MMGM and #IMWAYR: Allergic, written by Megan Wagner Lloyd and illustrated by Michelle Mee Nutter
Well, it's happening—on Monday, I start in-person college classes for the first time in my life. Accordingly, I will be wildly busy and frantic for a while, but considering I posted a book review every single week of my first year of college last year (which was all-virtual), I don't think my blog will suffer too much. But you can expect that Thursday Thoughts posts will be on hiatus, and I probably won't have time to stop by people's blogs during the week (although I will still be diligent about commenting on your MMGM and #IMWAYR posts). Blogging is a nice respite from the chaos of college, so I will look forward to sharing oodles of book reviews as always in the months to come!
In other news, I bought a bunch of new graphic novels using gift-card money! A few are already out, most of them come out in September and October, and one comes out in February and one in April. It'll be nice to have some cool books just magically showing up on my doorstep! Aggravatingly, I forgot to buy a copy of The Okay Witch for approximately the 300,000th time—but it turns out the 300,001st time was the charm, as I bought it as part of another Amazon order. And! I did remember to pre-order Aristotle and Dante Dive into the Waters of the World, which is not a graphic novel but is the SEQUEL to the ridiculously-incredible Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. And that comes out in October too!!!
Getting on to the review, I am so excited today to be talking about this absolutely delightful and meaningful and fantastic graphic novel, Allergic, written by Megan Wagner Lloyd and illustrated by Michelle Mee Nutter!
|Preview the illustrations on Amazon|
I made very weird choices when deciding to read this book. As I'll mention in a minute, this book is pretty fitting for me, yet despite the many recommendations I saw of it, I wrote it off as something I wasn't interested in for some reason. Then Sue Jackson at Book by Book recommended it more recently and was surprised by how good it was, and Crystal Brunelle at Reading Through Life enjoyed it as well, so I finally decided to pick up a copy—and I was surprised too at how much I utterly adored this story!
Our protagonist, Maggie, is going through a lot of change in her life. Not only does she have to switch schools, but her parents are a little preoccupied with a new baby on the way—and since her twin younger brothers Liam and Noah generally keep each other plenty occupied, Maggie feels alone in her own home. Things start to look up for Maggie when her parents finally, finally, finally let her adopt a dog—she loves animals, so she's been waiting for this moment for so long! But then...it turns out she is allergic to dogs. And not just dogs, but any animals with feathers or fur—if she gets near them for just a moment, hives and sneezes abound. Maggie isn't ready to give up, but each attempt at a new pet goes wrong for a whole variety of reasons. But perhaps Maggie can come to terms with her allergies as best as an animal-loving kid can—and perhaps she can even figure some things out about her family along the way.
So what did I absolutely adore so much about this book? Well, everything, but I think my main feelings are in two categories. First: this book depicts allergies in such a fantastic and sensitive and accurate way that I am truly blown away! And second: this book is about a lot more than just allergies, and everything else that it aims to tackle is immensely well-executed as well. Let's talk about that first part to begin. I said earlier that this book is pretty fitting for me, and what I meant by that is that I have a whole boatload of allergies—specifically, dairy, eggs, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, strawberries (possibly?), dogs, cats, most pollens (although who isn't allergic to those?), two antibiotics, and two allergy medications [Zyrtec and an obscure one similar to it]. Yes, I'm literally allergic to some allergy medications. (By the way, I've met other people with allergies, and I count myself lucky that I don't have things like oral allergy syndrome, where you basically can't eat raw fruits or vegetables at all, or that I'm not allergic to things like mustard or garlic.) Allergies have factored into my life in all kinds of ways—the Great Peanut Butter Cookie Incident of 3rd Grade (result: head-to-toe hives and Caladryl for 2 weeks), the general hassle that is bringing allergy-free food everywhere you go because you can't trust that other people didn't cross-contaminate it with a single one of the many allergies you have, or even the inability to take plane flights because you can't be sure someone won't open a package of peanuts that then gets recirculated through the AC right over to your seat (trust me, if I could go on a plane, I'd have visited New York City three times over by now). And yet, despite how much allergies have impacted my life and the lives of countless others, they are discussed extremely rarely in books or other media. The only other books I've read with characters with allergies have them as really, really minor plot points—Sunny in Swing It, Sunny gets allergy shots as part of a chapter, and Willow in Camp is allergic to peanuts (although, since she's wildly unlikable in that book, I didn't exactly want to see myself in her or anything). I was pretty much used to not seeing allergies brought up in any kind of media (except as maybe a hassle for someone else). But then came Allergic.
So what does Allergic get right about allergies specifically? Well, first of all, there's a lot of details about the process of being diagnosed with allergies that are spot-on. Maggie has to get skin-tested with various allergens, which is something I've done many times over—and like the book points out, it's not a shot, but it is a weird-feeling prick. There are some brief yet accurate explanations about how allergies actually work (they are an erroneous reaction on the part of your immune system), and some misconceptions are pointed out as well (like that even hypoallergenic dogs can still cause reactions). Again, my allergies primarily lie in the food-allergy range of the spectrum (I'm allergic to dogs and cats, but it's mild enough that I can be around them for a minute—and I don't really want to own one anyway). But there's quite a bit in here that was relatable to me as well. Just as Maggie's allergy shots won't fix her animal allergies enough to let her safely have a pet, I know that the latest supposed miracle cure for peanut allergies, Palforzia, works well enough that it might prevent you from having a reaction but not well enough that you can stop being cautious—and if I can't stop being cautious (which generally prevents reactions anyway), why would I willingly go on some kind of ridiculous medical treatment that also has the wonderful risk associated with literally ingesting your allergen and hoping your body isn't quite sensitive enough to freak out? Maggie also makes friends with a kid with food allergies named Sebastian, and Megan Wagner Lloyd pulls in some details specifically about food allergies with his character—I appreciated her effort to make kids with all kinds of allergies feel seen on some level in her book. And honestly, the emotions that Maggie experiences regarding her allergies pretty much hold true for people with any kind of allergies—she may be missing out on pets while I may have missed out on the Goldfish crackers in kindergarten, but that feeling of missing out is the same both ways. And Lloyd also captures the feeling you have when your allergies get in the way of other people's enjoyment—there's a scene where Maggie's class gets a class pet, but Maggie can't be around it without sneezing and it has to be taken away. And I feel exactly how Maggie feels every single time I have to be like, "I'm so glad you're enjoying those desserts, but if they have peanuts, do you mind not eating another bite and maybe even putting it in a bag outside this room or something so I can engage in luxuries like living and breathing? Thanks so much!" By the way, with Maggie's class pet situation in particular, I think that could really serve as a bit of a wake-up call to some adults (especially teachers) that if you're going to plan some fun activity, try to make it allergy-friendly so kids don't feel excluded—don't pull out the tempera paints (which contain eggs) and Play-Doh (which contains wheat) for the arts-and-crafts project for your students, all right? I feel like I might be rambling and sharing more of my own personal experience than is warranted for a book review, but I think my point is that Allergic made me feel seen in a way many books have not, and I'm giddy with excitement about it! And if I could feel this seen in a protagonist primarily dealing with a completely different type of allergy than I mainly deal with, then just imagine how much kids who are grappling with actual animal allergies will feel seen in Maggie and Allergic. I am just blown away, and I hope anyone with any allergies—or anyone who wants to learn about allergies, which should be everyone—makes sure to pick up a copy of this book.
(By the way, make sure to check out Megan Wagner Lloyd's own essay about living with animal allergies here.)
So that was point one. Now for point two—all the other stuff this book tackles besides allergies! And boy, is there a lot—I think my main fear with Allergic was that it was completely going to run out of plot besides the allergies, but luckily, there's other themes of this book too. But before I get to the other big, major theme, I do have a few stray thoughts to throw in here. First off, Maggie herself is a really compelling protagonist—she feels realistic and fleshed-out, and even when she makes bad decisions (which she does, several times), you always understand at least somewhat why she is doing those things. I appreciated how Maggie's love of animals is tied in with her allergies—she's not willing to give up on her dreams of pet ownership quite so quickly, so we see a series of "Pet Quests" as Maggie attempts to own all different kinds of pets (most of these end badly, but often for comedic effect—a lot of them are combined together like a montage sequence). We also see how Maggie's allergies clash not just with one of her interests, but with her entire self-concept—there's a metaphor involving Maggie's room (which she previous decorated with—you guessed it—animal-themed décor), and as she wonders if she needs to revamp the whole room, it seems almost like she is wondering about who she is now that one of her primary defining traits is in disarray. And I also love Maggie's journey through making friends in a new school, especially since that's not a huge focus of the story and we don't spend the whole book with her moping around, feeling lonely (it may be realistic, but it gets old for readers fast). And in general, this book tackles sad topics but stays extremely upbeat—the fast pacing and endless sweet moments keep this book from becoming even remotely close to a slog.
And now for the big, major theme—family stuff. I've encountered a lot of graphic novels lately looking at family dynamics—Just Pretend looks at sibling relationships and divorces, and Kyle's Little Sister looks more closely at what happens when you have an older sibling who everyone loves but who you don't get along with. And even Truly Tyler and Jukebox tackle some family stuff as well. But Allergic, quite frankly, does a better job at looking at family dynamics than any of those books, or a lot of other books as well! As I mentioned way back in the summary, Maggie has younger twin brothers, Liam and Noah, who mostly keep out of Maggie's way and even irritate her at times. And then she has a baby sibling on the way that is keeping her mom and dad plenty busy. I have a lot of thoughts about how all this is tackled—first, it felt so refreshing in a story about family drama to see a family that is actually quite healthy and loving! Maggie is really close with her mom and dad, which is part of why she worries so much about the baby upending things—after all, if they weren't close, adding one more distraction wouldn't really make a difference in the first place. Maggie's parents are actually delightful characters who you'll see a lot of for an MG book, and I always enjoyed getting to see them—one detail I loved is how Maggie's mother (a social worker—actually like my own mother, who is also awesome!) teaches Maggie to take deep breaths when she's stressed at various points in the story. You overhear a lot of conversations from Maggie's parents that show just how much they care and think about and worry about each of their kids, not just the one about to be born. Maggie's relationship with Liam and Noah is fascinating as well—Maggie wouldn't admit it, but she seems to feel ever-so-slightly left out of their dynamic, which only makes her feel more alone at times. But Lloyd doesn't drop the ball and say, "Ah, well, sibling conflict is normal" and move on with life (an attitude that I felt was a little too present in Kyle's Little Sister)—rather, their relationship gets explored from some different angles toward the end of the story in a really satisfying way. And although I won't give too much away, there is a thorough epilogue to the book that does such an absolutely fantastic job of wrapping up every last little detail in such a delightful way! The family drama, Maggie's love of animals, and other details tucked into the story in truly brilliant bits of foreshadowing all come back and make their presence known, and they make Lloyd's storytelling skill known as well—I've stumbled upon quite a few graphic novels that don't seem like they'll be that good and then aren't that good, but this one reminded me a lot of Measuring Up in how dramatically it exceeded my expectations of its quality!
Sorry for the super-long post, but I do have to take a little time to talk about the art style. Michelle Mee Nutter illustrated this book, and her art is SO CUTE, OH MY GOODNESS. It's unreasonably cute, and it just makes this book even more fun to read than it already was. And it's not too stylized in any weird ways like you sometimes see in graphic novels (there are some books where the faces are just weird—they're just weird!—but this is not that.) The illustrations are in full-color, and the color scheme is both fun and not too intense—and it also makes for nice contrast between characters and objects on the page. Many panels have a solid-color background, but the ones that don't often include fun background details that are worth poring over. So in short: the art of this book is as great as the story is! (And in case I wasn't already on the Michelle Mee Nutter bandwagon, I went to her Instagram, and she had posted Over the Garden Wall fanart there—so she's officially awesome.) A few semi-related details: this book is printed on cheaper-than-average paper—and that might seem like a bad thing, but it means the paperback is just $13 (super-affordable for a graphic novel, especially one in full color), so it's a trade-off I'll gladly make! One small issue is that the font for speech bubbles and narration is a little too small and thin—it was fine for me, but for readers with poor eyesight, it might be tough to read without extra magnification. And similarly, the elements on some of the panels themselves seem a little too small—it's like the art was drawn with the expectation that the book size would be an inch or two larger than it actually ended up being. Again, it's far from a big issue, but some readers may find it aggravating.
Blah blah blah, blither blither blither. But really, my blithering is warranted with Allergic. It's already so rare to see books of any kind with representation of people with allergies—and seeing it executed as thoughtfully and accurately as it is here is even more exciting. But Allergic takes things to the next level with a smart, meaningful, and pitch-perfect plot about dealing with change—in family, in school, and of course in health as well. And with an upbeat tone and adorable, clear artwork, this book really goes far above and beyond what I was expecting—and if you're at all a graphic novel fan, you should be adding this book to your TBR list as soon as possible!
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 4!