moves smoothly through events with traditional characters in traditional settings. And yet, it's better, in a way, that Guts is a memoir, because, being real, it feels real (shocker, I know). The lessons never feels half-baked, the plot never feels stitched together (which is all the more amazing because it is, in fact, stitched together out of real events), and the characters never feel shallow or fake. Guts being a memoir is in no way a problem, even if you are used to reading fiction.

** I also wanted to mention that Guts can be read before Smile or Sisters if you want to try it first. I love all of Telgemeier's books (my review of Smile is linked above, and my review of the fictional Ghosts is here), but you might not want to have to read two books before getting to this one. Guts actually provides a couple interesting bits of backstory for Smile, as a couple characters make reappearances in both books.

Update (1/2/2021): My rating is: Stunning!


  1. Wow! This sounds great! I have really enjoyed your reviews of her other books - can't wait to read this one. Really glad you found something that spoke to you so profoundly!

  2. Wow. That is some recommendation. I have read other books by this author and have never been disappointed. I will try to get hold of a copy. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. There have been a lot of books with characters dealing with anxiety lately. This will be popular because my students love Telgemeier's work. They wouldn't read a chapter book about dental trauma, but they'll read Smile.

  4. This must be good if it's the best book you read this year. So many kids struggle with anxiety. I'll have to see if I can get this at my library.

  5. I have an ARC of this that I should have read by now. After reading your review, I think I will be reading it real soon. I always like books by Raina Telgemeier. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  6. Great to have you back. I've read SMILE and I might jump right to GUTS per your recommendation. The passion you have for this book shined!

  7. Loved your enthusiasm for this story. I knew kids that struggled with similar anxiety and it was so hard on them. I'm not a graphic novel fan, but I want to check it out. Never saw anxiety shared in so much detail. Great review!

  8. Terrific review! Anxiety definitely happens in many children and it is nice to see a graphic memoir approach the subject.

  9. I usually don't read graphic novels/books, but you've got me hooked. Gotta go read GUTS!


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