MMGM and #IMWAYR: Real Friends, Don't Go Without Me, Understanding Comics, and more!
Happy Father's Day and Juneteenth to y'all!
I feel like I've lived seventeen lifetimes this past week—not necessarily in a bad way, just in a "whoa" way. There was household chaos, professional development, extracurriculars, even writing if-then statements to use in a statistical analysis program for school.
There was also a trip to the movies to see Kiki's Delivery Service (from Studio Ghibli), which is so completely beautiful and tells a warm, gentle story of a girl with a zest for life and magical powers who faces the lonesome tests and challenges of independence.
And amidst all of it, somehow I crammed in graphic novels more quickly than I've maybe ever done before. It was crazy, y'all—and I had so much fun! So let me bring these books to your attention forthwith!
(Sidenote—non-graphic novel fans, I suggest you jump down to my review of Understanding Comics!)
I'm really glad I finally read this graphic novel, which has been waiting on my shelves for who knows how long!
This book is an adaptation of a short story by the author Thomas King, also called "Borders," that was published all the way back in 1993. As far as I can tell, the words are identical in this story, but the visuals are of course brand-new.
Because this book is based on a short story, it does zip by pretty fast, but there's definitely depth layered into Borders. This book shows us a woman who is resolved to avoid the microaggression, the indignity, of identifying with a country that is not her country, no matter what legal claim it may lay over her. And this book asks us to consider how far we might go too, in these small, everyday acts of protest that ultimately have big outcomes.
The mother in Borders is an incredibly complex character, and Natasha Donovan's art brings out even more depth in her. We can see her determination but also her fear—of losing her heritage? Of losing her daughter to another country? Of doing the wrong thing in her fight for justice? Maybe all three.
King's story is clearly written from a child's perspective (in this case, the mother's unnamed younger son), so we see the scenario from an entirely different viewpoint than that which our cynical, theme-obsessed minds are tempted with. (As we're panicking about the mother's choices, the son is preoccupied with whether or not his hopes of stopping at a restaurant will be realized.)
I did find Donovan's art to sometimes be a bit more sincere than King's writing, which seemed to have its own slightly cynical touch, but perhaps this is a feature and not a bug—it forces you to imagine a world where change is possible, people are doing their best, and the characters are fully realized.
And I will say, Donovan's art is just gorgeous—the vibrant colors and fluid style bring this story to life in a way the short story alone could never do. I became familiar with her work after reading the picture book Classified for the Cybils, and I'm grateful to see her do her thing here too.
Ultimately, I've never seen another book like this book. Both because the number of books by indigenous creators about indigenous people is startlingly few, and because short stories are so rarely expanded into their own full universes, like they are here, using the power of art.
This is a short but well-crafted read with a powerful message—and just as much of a reminder to forget the message, and enjoy the ride.
Well, gosh, I can see why this graphic memoir trilogy is so popular! Based on author Shannon Hale's childhood and illustrated by LeUyen Pham (whose picture book Outside, Inside is amazing), this first book in the series is kindhearted, reassuring, imaginative, and carefully crafted.
One of the things I knew (and loved) about Shannon Hale before reading this book is that she is an outspoken advocate against telling boys not to read "girl books," not only because that obviously says something about the value of girls' perspectives, but also because it prevents boys from being able to naturally enjoy things that are sensitive, or "feminine." (As a boy who's read a zillion and a half "girl books," I can't express how much I agree with her!)
And so it was delightful to learn a few things about child Shannon from this book. One is that Shannon is sensitive—this book has such a keen understanding that, as much as we tell kids to brush things off or toughen up, every mean word a child hears feels like a suckerpunch when that child is too young to know their own value, or their own identity. This book is an unabashed ode to a child who sometimes cries and worries—and that is so beautiful.
And yet, I think it's obvious seeing Hale's adult self writing all this—as well as seeing child Shannon pushing through and surviving life day to day—that there's more to this character/person than what meets the eye. I think that is best expressed through Shannon's imagination in the story, rendered in delightfully stylized sequences throughout the story by Pham (sort of like in the graphic novel Just Pretend, although the execution is better here). Shannon has a fondness for pretty much any kind of adventure, from mysterious fairy magic to high-stakes espionage and kick*ssery, and I love how her imagination gets the respect it deserves, as perhaps her most important asset as a writer today.
Now, Real Friends does make clear that childhood can be its own micro-trauma from start to finish, and I'd say Shannon's relationship with her older sister Wendy, who goes beyond sibling bickering and essentially terrorizes Shannon, definitely exemplifies that. (And the laissez-faire parenting of this era does things no favors.) I appreciate the acknowledgement of how home life can bring as many challenges as school life—and I also appreciate the story's willingness (and Hale's real-life willingness) to explore Wendy further, rather than writing her off as a villain.
As someone with OCD, I also loved the subtle representation of that condition in this book! I'd love to see that expanded on in books two and three, but even so, I'm sure that helped me relate to Shannon too.
Ultimately, the powerful message this book brings to kids is that none of us—none—are destined or meant to be alone. And no matter how demonic kids can be, or how complicated elementary school social dynamics can get—every kid brings something to the table that will draw other kids to their side. (Including kids one might not expect!)
Real Friends so clearly comes straight from the hearts of Hale and Pham—and its compassion and warmth help it shine amidst a large crowd of MG graphic memoirs. This book welcomes in any reader, and I just might overstay my welcome into books two and three of the series!
Over the Garden Wall
Tome of the Unknown
(Another sidenote—this isn't middle grade per se, as it's more of a comic book, but since it's MG-appropriate, I'm putting it here.)
Y'all do not even know how long this book has lingered on my shelves.
A bit of backstory: there is a phenomenal—phenomenal—two-hour animated miniseries called Over the Garden Wall, which aired on Cartoon Network almost 10 years ago now and is streaming on Max. The show is split into ten short episodes (eleven minutes each) that follow brothers Wirt and Greg as they traverse and attempt to escape a folksy, surreal, and unnerving world called the Unknown. I cannot recommend the show highly enough—it has a unique style, endless depth and emotion, and plenty of levity too, not to mention the addictive songs.
I rewatched Over the Garden Wall with a friend a few weeks ago, and that prompted me to finally grab this book off my shelf and read it! This particular book, Tome of the Unknown, is a compilation (or "trade paperback") of five previously published comics written by the show's creator, Pat McHale, that fill in gaps in the show. (Sidenote: this page on Wikipedia does a good job explaining which comics fit into which trade paperbacks.)
Unsurprisingly for comics written by the creator of the show, the feel of the stories and characters is a precise match with the show. And Wikipedia informs me the miniseries was cut from eighteen episodes to ten—which, in my opinion, is great for its concision, but also leaves gaps between episodes that these comics fit seamlessly into. (Seriously—the exact moments that the comics end with are the moments we see in medias res during the show.)
The comics themselves are entertaining and intriguing. Some are amusing adventures, like with Revolutionary War-esque soldiers, or with two young girls who are terrible at giving instructions. And others are full-on character backstories that added to my understanding of the show. The emotional beats do feel a bit repetitive with the show, but I think that is a good sign that, if these were originally intended as full episodes, they were worth cutting. And as a reader now, I'd rather have repetitive emotions than emotions that conflict with the show's canon!
The back matter includes alternate covers for the comics as well as sheet music for a couple songs from the show, which is delightful!
Ultimately, this book is 100% worth a read if you've seen Over the Garden Wall. Even if it doesn't provide must-need information, it lends additional moments of fun with Wirt and Greg—and it gives a fascinating glimpse at the kinds of stories that might have been cut from the show but still influence the fabric of its world.
And if you haven't seen Over the Garden Wall, while I wouldn't read this for fear of spoilers, this is as good a reason as any to tell you to watch the show! Seriously, there are few better ways to spend two hours—I promise.
Don't Go Without Me
Whoa, this was awesome.
Almost three years ago now, I read Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, a phenomenal graphic novel whose illustrator, Rosemary Valero-O'Connell, is the author and illustrator of this book here.
As the synopsis above notes, this short yet stunning collection is broken up into three comics that are separate but echo each other.
The titular "Don't Go Without Me," whose protagonist searches for their girlfriend within an intriguing yet startling parallel dimension, full of uncanny creatures and traditions, explores how our memory of the ones we love is essential to those human connections—yet it may not be as essential as we might think.
"What Is Left," whose protagonist ends up lost in another person's memories when a memory-powered spaceship crashes, feels like a different kind of survival story—one where the desperation to stay alive gives way to the realization of the things, the people you never tried to understand when you had the chance. It's also an aching look at a kind of parasocial relationship.
My personal favorite, "Con Temor, Con Ternura," is set in a world where a giant perpetually sleeps, and no one knows when it will wake up. Amidst questions over whether the giant's potential awakening would signal salvation, damnation, or neither, one village decides not to waste the time they have left, finding true joy in their lives during one last celebration. (As a book nerd, I can't express how much I loved the small detail that some characters, faced with the potential end of the world, spend their potential last moments reading books they might otherwise not get the chance to read.)
Valero-O'Connell's craft is pretty much unmatched. The combination of vibrant and aching color schemes for each comic, abundant visual detail that tells its own stories, creative page layouts, and gorgeous prose makes for stories that say so much, in so little space. The front matter says I can share an excerpt from the book as a reviewer, so here's a screenshot from "Con Temor, Con Ternura" that might give you a sense of how gorgeous this story is:
|(Click to enlarge)|
Finally, I'll note that each comic has an ambiguous ending, but Valero-O'Connell embeds hope into the fabric of each story, so that I, as a reader, felt comfortable assuming the best.
Fans of Tillie Walden—or of beautiful comics in general—will fall in love with this story.
I will note that finding a copy of this book to buy was a little tricky, since it is from a small comics press, but I was able to buy an e-book version for about $10 through Gumroad here.
The Invisible Art
This book is utterly fascinating. And I'm hardly the first person to say this—it's highly acclaimed and came out 30 years ago—but I'm happy to be yet another person saying that this book is utterly fascinating.
As someone who obsessively consumes graphic novels (see: this entire post being all graphic novels), it seemed like, if an insightful, accessible, and entertaining exploration of the technical aspects and philosophy of comics was just going to be sitting around, waiting, then I had to go track it down and make myself even the slightest bit knowledgeable about the medium I love so much.
And not only does this book have a surprising amount of answers, but it asks some truly mind-blowing questions. McCloud comes up with a working definition of comics, explains how simplified cartoons and realistic art styles serve to evoke entirely different responses in a reader's mind, shows how comics require the reader to actively make assumptions as they traverse the gaps in space and time between panels, creates a framework for summarizing how the words and images in comics may complement or repeat each other, summarizes the creative process for all art in six steps, and also defines art. (Yes, he defines art, and it's freaking convincing, too.)
So this book is wild, and the fact that it's also fun and comprehensible, as opposed to being a lengthy academic treatise, is the most surprising thing of all. Cartoon McCloud is an endlessly and infectiously excitable narrator, and the comic-book format of this book allows for an abundance of clever visual metaphors and examples (either by McCloud or by comics creators throughout history).
You'll have to turn your brain on a bit to make sense of this book, and trust me—I am definitely going to need to re-read it one or seven more times. But even so, McCloud is, as Neil Gaiman puts it on the back of the book, a "master explainer"—he can walk readers through even the most complex philosophical debates without ever losing them.
While there are tiny little things that could have perhaps aged better since 1993 (I could personally do with a little less of the evolutionary psychology moment in chapter 7), that isn't even a remotely a reason not to read this book.
If you love comics or graphic novels or whatever you call them, then Understanding Comics is an eye-opener to their workings and their potential.
And if you don't like comics at all, then Understanding Comics just might pique your interest and show you what this medium is capable of.