#IMWAYR: Spinning by Tillie Walden
Hello everyone! I'm writing this a little bit close to deadline, but I'm very excited to be reviewing the YA graphic memoir Spinning by Tillie Walden!
By the way, this book is a young adult (YA) novel, not a middle grade (MG) novel, and it contains mature content.
I do need to include a content warning for attempted sexual assault and some other darker topics.
|Add it on Goodreads or preview the illustrations!|
Here's the publisher's description:
Tillie Walden's Eisner Award winning graphic memoir Spinning captures what it’s like to come of age, come out, and come to terms with leaving behind everything you used to know.
It was the same every morning. Wake up, grab the ice skates, and head to the rink while the world was still dark.
Weekends were spent in glitter and tights at competitions. Perform. Smile. And do it again.
She was good. She won. And she hated it.
For ten years, figure skating was Tillie Walden’s life. She woke before dawn for morning lessons, went straight to group practice after school, and spent weekends competing at ice rinks across the state. Skating was a central piece of her identity, her safe haven from the stress of school, bullies, and family. But as she switched schools, got into art, and fell in love with her first girlfriend, she began to question how the close-minded world of figure skating fit in with the rest of her life, and whether all the work was worth it given the reality: that she, and her friends on the team, were nowhere close to Olympic hopefuls. The more Tillie thought about it, the more Tillie realized she’d outgrown her passion―and she finally needed to find her own voice.
As a young person myself, I am always awed by the fact that Tillie Walden, as this book's back flap informs us, was born in 1996, and yet has already staked a claim as one of the most important and original graphic novelists today. I've had the chance to read her books On a Sunbeam and Are You Listening?, both of which combine unique, abstract settings; moody, evocative art; effortlessly realistic characters and relationships; and plots that hardly let you set the book down.
Spinning, Walden's full-length graphic novel debut, is a bit different from her other stories. As you've seen from reading the publisher's description, this book is a memoir, primarily focused on the 12 years of childhood she spent as a competitive ice skater, but also diving into many other aspects of growing up as well. And it's a great book, and I have a lot to say about it.
Let's start with ice skating. Walden explains in the author's note that this book isn't necessarily about ice skating, but that's obviously the most central part of the plot—and I think if any of us were ice skaters for 12 years and then wrote memoirs, it would be the most central part of those plots too.
Walden's description of her years in ice skating honestly didn't shock me, because it was all too familiar. I attended an unusual private school with quite a few athletes—gymnasts, ice skaters, equestrians, and the ilk—and I have an unusually sour attitude about childhood sports because of it. I definitely think there are cases where sports can be powerful and freeing—I still enjoy swimming for fun, and books like A Map to the Sun showed me how empowering and enriching sports can be for young people.
But also—and my brother and I were just having a discussion beforehand where I ironed out these thoughts, so props to him—it's one thing when kids decide to start a sport as adolescents, and then they can choose in a relatively informed way to continue or stop participating as they desire. But the earlier kids start a sport, the less able they are to decide to participate or not—if parents push them into it, and then they grow up practicing and competing and just feel as though it is a required part of their life, then they're unlikely to be able to voice their objection to it, because they don't even realize that is an option. (And with some parents, honestly, it may not be.) I'm a psychology major, so I am tempted to liken it to informed consent—if we generally want both the consent/assent of the parent and the child to make risky decisions like participating in research studies or medical procedures, then I don't know that we should be OK with no assent from the child as they participate in sports with serious injury risks, grueling practice schedules, endlessly toxic cultures (like Walden's original screaming coach in the book), and sometimes things that are even worse (like Larry Nassar with gymnastics).
Returning to the book, I guess my point is that Walden's description of some of her early coaches' cruelties didn't surprise me. Nor did her difficulty grappling with the high highs and low lows of competition while still just a child. Nor did her need to compartmentalize her pain into a dull ache (captured by the dull indigo shading of the art) as she grappled with unfulfilling practices, unaccepting fellow athletes, and the grotesque objectification of children that goes on in sports like this one. Honestly, the only thing that really surprised me about ice skating was the cruelty of some of the moms—though honestly, I don't know why a mom who has no compassion toward her own child would have more compassion toward anyone else's child.
I'm including a lot of my own rhetoric in here, but one point I want to get across about Spinning is that I wouldn't have all these thoughts if this book didn't strike a chord with me. And there's a whole lot more than ice skating packed in here. Walden delicately and skillfully explores coming out as gay; navigating romantic relationships, one-sided friendships, and truly horrific bullies; and grappling with trauma. It doesn't sound uplifting, but the way Walden writes, you can't put the book down—there's a kind of underlying hope in the story, I think because Walden's own perception of her childhood self as closed-off and in pain belies her own ability to become an immensely creative, starkly honest, and mind-bogglingly accomplished graphic novelist by just age 28. That spark isn't something that comes out of nowhere, and I think the book is discreetly aware of that.
OK—now I want to discuss Walden's writing style and art. With regards to writing, Walden mentions in her author's note that she focused less on writing a rigid narrative of her childhood and more on capturing the feelings she experienced. And that is such a brilliant way to frame a memoir, because rather than getting bogged down in the dense details and winding plot that real life brings, Walden gives herself the liberty to spend as much or as little time on details as is necessary, to jump from one moment right into the next based on emotional rather than temporal logic, even to spend "repetitive" time in her real life story doling out other details the reader was unaware of and thus creating time well spent in the narrative.
And as for art, Walden is as absolutely talented as ever. The back flap of this book mentions that she loves architecture, and I find that fascinating, because one thing finally striking me as a trend in her art is the combination of organic, curving forms (people, clouds, etc.) and rigid, constructed ones (beams of light, buildings, and the like). Walden uses color perfectly—this book, unlike her others, is monochrome, using an aforementioned palette of indigo (almost black) that captures the dull, repressed emotions of her childhood. But it's punctuated by instances of bright yellow that contrast in ways that are sometimes joyous, and sometimes just acutely uncomfortable (like a blinding spotlight shining into one's eyes). Walden's character style is wonderful as well—although it is occasionally hard to distinguish characters, their expressive faces immediately pull you into the story. Walden has definitely earned her place as such a beloved and important cartoonist in today's world.
Tillie Walden is probably my favorite graphic novelist at this point, and for good reason. Her graphic novels are deeply original, perfectly plotted, endlessly gripping, and immensely self-aware about the pain and hope contained in this world. And Spinning, while not the same style as the other two I've read by her, is still an incredibly powerful story. This book captures the pitfalls of childhood sports so well that I couldn't help explicating about it above, and it captures Walden's difficult journey before her successful career so well that I'd rather leave it for you to experience mostly anew. If you're looking for a powerful YA memoir, or you already love Walden's books and haven't yet read this one, now is the time to try Spinning!
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 2!