#IMWAYR: The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag

I hope you all are holding up well! I'm writing this review on Saturday afternoon, not Saturday night—that's how you know I'm relatively organized right now. (I used to have these done way earlier in the week, but this year, college has thrown a real wrench in that.)

Also, as a judge for the Cybils Awards, I wanted to remind everyone that you have through Friday, October 15 to nominate your favorite kidlit books for the awards! You can see the details here—I highly encourage you all to take a look and suggest some books for consideration! Now I just need to figure out what to nominate... (Update on Sunday night: I submitted my first nomination, and you can expect to hear about it on the blog in the coming weeks!)

Anyway, today I am recommending an absolutely fabulous YA graphic novel: The Girl From the Sea by Molly Knox Ostertag. And I'll warn you, I just wrote a paragraph where I said I would "briefly" discuss something and then had to go back and delete that word because it was misleading. So this might be a ramble-y review.

One quick note: The Girl From the Sea is YA, but apart from some innuendo so mild even I'm not sure it was actually innuendo, and the fact that Keltie is technically but not visibly naked in one scene (she literally lives in the ocean, after all), I don't think there is anything objectionable in here for MG readers—this is pretty clean as far as romances go!

          Some background for Molly Knox Ostertag: besides being married to another one of my favorite cartoonists, ND Stevenson (which I only mention because it brings me joy that such a power couple exists in the world), Ostertag is the author of an AMAZING gender-norm-breaking MG graphic novel trilogy that I read in February: The Witch Boy, The Hidden Witch, and The Midwinter Witch. And yet, despite how much I loved those books, I let this book linger on my shelves when it came out in August. But a nudge from the wonderful Sue Jackson at Book By Book compelled me to try this story—and why in the world did it take me so long???!!! This book is fantastic—let me tell you about it.

          Things have been difficult for Morgan Kwon lately. Her parents are divorced, and her younger brother is acting out as a result, leaving Morgan unsteady in her family’s home by the cliffs of an island. Morgan is just counting down the days before she can leave home and live her life according to a secret she hasn’t even shared with her tight-knit friend group: she’s gay. But then Morgan meets Keltie. Keltie is sweet and adventurous, and she brings out the best in Morgan…and yeah, Morgan thinks she’s pretty cute too. But Keltie is also-maybe-possibly a magical creature from the sea, and as you might guess, that does make things complicated. As secrets come to light, Morgan and Keltie have to figure out their relationship…but real life doesn’t disappear, and along the way, Morgan has to figure things out with her family, her friends—and herself too.

          As I mentioned, this book is SO GOOD!!! Oh my goodness gracious, I cannot wait to talk about this one—the only question is whether I can remember all of the things I wanted to discuss. Let's start off with Morgan and Keltie. You'd think that a magical girl from the sea might possibly steal the thunder from the human protagonist of a book, and yet Morgan 100% holds her own in the "battle" (obviously not really a battle—they're in love) between her and Keltie. With incredibly rich and realistic emotions, some neat interests, and a personality Ostertag describes in the back matter as neat and in control (my kind of person), Morgan grabs the reader by the heartstrings and pulls them along through this fantastic story. But let's not forget Keltie—and how could we, anyway? She's literally a magical girl from the ocean who is a delight as well. Keltie doesn't quite understand human culture, and she speaks in a manner that is just slightly mystical and eloquent—not enough to be bothersome, but enough that she doesn't sound like the modern-day teenagers in this story. And she's also got a fascinating magical backstory that gets explored pretty well considering this book leans toward realistic fiction and away from the fantasy side of things. Amidst the scenic island where Morgan's family had put down roots, Morgan and Keltie develop a truly wonderful relationship. Yes, there's conflict, and secrets, and struggles, but there's also utter adorableness, amazing gifts, and an ability to bring out the best in each other. I won't give it all away, but it's so good. And what's also so good is that this book doesn't set up romance as the be-all-end-all (or is it end-all-be-all?). This book is also a journey of self-discovery for Morgan, as you'll see in the subsequent paragraphs of this review. And that's my favorite type of romance in books—the kind that is joyous and lovely, but doesn't turn toxic and weird as one person gets weirdly dependent on the other to fill the void in their life. Morgan can fill her own voids, thank you very much—as you'll see if you read the book.

        I did want to talk about Morgan's friend group, because I felt like some of the stuff there resonated with me deeply. Morgan has three very close friends, Serena, Jules, and Lizzie. It's easy to mentally read these four as a clique of popular girls, but really, that's not true—they're not necessarily popular among themselves, and they're not really mean girls either. But Morgan isn't confident that she can trust three boy-crazy teenagers to understand that she's gay, and she plans to never tell them and to wait until she can be out in other groups later in life. Holding that secret (especially when Keltie gets involved) drives her further and further away from her friends, and soon enough, it's not just her sexual orientation she keeps from them—they barely hear from her at all. On that note, I want to bring up my own personal life for a moment. When I was in high school, I felt like I had to keep virtually everything about myself secret. I felt like people—especially those people, those kids I thought I knew so well—wouldn't understand my interests, or my OCD, or plenty of other stuff. I tried to convince myself that I could make friends even if I told them nothing about myself, but—surprise, surprise—relationships are reciprocal, and never giving anyone the satisfaction of your trust doesn't bode well for connecting with them. What's weird is, when I got to college and (with the help of a second therapist—yes, I see two of them, and we'll pretend it makes me twice as mentally healthy as most people—really, I'm just twice as privileged and can thus afford it) came out of my shell a little, I realized that the people who I shared myself with, and who responded well, were often the very same kinds of people I knew in high school. It wasn't that the people were different—it was that I was different. And so, in a similar vein as how I felt seen in The Witch Boy and its sequels (consult the review linked above for details on that), I felt seen in The Girl From the Sea, as I watched Morgan insist that she could never be herself in the world she lived in now, only to find that maybe the people she's around aren't as distrusting as she might think. Maybe she can be herself, right here, right now, and it won't take a complete revamp of her life to make it happen. I do qualify that with "maybe"—read the book and see what happens. But I will say one thing—Morgan's friends are seriously delightful, and Molly Knox Ostertag makes the excellent choice to intersperse text messages between the friends throughout the story, helping readers see the individual personalities of Serena, Jules, and Lizzie, and helping readers realize that cutting them out of her life isn't the best plan for Morgan.

        I also wanted to touch on Morgan's family, and her sexual orientation, in a separate paragraph. We don't dig super-deep into Morgan's parents' divorce, but we see how it has affected Morgan in a few short but deftly-crafted scenes. And we do get to specifically explore Morgan's relationship with her mother, primarily in one scene, and I must say that more parents need to be like Morgan's mother, y'all—she is wonderful, and loving, and awesome! We also dig into Morgan's fraught relationship with her younger brother, Aiden, who Morgan tries to stay away from because of his bitter demeanor—not really taking into account Aiden's own feelings in the situation. Again, I never understand why sibling drama is so rare in books for kids, so I appreciate this brief-but-nuanced depiction of it. And I also wanted to touch on Morgan being gay—sometimes it seems like books have decided that LGBTQ+ kids and teens now live in a wonderful, accepting world and have nothing to fear and can just go have exciting, fun romance and self-expression! And that's kind of representative of some spaces in the modern world, and...not representative of others. It feels almost out-of-date to have a gay character who is tense about being gay and avoids being out as a result, but unfortunately, prejudice against LGBTQ+ people still exists, and kids still have to deal with it. So it's almost refreshing in a weird not-refreshing way (both because it's terrible and because it's literally all anyone would have thought to write about 10 years ago) to have an LGBTQ+ protagonist who is still trying to figure things out, and I appreciated the nuance there.

        So how does all of this come together? (I swear I write that exact sentence for this specific paragraph in every single graphic novel review, but whatever.) It comes together with Molly Knox Ostertag's skillful art and plotting! When I read The Witch Boy and its sequels a few months ago, I thought the art was vivid and clear, but it didn't stand out to be as particularly beautiful or anything—it stayed in the background and helped facilitate the compelling characters and page-turner of a plot (how's that for double alliteration?). But perhaps because The Girl From the Sea is a longer-form book at 256 pages and there doesn't seem to be an intended sequel, the vibe of this book is a bit different—and that starts with the artwork, which takes Ostertag's familiar clarity and spins it into something that is also beautiful and surprising. The surprisingly-climactic start to the story features some truly inventive page layouts and plenty of full-page spreads, and that layout skill continues through the rest of the story. I love the composition within panels as well, because Ostertag makes sure to show scenes from all the angles you need to actually know what's going on—whether it's a big party, or an action scene, or a quiet moment, you're given the freedom to look around Morgan and Keltie's world and take it all in, instead of wishing someone could turn the "camera" a little bit. It makes for an extremely pleasant reading experience! Colorist Maarta Laiho imbues the book with color schemes that are just energetic enough and match the scene—there's never so much visual stimulation that you get overwhelmed. And as for plotting, I find that a lot of graphic novelists have a bit more to learn about plotting a story, but not Ostertag—not only are there virtually no out-of-character/out-of-vibe moments, but the 256-page length is used to its fullest extent, with numerous different scenes and plot points making everything feel fully-realized and fully-explored. It's hard to explain how much higher-quality this book feels than a lot of graphic novels, but once you read it, you'll see. And I also think it bears noting that The Girl From the Sea never takes itself too seriously, but it also always makes sure that any levity it includes fits with the actual plot—you have some laugh-out-loud moments during some surprisingly-climactic times, but it never feels like the story is getting sacrificed to a silly joke.

        About my rating for this book, I'm not entirely sure that this book actually warrants the "Stunning!" rating label I'm giving it, but let me be clear—it's too noticeably better than my "Really good!" books to warrant that rating instead, it's absolutely as good as The Witch Boy and its sequels (which also garnered "Stunning!"), and if it wasn't already nominated for the Cybils as a book published this year, I would have been seriously considering nominating either it or Measuring Up for graphic novels (or both, since I think they're in different sub-categories—but they're both nominated already anyway). (Update: Again, I came up with a nominee, but let me just be clear that if it wasn't for so many books already being nominated, I would have had a hard time deciding—they're all so good!) This book is a delightful romance, a journey of self-discovery, and a slight fantasy adventure all in one, and it's executed with the skill and tenderness you would expect from Molly Knox Ostertag, but—let's be real—you probably wouldn't expect from many other graphic novelists. If you're looking for a meaningful read that won't crush your soul and will appeal to kids, teens, and adults alike, then pick up a copy of The Girl From the Sea—I promise you, it is well worth your time.

My rating is: Stunning!





My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!




Comments

  1. I read Witch Boy a couple years ago and thought it was really good so if this is by the same author, I am sure it is fantastic.

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    1. I agree, The Witch Boy is seriously excellent, and this is too! And I will say, if you ever get a chance to read The Witch Boy's sequels, I really liked them too—they are short but fun! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  2. So glad you loved it so much!! And thanks for such a nice shout-out :) Glad I helped move this one up your list!

    I loved your review, as always - always enjoy your description, examples, and enthusiasm!

    And thank you for sharing your own personal experiences. I can see how you could relate to this story. I'm so happy that you found your own path through to accepting yourself and trusting your friends to accept you, too :)

    Sue
    Book By Book

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    1. I'm glad you moved this one up my list—thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed my review, and I appreciate your kind comment about my experiences! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  3. You are adding to my list weekly & while I love the reviews which make me want the books immediately, my list is so-o-o long! Thanks for this one, however. It does sound quite wonderful! Happy Reading this coming week!

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    1. I'm so sorry! My list is crazy-long too, and I honestly have moments where I'm reading blog posts and I'm like, "No—you recommended something I want to read!" (I think I need to dramatically cull my TBR list, on that topic.) I'm glad this book sounds like a good read to you, though, and thanks so much for stopping by—happy reading to you as well!

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  4. I submitted my first nomination to Cybils last week and now I need to get busy looking at all the other categories. And I'll thank my lucky stars that The Girl in the Sea is available through my Overdrive account. Of course, I'll have to get in line since they have a wait list. But this is SUPER wonderful news for someone living in the boonies!! By the way, I can't remember if I told you that I ordered The Witch Boy for my personal collection on your recommendation and it's in my "short list" pile here at home. It's exciting to keep hearing such good things about the series! Also, I love it when my bookworm buddies share a slice of their personal life to further explain their connection to a book. It only makes me want to read those books MORE! Thank you for the wonderful review and I hope you have a great week!

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    1. I saw that you nominated Hollowpox for the Cybils—great choice! I honestly don't think there's anything I can nominate for the other categories (a lot of it was not good or published in years past), but I did get a graphic novel nominated, which I'm glad about. And that's wonderful that you can get this book on OverDrive! I also hope you enjoy The Witch Boy—it is a fantastic read, and the sequels are wonderful too! And I'm glad my personal anecdote worked well for you—I appreciate that! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  5. A new-to-me title. It sounds great!

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    1. I'm glad it sounds good to you—I hope you enjoy it if you try it out! Thanks so much for stopping by!

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