MMGM and #IMWAYR (1/11/2021): Operatic, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
So that was a week. It took *checks notes* 6 days for 2021 to become even worse than 2020 was, thanks to a group of rioters breaking into the U.S. Capitol building in order to halt the certification of President-elect Biden's victory and allow President Trump to continue to hold the presidency—all at his encouragement. I've heard people say that Trump was going to incite violence sooner or later, the way he was riling up his base, but I don't think anyone actually thought the violence would happen. I have no useful insights to offer up after this nightmarish event, but I am glad to see that democracy remains at least mostly intact despite Trump's intentions. And it's strange, because had this awful event not occurred, Wednesday would have been a stunning rebuke of Trump—Democrats officially took a majority of the Senate after flipping Georgia (not the first state I would have expected to flip, but Stacey Abrams really is just that good!). President-elect Biden is preparing to take office once and for all now that his win has been certified—we can finally be sure that Trump will no longer be the face of our nation, which should make our everyday lives far more relaxing! And because Democrats also maintained their hold on the House, we might actually have a chance of passing policies in our government to benefit our nation over the next at-least-two years! (Imagine, a government actually passing policies. What a crazy thought, right?) (They better pass a federal law to reduce police brutality against Black people before the midterms!)
Important book news that you need to look at! Wednesday, January 6, 2021 will likely go down in history as an epic disaster, but something else happened that day that I imagine at least some of you missed due to everything else: the wonderful MMGM and #IMWAYR blogger Joanne Rossmassler Fritz (who blogs at My Brain on Books) had the cover of her debut MG book, Everywhere Blue, revealed on the blog MG Book Village alongside a fascinating interview! Please, please, please go over there, read the interview, gaze upon the absolutely GORGEOUS cover (I'm not exaggerating when I say it is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen), and get pumped for Everywhere Blue's debut on June 1!
With that, let's get to MMGM and #IMWAYR! Since I think we've all had enough of the United States for right now, today I am recommending a book published in Canada: the graphic novel Operatic, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler.
This book straddles the line between MG and YA (literally—it's set in the last month or so of middle school), so it's perfectly appropriate and enjoyable for MG readers as well as YA readers.
(In the spirit of this book, where music is a central focus, I am writing this review while listening to one of my favorite albums ever: "A Good Day" by Priscilla Ahn. No clue if you care or not, but I'm still telling you!)
|OK, first of all, the hardcover|
of this book is so gorgeous:
the gold foil details, the fabric
spine, the attached silk
bookmark, the beautiful art...if
you read this book, buy a copy
I must give a humongous thank-you to the #IMWAYR blogger Beth at Library Chicken for spotlighting this utterly gorgeous graphic novel, and thanks as well to Cheriee Weichel at Library Matters for also giving this book a shout-out! Operatic tells the story of Charlotte Noguchi, or Charlie for short, who is just a month or so away from finishing middle school. Charlie's music teacher, Mr. Kerner (or Mr. K for short), has given his students a final assignment: to choose a song that has stuck with them personally and to explain why. That's not all Charlie has on her mind: a talent show is coming up at her school, she has developed a crush from afar on a boy named Emile, and she keeps noticing the empty desk in her classroom where a boy named Luka used to sit. Charlie doesn't know what to do about any of these things...that is, until she discovers the opera singer Maria Callas in Mr. K's class. As Charlie learns about Callas and listens to her music, she begins to see that following Callas's lead and stepping into the spotlight could be the solution to many of her problems.
Operatic is amazing, and I can barely find words to express why it is so amazing, but I'm going to try! Before we get to how this book understands middle school in a way few books do, or how this book's art could belong to a museum (seriously, I have Thoughts™), I want to discuss the musical aspects of this book. It recently occurred to me that, even just back in the late 1800s, there was literally no such thing as recorded music; you could listen at a performance or play and sing the songs yourself, and that was it. And what a shame that was for them—if anything good has come from technology, recorded music is it! Music sets the scene for so many of my memories—and creates memories where there would be none at all (like weekly drives to visit my therapist when I was younger). It's hard for books to capture how utterly amazing music is, due to the fact that—you know—there's no music in them! And yet Operatic manages. Firstly, not to get ahead in the review (even though that's exactly what I'm doing), but several of the gorgeous illustrations in this book capture exactly how it feels to listen to music—in one illustration, Charlie literally disappears into the music, free of that most awful of things to middle-schoolers or, well, anyone (including me): self-awareness. Also, Charlie's research about Maria Callas, besides making for an interesting biography of the singer, also shows that she is a surprisingly relatable figure to Charlie. I definitely understand the thrill researching singers and finding out that they're really like you! (That's why I love singer-songwriters—they actually believe what they're singing!) I also loved Mr. K, the music teacher, and how he brings his class through a tour of countless genres with historical or personal significance—the book points out that music and musical tastes can split people apart as much as they bring people together (an insight I was impressed to see, I might add), so I liked Mr. K combating this unpleasant aspect of music. Perhaps the best thing I can say about this book is that it has clearly got me thinking about music and how I relate to it—books that make you think are definitely the best kind!
Next topic. As a self-described Nerd Who Doesn't Fit In™ (why, yes, I am enjoying the ™ symbol today), I have greatly enjoyed entering the phase of my life where I can surround myself with the people (or books, let's be real) that I identify with. I somehow managed to get so far into my little bubble of self-confidence that I forgot what Operatic reminded me of: all the "be yourself" garbage everyone tells you doesn't work when you spend weekdays in a place where countless people as insecure as you are use extreme peer pressure in order to ostracize people or worse and make themselves feel better by comparison in the process. (Seriously, when did we decide that being publicly shamed by a bunch of teenagers while your brain isn't even fully formed is just a rite of passage?) Operatic understands and depicts unflinchingly the horrors of middle school: the cliques, the not fitting into one of them, the bullying, the teasing, the rampant homophobia and such (why are we still doing this?), the inability to fight back due to the uniting of literally every single student against you so they, too can avoid bullying, etc., etc. Operatic doesn't go into anything horrifying (i.e. physically injurious), but it certainly acts as a reminder that middle school is just shy of a human rights violation. I also appreciated that this book doesn't take the stance of "Oh, Charlie stands up to the bullies and saves the day"—as much as I've gotten mad at book characters for doing nothing, I've also forgotten that kids who stand up to the bullies simply face coordinated harassment campaigns of their own—while the adults in power just sit around and do nothing (or, worse, pile on—thank you to all of the teachers who don't take all of their insecurities out on children, because there are quite a few that do). Again, as you can see, This Book Makes You Think About Things™ (OK, that's the last ™, I promise).
I've mostly ranted about things and not given you all much of a sense of the book, so I'll try to rectify that now (not that I'm getting rid of my magnificent rants above or anything). I loved Charlie as a protagonist—she is simultaneously insightful and thoughtful about life (she narrates the book and shares many of those insights above, after all) and also a totally typical middle schooler, spending time with friends, listening to music, or doing that thing we probably all did once and learning way too many details about our crushes' lives (add middle-school crushes to the list of things this book depicts beautifully, by the way). I do love how graphic novels can easily depict the beauty of life without it having to come out the character's mouth and make them seem overly insightful—it's the best of first-person and third-person narration mixed together! (By the way, I also appreciate that Charlie is Japanese and her friends Addie and Mayin are Asian—it's nice to see this included and talked about but not made into a big deal). (I am resisting the urge to put a ™ after "big deal.") I also want to bring up Emile, Charlie's crush—besides doing his part to stand up to bullies and help others out (again, not that we should expect that, but it's nice to see), he is himself accepted by Charlie for his own quirks (an enormous interest in bugs likely related to his family's apiary—there's a reason gold bees run down the spine of this book). You'll like Emile as much as you like Charlie, and you'll like Luka as much as you like Emile—as we learn from Charlie, Luka was a rare student who dared to be himself and be confident. Being gay is something this book explores as well—shockingly enough, it is frowned upon in the nightmarish world of middle school, and this book does a beautiful job exploring the highs and lows (mostly lows, but a few highs) of such an experience.
One last thing about Operatic. The art in this book, drawn by Byron Eggenschwiler, literally belongs in a museum. Eggenschwiler's style, characterized by crosshatching, a combination of detailed images and almost-scribbles when necessary, and gorgeous use of color, does an incredible job of conveying motion and emotion, and there are so many panels (Charlie in her bedroom, Maria Callas singing, etc.) that you can't help but stop and stare at. (It helps that there are many full-page illustrations to give Eggenschwiler's talent room to shine!) While most of the art in this book is so realistic you can get lost in it, Eggenschwiler includes the occasional surrealist illustrations to further convey feeling and bring you into the inner worlds of the characters as well as the surface world of the book. (Preview the art of the book here.) I also loved the color scheme, which switches between yellow, red, and blue. First of all, I did not know that yellow could work as a color scheme, but it does—you just have to make use of the ochre shades in addition to the brighter yellows! Also, color both helps to separate storylines and acts as a metaphor, with the separation visually conveying what it is like to become an outcast. In general, I feel like the illustrations of this story lean more toward picture book than comic book, so if you're a fan of picture books but worry that graphic novels will be too strange, you might find yourself at home in Operatic!
What really struck me about Operatic is how, rather than following some incredibly deep storyline that many middle schoolers will not relate to or sacrificing beauty to make a relatable story, Operatic actually manages to find the beauty and depth in a perfectly pedestrian and awful middle-school experience. It's a book that middle schoolers can relate to and a book that bookworms can pore over and learn from (and so can middle schoolers, to be honest). I really cannot recommend enough that you pick up a copy of this wonderful book—it is a shining example of the MG genre!
My rating is: Stunning!