MMGM and #IMWAYR: A-Okay, Twins, and more!
Y'all may know that I love the show Steven Universe, and one of the show's soundtrack composers, aivi, has a solo EP called tiger & water that I've been listening to—and I'm completely obsessed with it! I especially recommend track 3, "Undercurrent," which has a guest vocalist and is just brilliant.
Now for books! I'm excited to recommend a pair of MG graphic novels today—let's dive in!
I really enjoyed this graphic novel, which pairs a keen exploration of middle-school life with a look at some issues not often explored in MG books!
Sometimes, it feels like I read MG books as a way of healing my own middle-school-shaped wounds—there's something cathartic about reading stories filled with the joy and kindness that I'm not positive is the dominant emotion of those years. And I'm happy to say that A-Okay has a good heart, and brings that same kind of compassion and warmth that I love in MG graphic novels!
Part of why I loved this book so much is Jay himself. Jarad Greene draws from his own experiences, albeit in a fictional narrative, to create Jay, who reminds me a bit of Olive from the Click series in his ability to show kindness to so many different kids even while pushing through his own struggles. Jay has to learn to navigate fractured old friendships while forming sometimes-messy new ones, but interests like his passion for art serve as a bit of a north star for him through these tricky times. I also love that things like Jay's shyness, or his style in art class (which is perhaps more lighthearted and less "cool" than what norms might demand) are ultimately accepted as a part of his character, even as he grapples with some realistic anxiety about them.
I loved the LGBTQ+ representation in this story too—I feel like a lot of graphic novels that tackle the drama of middle school like to draw a big map of interlocking boy-girl crushes, while completely ignoring the fact that so many students' experiences fit outside that structure. (I will briefly note a favorite graphic novel that does account for this, which is Drama by Raina Telgemeier! How have I never reviewed that book...) Anyway, I was so excited to see A-Okay explicitly explore asexuality within the context of all these relationship dynamics—especially there is a genuine pittance of ace rep in any kidlit, much less MG. And besides asexuality, this book also includes same-gender crushes, helping create a fuller picture of what early relationships in middle school look like.
Speaking of relationships, I think there's this implicit (and ridiculous) assumption in life that if you tell your crush you like them and they don't like you back, they will hate you forever (I guess for you daring to burden them with your attraction or something) and your relationship will be ruined. And I love that A-Okay dares to question this notion by asking: if you're comfortable with the idea that someone's attracted to you, and you're willing to honestly express that you're not attracted in return, does it truly have to be the end of the friendship?
Honestly, I can think of even more smart things this book has to say about MG crushes, but I won't give everything away upfront!
The big-ticket issue this book advertises is acne. And Jay's acne is certainly no joke—amidst growing insecurities and an unpleasant share of teasing and bullying, Jay ends up on the wonderful (not) medication Accutane, which brings all kinds of wild side effects in its quest to clear his skin. I've never seen any books talk about the experience of acne, and the specific details will definitely be normalizing for so many readers. But more than that, what I was drawn to was how Jay's experience with acne affects his self-image. It's hard enough to be shy in middle school and not want anyone to look at you, and feeling like your face is literally screaming out for negative attention only makes this a million times harder for Jay. And having read the author's note by Jarad Greene, I also want to call attention to how this book normalizes being concerned about one's own appearance, rather than shaming people like Jay for not achieving the impossible double standard of looking "flawless" (whatever that means) and doing it without thought or effort.
In terms of craft, I love how sharp the dialogue in this story is—it feels like how people actually talk, which is definitely not always a guarantee in books! I do think the plotting is a little messy in places, with some events that don't lead to payoff or that aren't resolved in a meaningful way. But the art is fabulous—it's crisp, colorful, and realistic, and the two-page spreads that start off each chapter do such a great job using little visual details to bring life to the story. I also love one particular spread showing Jay's room in detail, and conveying interests of his (like Nintendo characters) entirely through visuals. And speaking of art, the cover art being set amidst an expanse of white is such a creative choice—I love how it looks, and the ways in which it resonates with the story's themes (in terms of the perfection of the white vs. the unachievable perfection of beauty standards) is intriguing as well.
Overall, I'm happy I finally took the time to read this story—A-Okay explores experiences not often discussed in MG books, depicts middle school life with respect and sharpness, and brings smart craft choices to the table too, resulting in a snappy and thoughtful MG graphic novel that I think will mean a lot to young readers!
This was so good! Seriously, why do I let all these books linger on my shelves for years—I should have read this ages ago!
There's a ton to love about Twins, not the least of which is its exploration of, well...being twins. Author Varian Johnson draws from his own experience as an identical twin to craft the dynamic between Maureen (our protagonist) and her identical twin Francine (or Fran, the name she is testing out). I think for a lot of us, we're so used to feeling lonely that the idea of having a twin is really fun—it's like having a guaranteed best friend! Except...it's not. Twins carefully and thoughtfully shows the frustrations of how identical twins get treated in the world. Differences between Maureen and Fran either get ignored entirely, so that the two kids can be lumped into a singular whole, or get acknowledged with the implicit expectation that the other girl needs to live up to the "standard" the first is setting. Being sixth graders, the two girls are still practicing their perspective-taking, so as Maureen stresses about being in Fran's spotlight socially and now having to fend for herself, she also learns that perhaps Fran is struggling to measure up to Maureen too.
I also really appreciate how willing this story is to show the messiness of life. It might be genuinely impossible to have productive fights in middle school, and Maureen and Fran have certainly endured a lot of crap in their quests to be who they are today. So things aren't exactly rainbows and butterflies between them—there's one brilliantly crafted scene showing Maureen's thought process as she intends to tell Fran something important, but procrastinates and procrastinates until things get chaotic. This book isn't always as uplifting as some MG graphic novels, but I think it does a better job than most understanding the ways that middle school genuinely hurts, while also balancing that with enough sweetness and energy to keep you plowing through the pages.
And then there's student council. And as I've said before, I really don't know if there's a more effective or more socially acceptable way to utterly demolish human relationships than running for student council—I feel like we need to rethink if this is actually healthy for kids. But it's certainly fertile storytelling ground for exploring these characters, as they learn to present themselves to the world, fight for their right to be heard, and overcome the boxes people put them in.
It helps that Maureen and Fran have some pretty great support networks in Twins. I love how nuanced the girls' parents are—they make decisions ranging from terrible to great, but you can see their thought process throughout, an important reminder that parents are imperfect and just trying to figure things out too. The girls also have a wonderful adult half-brother named Curtis who helps save the day in moments of need—and among their friend group, I also think we need a major shout-out to Monique, described as the "fifth gear" that keeps the group of five functioning. And realistically, even amidst the chaos, Maureen and Fran's own relationship doesn't vanish, as frustrated as they are with each other—that support is perhaps the most important of all in this story.
I also want to take a moment to discuss representation. Johnson discusses on his website how his own kids, who are graphic novel fans, had trouble finding graphic novels about Black kids like them. And from my experience as a relatively prolific graphic novel reader, I can say that what little racial diversity does exist in this space is heavily skewed away from Black protagonists written by Black creators, to a truly alarming degree. Johnson writes that "Black kids deserve to see themselves as the stars of the story, and it’s just as important for other readers to see Black kids as the stars of the story as well"—and until this massive hole in representation becomes more full over time, Twins is one of the precious few stories meeting this important need.
I also shouldn't forget to mention that Shannon Wright has done an amazing job with the art in this story—it's clear and expressive, with a couple illustrations that stop you in your tracks with emotion and impact too.
It was interesting to read this after A-Okay above, because where that book feels like an immensely well-crafted look of what MG life looks like from the outside, with relatively minimal narration of characters' inner worlds, Twins feels like a brilliant look at what MG life looks like from the inside, with psychologically rich characters and smart use of narration to bring Maureen's inner world to life. While this book fits nicely into the realm of MG graphic novels, its depth and craft set it apart, making this graphic novel in particular one to watch out for if you're looking for a smart and meaningful story!