MMGM and #IMWAYR: Act by Kayla Miller
What a week. I'm not going to get into everything except to say that I am of course utterly appalled and disgusted by the anti-trans legislation in Arkansas. I heard from others that there is a small nonprofit organization in Arkansas called Intransitive that supports transgender people and is advocating against these laws; consider making a donation! Unfortunately, I don't have the mental fortitude for a full super-depressed write-up on that mess—at the rate we're going in the world, I would never actually have any time to review books—but I did want to mention the situation quickly.
Also, since I've had the most unpleasant morning, I'm going to warn you all: if you have a Mac, and you are super-behind on software updates, and you are planning to install macOS Big Sur (the newest version), please, please, PLEASE check and make sure that you actually have enough storage to install it. Because my sibling's Mac laptop gave us the go-ahead to install Big Sur even though there wasn't nearly enough space, which caused the update to fail during installation (after the old operating system was already gone), which meant that there was no operating system on the computer at all (!!!), which meant that I had to go into Recovery mode and completely factory reset everything so that there was enough room to reinstall the operating system from scratch. So that's several hours of my life I can't get back. Oh, and while I'm on the topic: BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER.
With that, I'm going to go ahead and take a look at the MG graphic novel that I might possibly have been reading at 9:00 PM at night on Saturday because I had already missed a week of MMGM and still hadn't had any time to read during the week: Act by Kayla Miller.
So here's the story: almost two years ago, I read the first two graphic novels in Kayla Miller's Click series: Click and Camp. I absolutely loved Click, and I was really excited to read Camp. But then something happened called "being super-insecure." Basically, what had happened was that I had read a certain other graphic novel and, through a combination of some unfortunate and strange writing and factors completely unrelated to the book (i.e. my own experience as a shy person and frustration with others' lack of understanding about my experience), I basically eviscerated this other book. And Camp arrived while that wound was still a little too raw, so I did have a somewhat excessive but also somewhat reasonable negative reaction to Camp as well (and particularly to its character Willow). And then I basically didn't want to catch up with this series for a long time. But here we are—I managed to get over myself a bit, and though I still find myself frustrated a bit with how Willow is portrayed, even in this book, I'm going to get a grip on myself and, while maintaining that my opinions are still valid, ultimately try to calm down and enjoy this series again. It really is a great series, y'all, and where that certain other graphic novel was worth flipping out about, these books absolutely are not, so I'm going to do better here.
Like Click and Camp, Act's protagonist is Olive, a friendly and outgoing girl who, in Act has just started sixth grade. Olive's first year at middle school gets off to a great start, with her class going on a big field trip to the theater—but Olive notices that some of her friends are missing. It turns out that some students cannot afford the field trip fees, which Olive believes is super-unfair. So, in the words of the official synopsis, "she decides to act." Middle school means there are student council positions to be had, and Olive jumps into the fray, trying to make a difference. But that means running against her friends Trent and Sawyer, and it's up to the rest of Olive's friends to pick a side. Olive has to figure out a way to make the changes other kids need without losing her friends in the process.
If you've read Click and Camp, it's really no surprise that Act is high-quality fun from start to finish! First of all, Act and its predecessors reminds me of Terri Libenson's Emmie and Friends books in that it has an incredibly good grasp on what elementary/middle school is actually like—and, even better, this series tends to zero in on the time right before seventh/eighth grade (which, at least for me, was when school went from fun to awful—sixth grade was still pretty neat!). As in the previous books, Olive is still very extroverted here, and it's both fun and honestly awe-inspiring to see her manage to be so nice to so many classmates all at once! I mean, she's friends with Willow, she hangs out with Willow's friend Hugh, she's friends with Trent and Sawyer, she makes friends with Ava, she buddies up with Chanda on the field trip, she is there for Beth in her time of need, she video-calls Bree when things go awry—I can barely manage to keep three text-message relationships going at once, so Olive's near-infinite capacity for actual real-life friendships is pretty impressive! I also appreciate, as always, that Olive is never portrayed as some awful popular kid—maybe that drama just doesn't exist in sixth grade yet, but she does always make an effort to be there for her friends and to listen to what they have to say.
There are a few other excellent elements of this series that carry over from the previous books. First of all, these books are absolute fun, and that is in large part due to Kayla Miller's wonderful art style. Their art is filled with vivid colors, friendly facial expressions, and plenty of energy (honestly, there are a few panels that are a bit overstimulating, but I imagine kids will gobble them up). Unlike some other energetic graphic novels, though, Miller's art is clearly drawn and easy to interpret, with logical panel shapes and layouts, and they also use plenty of words and speech bubbles to get the story across—even without narration, you still always have a grasp on exactly what's going on. And another wonderful, if minor, thing that carries over from previous books is Olive's wonderful family—her relationship with younger brother Simon (or "Goober," as she calls him) feels very true to life (love mixed in with plenty of arguing), and I also love Olive's Aunt Molly, a librarian with pink streaks in her hair and a rebellious philosophy who always ends up giving Olive the solutions she needs. And although Molly's sister Lucy (Olive and Simon's mother) tends to be more concerned about rules, she is still a loving and likable mother!
So that's a bunch of stuff that makes Act similar to the other books in the series—now let's talk about what makes it different. In light of everything in the world right now, Act's message about getting involved and fighting against injustice is quite timely and relevant. Olive demonstrates to young readers (and, let's be real, to older ones too, including even myself) that even kids can make a difference in the world—you just have to listen to others and try to help them. Olive comes up with inventive solutions to the problems that other kids bring to her, and she is clearly willing to put in the hard work to fix them. The problems that come up (such as the aforementioned field-trip policy and unfair school dress codes) are problems readers young and old will know are actually present in schools today! I also really liked that Olive, with her Aunt Molly's help, researched actual protest movements throughout the world, from the Civil Rights Movement to Occupy Wall Street, and drew from those to try things like petitions and quiet protesting (she called that one a "sit-in," but she did miss that the point of a sit-in is to sit somewhere you aren't allowed to be). I loved Miller's illustrations of these real-world protest movements, and there's a short but awesome selection of back matter that names each of these movements and explains them in more detail! Act will definitely inspire kids to get involved in causes that they believe in.
I'll spend my last big paragraph discussing the elections. I know from personal experience that running to be a student council officer (or an officer of other groups) in middle/high school is filled with drama—the worrying what other people will run for, the mutual or just-plain-coercive attempts to run unopposed, the blackmail-esque accusations from faculty (or maybe that was just at my school), etc. So, in short, I totally related to Olive's struggles in wanting to make a difference and knowing you are the right person to do it, but also not wanting to totally ruin every single interpersonal relationship you have for the sake of a title. These elections really can drive a wedge through lots of relationships—as if Olive's relationship with Willow wasn't already strained by Willow's definitely-not-a-crush on Hugh, Willow wants to side with Hugh (who sides with Olive's opponents, Trent and Sawyer) which unsurprisingly makes everything tense between Olive and Willow. Plus, Olive is literally friends with Trent and Sawyer themselves, so just her choosing to run is obviously problematic for the relationship between the three of them. As things get competitive in the elections, readers will begin to wonder if Olive's goal of fixing injustice in her school will actually break her friendships. Does it? You'll have to see, but I will say that, even in spite of the conflict, there's plenty of fun to be had in this story—it never even gets close to becoming a monotonous, depressing book.
All in all, Act absolutely succeeds as a sequel to the two delightful books before it, and it has made me very excited to read the upcoming next book in the series, Clash, as well as to read the first of two spin-off graphic novels in the series! But more than just being a worthy sequel, Act delivers a valuable message in its own right: even in spite of conflict, and drama, and people being more easily persuaded by rewards than by fixing actual issues, everyone, including middle-schoolers, has the power to make a difference and fix injustice. I hope that young readers pick up a copy of Act and change their mindset about the world, and I think even adults could stand to learn a thing or to from this delightful and insightful graphic novel.
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!