MMGM and #IMWAYR: Truly Tyler by Terri Libenson
I hope everyone is doing well! I feel like the summer is racing by, but we still have a few solid months to get more reading done! Mixed in among this week's unpleasant current events was a nice bright spot: Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison, of which he must serve at least 15, for the death of George Floyd 1 year ago. I hope this is a small step forward in the fight against racism and police brutality.
On a completely different note, I've spent some time with my family this week trying to get caught up on some of Disney and Pixar's animated movies that are on Disney+. We watched Soul, which came out in December 2020, and although it was somewhat clumsily executed at times, the overall message was a really powerful one, and combined with the soundtrack, I ended up with tears literally rolling down my face. Somewhat surprisingly, though, I actually found myself liking Raya and the Last Dragon, which came out in March 2021, even more—I was expecting a sort of generic Disney movie, but it actually had a surprisingly powerful message as well, along with two great and well-acted protagonists, a fun supporting cast (including an adorable animal companion), and ridiculously gorgeous animation. With both of these movies, if it wasn't for the stylistic decision to make the characters look "animated," with large eyes and smooth skin and whatnot, you would literally think this was live-action—the landscapes are so photorealistic as to be crazy. So those are my recommendations on that—next, we're planning to see Luca, which just came out this month, so NO SPOILERS, please!
Now for the book review! For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am reviewing Truly Tyler by Terri Libenson.
For several years now, I've been following along with Terri Libenson's "Emmie & Friends" series of semi-graphic novels (I'll explain what that means later). Truly Tyler is the fifth book in the series, following (in order, first to last) Invisible Emmie, Positively Izzy, Just Jaime, and Becoming Brianna. (Libenson says these books don't have to be read in order, but you will have some of the major twists at least somewhat spoiled unless you read them in order.) There's also a series-themed journal called YOU-Niquely You. This entertaining yet thoughtful series of middle-school drama has held my attention thus far (just as it has held the attention of tons of young readers), and I'm glad to be talking about the newest book in the series today! Here's the publisher's synopsis of the book:
A story about being your truest self—and trusting your truest friends—from bestselling author Terri Libenson. Perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier and Shannon Hale.
Cliques. Crushes. Comics. Middle school.
Ever since Tyler started getting into art and hanging out with Emmie, his friends and teammates have been giving him a hard time. He wonders why can’t he nerd out on drawing and play ball?
Emmie is psyched that she gets to work on a comics project with her crush, Tyler. But she gets the feeling that his friends don’t think she’s cool enough. Maybe it’s time for a total reinvention. . . .
I sometimes wonder why I've kept up with the "Emmie & Friends" series. I honestly wasn't a fan of the first book, Invisible Emmie, though that might just be because I read it in a different stage of my life—with its shy protagonist, Emmie, you'd think it was practically written for me! But then the next three books of the series were all ones I totally loved. Positively Izzy was already a fun read, but then the twist at the end—that twist was one of the most brilliant ones I've ever seen! It makes you rethink everything about the book—but in the best possible way. Just Jaime had an insightful perspective on popular kids, peer pressure, and bullying, and I loved how it was written from the perspective of the popular kids themselves. And Becoming Brianna pulled Brianna (probably my favorite character of the series) back onstage in more than one sense—and its insights about bat mitzvahs and the ways young kids relate to religion were surprisingly profound! But Truly Tyler, the book I'm reviewing today, had me wondering yet again why I still read these books—while this book is well-executed and has plenty of fun elements, it just didn't stand out to me in the way some of the other books have. So let's talk about what I did and didn't like here.
The "Emmie & Friends" books follow a pretty strict (and quite comforting) formula. Each book has two viewpoints, and except for Becoming Brianna (where one viewpoint was past Brianna and the other was present Brianna), the two viewpoints are different characters. One viewpoint (in Truly Tyler, that's Tyler's) is told in prose with frequent illustrations, and the other viewpoint (in Truly Tyler, that's Emmie's) is told in comic panels. And each book ends with some kind of a twist—the twists were pretty jaw-dropping in Invisible Emmie and Positively Izzy, but by Truly Tyler, they are barely recognizable as twists and not just regular character development. Still, they are there! The series formula works just as well in Truly Tyler as it always has—seeing multiple character's perspectives is interesting and surprisingly doesn't get old, and the combination of prose and illustration/comic panels makes this book a great fit for all kinds of readers! And Libenson still uses the formula as a jumping-off point for all kinds of unique stories—the books themselves are surprisingly un-formulaic considering the formula, and Truly Tyler is no exception.
Truly Tyler is pretty spot-on about middle-school drama. Tyler is struggling to juggle his newfound love of art with his existing spot on the basketball team, and his teammates making fun of him for spending time with a girl—a quiet girl, no less—isn't helping. And Emmie isn't oblivious—as she sees one of the basketball kids, Joe, making fun of her friend Sarah, she starts to wonder if she needs to change herself (and the people she spends time with) in order to impress Tyler. Libenson weaves some of the nightmares of social media into the story quite well, and the ways that conflicts play out and are resolved are pretty much flawless! The problem I had with the middle-school drama is that the solution is pretty clichéd. Let's see...should the characters keep being themselves, or totally change everything about themselves to fit in? What a tough one—I'm stumped. It's not that these problems don't happen—they absolutely do, and I think a lot of middle-schoolers will appreciate Truly Tyler's realistic resolution of these issues. But for readers who have already survived middle school (and seen this play out in approximately 30,000 MG books already), there's not much new insight here about being yourself, which is a change from the surprising nuance of the previous books. And I also wasn't a fan of the way Emmie acts in this book—I was just looking at a social media graphic for this series that described Emmie as "loyal," and, well, she is the complete opposite of that in this book. I can see her drifting away from friends inadvertently because she feels embarrassed by them, but plainly stating her goals to ditch them seemed a bit implausible.
Let's run through a speed round of various thoughts. This book is the longest of the series, but it doesn't feel that long, which is both good (it doesn't drag on much) and bad (I have surprisingly little to say considering how many pages were added). The comic that Tyler and Emmie create is actually included in the book itself, with portions intermixed into the rest of the story, and Libenson does a convincing job of making it both plausible for middle schoolers to create and genuinely creative and fun (if a bit repetitive)! Although part of what frustrated me about this book is that I honestly didn't care for Tyler that much as a protagonist, I appreciated the depiction of his somewhat-distant relationship with his popular/talented older brother Zach, as well as the depiction of his relationship with his frustrating/not-really-there-for-him father via video call (his parents are divorced in the story). Finally, Libenson's artwork remains as fun as ever, with visual gags, witty captions, and brightly colored comic-panel backgrounds that just add to the appeal and fun for readers young and not-young!
Terri Libenson wrote an interesting blog post about the difficulty she had in writing Truly Tyler during the pandemic, and I can forgive some of this book's flaws considering the tight, stressful schedule she worked on to get it put together. But even so, Truly Tyler isn't a terribly memorable addition to the "Emmie & Friends" series. It's inoffensive, which is great, because books 2, 3, and 4 (Positively Izzy, Just Jaime, and Becoming Brianna) are all excellent reads and make this series absolutely worth picking up! But Truly Tyler itself isn't a reason to try out this series—it's just a fun, somewhat flawed addition that's worth reading to keep up with what's going on in Emmie's world.
My rating is: Pretty good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!