MMGM and #IMWAYR: Break and Solitaire!
So I got COVID for the first time, which I'm not really thrilled about, I must say. My case is fairly mild, although there have definitely been ups and downs. I got on Paxlovid as fast as humanly possible, and I assume it's helping, since I trust empirical research and all that. Thanks to my mom's suggestion, warm honey water has been my best friend—the heat melts all the stupid post-nasal drip in my throat, and the honey coats and soothes all the sore spots and also adds some nice sweetness. (Why don't I eat honey more often? It's really tasty.) My mom has also been reminding me to drink things that aren't honey water so I don't lose all my electrolytes—thank gosh for my mom, y'all.
Anyway, while my social life is entirely virtual and my body is a vessel for parasitic little demons, I figure I might as well pull my reading life together! Right before my illness, my boyfriend and I went on a lovely reading date that got me back into Solitaire, and then sitting around being sick gave me time to finish Solitaire and read through Break.
So no more dillydallying—let's talk about these books!
Heads-up, there are no spoilers of the (many) previous books in the Click series in my review!
I'm in awe of Kayla Miller not just for their ability to write absurdly high-quality graphic novels absurdly fast, but also for their ability to keep following the same delightful character, Olive, while coming up with all kinds of new and creative situations and themes to explore in each book. Where the fifth book in the series, Crunch, was about balancing commitments to extracurriculars and activities, I'd say this sixth book is about balancing commitments to friends and family—especially when some of those relationships are strained.
Olive is a fairly upbeat kid, always trying to make the most of school or time with her friends. But Break brings us a little deeper into the psyche of this character we all know and love. Where Olive's absent dad was simply an unstated fact of the previous books, here, he is a main character (with a name, Clark) and a source of emotions for Olive, who isn't ready to let him back in so easily after he spent so much time apart from her and her brother, Simon (aka Goober). Clark is trying to do better by his kids, Simon is caught up in the excitement and frustrated that Olive isn't ready to reconcile, and Olive is trying to avoid them both and spend time with other friends as much as possible. It's a messy and realistic dynamic, and Miller traces it out with care, showing empathy to the perspective of every character in the situation—especially Olive, who has real and valid reasons to be upset in this situation. I appreciate that Break also shows the possibility of repair and growth in this situation, even if that may be a long path for these characters to walk.
Olive is spending spring break with her dad in the city, and with her new social media-enabled cell phone, that introduces another dynamic—the fear of missing out on everything her friends are doing back home. I'm both thrilled and a touch frightened by how much I, a grad student, relate to Olive, a sixth grader, on this topic—I see so much of myself in the little wounds Olive feels when she sees a movie night she couldn't be part of, or video-calls her friends but can't join them for mac-and-cheese or looking through a telescope. Sometimes knowing what the people you care about are doing when you're not there hurts a little bit, and that's true at any age. But as Break makes clear, finding ways to enjoy time spent apart, rather than feeling dependent on x or y or z person to feel happy, is the key to pushing past FOMO and maintaining healthy relationships. (Says someone who hasn't mastered that art at all—these books are so lighthearted and sweet and then peer into the deepest wounds of my soul.)
I don't have to convince anyone reading this of the value of children's books, but I do think there are many people in the world who would look at all my kidlit reading and wonder how I don't get bored reading stories that are more predictable and less nuanced than adult stories. But the thing is, only bad children's books are more predictable and less nuanced, and Break is most decidedly a good children's book, filled with clever plotting decisions I totally didn't see coming. For example, Olive finds empathy in her family struggles from an unexpected source—you'd never see it coming, but in hindsight, it makes so much sense, you want to scream and then send Kayla Miller lots of fan mail.
And then the best part of Break, like all books in the Click series, is that it's not nearly as dark as my slightly-less-than-optimal emotional state makes it sound. These books are fun, filled with vivid colors and detailed illustrations and rich settings. The city setting in Break brings with it compassionate neighbors and pie shops and art museums and visits to friends' houses. There's a big comic convention with autographs and sponsored booths and panels and a cast of extras as diverse (with regards to race, ability, sexual orientation, and more) as the main, named cast of this series. And Kayla Miller continues her tradition in the Click series of alluding to the core themes of each book through brilliant dream sequences—there are a couple in this book, but perhaps my favorite is the one that chronicles the book's plot amidst a magical medieval setting, complete with crowns and tall towers and knights and magic mirrors. Ugh, it's just so good.
I really don't think the Click series gets enough credit for how phenomenal it is. Book series are an art in and of themselves, and Kayla Miller has created an entire universe of delightful details and real human issues, all centered around a protagonist who is simultaneously aspirational and relatable, and always easy to love. Trust me, if you are willing to consume graphic novels, you need to put this series on your reading list—it's amazing and addictive from the first book, yet somehow, it just keeps getting better and better.
I chose to read this book after reading four volumes of Heartstopper, the absurdly popular and absurdly incredible graphic novel series that is actually a giant spin-off of this prose novel right here. Solitaire is the story of Tori Spring, the older sister of Charlie who pretty much bends space and time to her will in Heartstopper in order to protect her brother. I knew I loved Tori pretty much immediately, and I'm glad I finally pulled myself together enough to read her story in this book—it's a truly spectacular story.
Solitaire is about the beauty and strength within a girl who feels like shit all the time, and the people in her life she slowly, slowly opens up to. There will be people who will read Solitaire and think Tori is obnoxiously, unrealistically sad and cynical—but actually, Tori is delightfully, realistically, and relatably sad and cynical. She is so convinced of her own worthlessness that it's actually easier for us readers to bear, because she's matter-of-fact about it. But at the same time, it's so obvious that Tori isn't worthless. She loves fiercely even when she really doesn't want to, she is perceptive beyond belief and feels deeply, and she is resilient, even if that just means she's still alive. Listening to Tori narrate this book in first-person is like hearing all the tired, vulnerable thoughts in your own head coalesce into something meaningful that makes sense. I want to be Tori's friend.
The other characters in Tori's world shimmer with life too. There's Michael Holden, gregarious and a bit startling, whose traits mirror and/or contrast with Tori's in ways that make the story move. There's Becky, a friend who Tori is rapidly growing apart from yet who contains a few surprises of her own. And Nick and Charlie from Heartstopper play fairly large roles in Tori's life as well, although I'll warn you, this book gives away details from the first four books of Heartstopper and is much darker than Heartstopper (although really, the way the joys and pain of life coexist in Solitaire is quite similar to Heartstopper, in my opinion). And everything takes place in a world that, although Tori probably wouldn't call it such, is scenic and rich.
I want you to hear directly from Tori, because she's the reason this book works. So here are a few of my favorite quotes from the book:
"My name is Victoria Spring. I think you should know that I make up a lot of stuff in my head and then get sad about it. I like to sleep and I like to blog. I am going to die someday." (p. 3)
"So I open my eyes and wander around the Internet to take my mind off it all, and, once I feel relatively okay again, I fall asleep with the glare of my blog home page warming my face and the hum of my laptop soothing my mind like crickets at a campfire." (p. 43)
"Tonight I watch the Keira Knightley Pride & Prejudice and find it to be almost as dreadful as the book. The only tolerable character is Mr. Darcy. I don't see why Elizabeth finds him proud at the beginning because it's quite clearly obvious that he's just shy. Any normal human being should be able to identify that as shyness and feel sorry for the poor guy because he's dreadful at parties and social gatherings. It's not really his fault. It's just the way he is." (p. 66-67)
"I put The Breakfast Club on, but I'm not really watching so I skip to the best part, the part where they're all sitting in a circle and they reveal those deep and personal things and they cry and all that. I watch that scene three times and then turn it off." (p. 67)
It's wild to think that Alice Oseman published this book at age 20, but also, I think only a young person could capture the kind of existential angst that comes with being young. I like to dabble in the art of being in shambles from time to time, and watching Tori exist reminds me that even when we're struggling so hard, and we feel like we're at our worst, we're also at our best. There is always so, so much to love about who we are. And there is so, so much to love about Tori Spring.