MMGM and #IMWAYR: Living with Viola, Good Talk, and more!
Hey y'all! This weekend, I had the chance to see Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, the sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse from five years ago. The new movie is pretty much as flawless as movies come, with a thoughtful plot, compelling characters, gorgeous and creative animation, insights about race, and so much more. It ends on a cliffhanger, but I'm honestly just excited for the follow-up in March 2024 because I have so much faith in the creators to do the ending justice!
As far as reading goes, it was an enjoyable if slow week! I took my time working through Good Talk, although my pace definitely increased as I got more immersed in Mira Jacob's story. Then I raced through Living with Viola in two days, which meant I have a breezy post of two graphic novels to share today. Let's dive in!
Living with Viola
This story has a really kind heart, and it helps fill a really important niche in the graphic novel world when it comes to mental health!
I really appreciate this story's depiction of Livy's anxiety, personified in the form of Viola. As someone with anxiety myself, I really related to the intensity of Livy's self-deprecating thoughts—I suspect some readers will think they're unrealistic, but trust me, I too call myself some really cruel names almost instinctively when my anxiety is running the show up in my noggin.
I also really loved how this story incorporates realistic coping tools for anxiety. Livy effectively distracts herself from her anxiety through cooking, drawing, or reading—but as her worries intensify, they start to pop up even in those settings too. (Also something I relate to—music used to be a worry-free zone for me, until it wasn't, though I still love it so.)
And there's really powerful intersectionality when it comes to Livy's anxiety and her identity as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. We see how acts of aggression toward Livy or her family start to replay in Livy's own internal monologue, and we see how cultural stigma against mental health impacts Livy's ability to seek help.
I do appreciate how Livy's anxiety being depicted as a separate character, rather than her own thoughts, emphasizes how Livy truly is not in control of it. At the same time, the weird dichotomy of anxiety is that it both is and is not your own thought—you can't control it, but it also flows within your own internal monologue, rather than feeling external to you, and this book misses some of that internalization. To be fair, I have no earthly clue how you would capture both sides of that dichotomy through an intuitive visual language!
Living with Viola definitely tackles some heavy topics, but Livy's artistic imagination (unicorns! dumplings with faces!), zest for life, and newfound friends keep the story moving along at a breezy clip, which I appreciated. In terms of characters, I loved Livy's friend Charlotte, a studious kid (largely due to family pressure) who might not get her time in the limelight in other stories. I did also get a kick out of Livy's compassionate school teacher who peppers her class sessions with silly puns.
Rosena Fung's art is energetic and dynamic—the page layouts may be a little too busy for some readers, but many others won't mind, especially with the legible and frequent dialogue to keep things anchored. The color scheme strikes a balance between being warm and sweltering, rich and gloomy—it captures both Livy's excitable demeanor and the oppressive, consuming nature of her anxiety. I did love the frequent whimsical full-page illustrations.
I will say, I did feel like the plotting could have been polished more. The emotional beats are pretty much all there, and the most essential ones go without a hitch, but a couple others land a bit awkwardly. The story occasionally gets caught up in excitement and could maybe use a second to pause and process.
Despite that quibble, there really is a dearth of books tackling anxiety to begin with, much less graphic novels. And you bet I'm glad to see a book like Living with Viola that shows up with a thoughtful and realistic depiction of anxiety, a protagonist with meaningful interests, an intriguing art style, and classic MG energy! This book charts important ground, and I'm really grateful to have finally read it.
A Memoir in Conversations
If my review of this book is short, it's only because I'm drained of energy, not because this isn't the greatest thing ever, which it is.
We are all indebted to Mira Jacob for baring her soul—and baring the world—to us in this skillfully crafted, cutting, compassionate, and readable graphic novel.
This is a book of raising a mixed-race son in a country where Trump was president—raising a son who is asking questions, because every kid knows more than we think they do. This is a book of facing "micro"-aggressions—the ones that make White readers like me clutch their pearls and blithely say, "But you should never have to hear things like that!"—every single day. This is a book of emotions from living in NYC during 9/11, or watching a mixed-race man become the president of the United States, or watching your dad fight cancer. This is a book of fighting with, and loving, a White husband as an Indian woman. This is a book of facing "micro"-aggressions every single day. This is a book of enduring colorism from your own family. This is a book of growing up, and dating, and finding yourself, and how those things are hard in different ways, and in the same ways. This is a book of learning to look through the haunted eyes of the people who look, at a glance, like the same old perpetrators of the problem—and maybe they are, but that doesn't mean they haven't felt hurt of their own. This is a book of facing aggression every single day. And this is a book of learning where hope is hidden, for safe-keeping.
This is one of those adult books where literally everything is perfectly arranged and executed and it's all acclaimed and it's like, "Well, yeah, it is, because it's flawless." And Jacob writes this book with such a keen sense of humor—you will laugh, and you'll feel uncomfortable for laughing, and that's for the better, because you'll feel something.
Also, the craft choices in this book are genius. Like having the characters' facial expressions never change from scene to scene, a reminder that they are memories, a reconstruction of events that cannot be perfectly recalled. And also a reminder of the masks that people of color wear every day—that they wear even in their most vulnerable moments, just to survive.
Another great craft choice—the way named characters repeat in the background as extras, a reminder of how people's behaviors and mindsets can mirror each other, and how tracking that becomes almost a full-time job when you're trying to figure out what things people might say to target you, and why. And also how tempting it is to generalize and say one person is just like another.
And frequently layering all this on top of real-life photographs, rather than illustrated backgrounds, makes it impossible to forget that this isn't some picture-perfect luminous ideal world. This is reality.
I'd say this book is now on your reading list by decree of mine.
At this moment, I'm thinking about my very great fear regarding the laws being passed to target the transgender community here in the United States. I know countless states are passing laws making medically necessary care completely illegal for minors, like Texas's just-passed SB 14, and it is agonizing to think of the people I know and the countless people I don't know who will be directly or indirectly affected by these laws.
And however slim the chance that our current U.S. Supreme Court strikes these laws down, it still seems less slim than the chance that these states successfully elect new politicians who repeal the laws, since (a) I don't think much of the population cares and (b) gerrymandering means we can barely elect our own state politicians if we try. (Our democracy seems to be a bit figurative right now.)
I hope you are familiar with The Trevor Project, a truly spectacular organization that supports LGBTQ+ youth. They offer 24/7 crisis services via call, text, and online chat, additional services to provide youth with meaningful community, a brilliant knowledge base of resources, and powerful research and advocacy work. If youth who need support are reading this, I promise that you are not alone, and The Trevor Project is a wonderful resource. And if adults are reading this, please consider donating or volunteering with this one-of-a-kind group.
And I'm going to remind all of you to think deeply about who you are voting for in the elections over the next year and a half, keeping in mind that many candidates have actively chosen to align themselves with hateful ideology. I say this not to be divisive, but to welcome everyone into the world of standing up for communities that need our help.
Thank you for listening—it is appreciated.