Dasha’s Year Without Her Mom: A Review

A Year Without Mom

Dasha Tolstikova

Groundwood Books, 2015

The Story: Dasha is twelve years old, and lives in Moscow with her mom and her grandparents. Dasha’s mother gets into graduate school in America, which results in Dasha being left behind in Russia with her grandparents for a year. The graphic novel follows the highs and lows of Dasha’s year without her mom, in which she largely takes care of herself and must learn to live with the constant sadness of being separated from her mother.

What Wallace and I Think: This is illustrator Tolstikova’s first book, and is a memoir of a year in Tolstikova’s childhood. The graphic novel does not follow a standard narrative structure, but instead reads somewhat like Dasha’s journal detailing the significant incidents that happened the year her mother was away. There is a child-like quality to the style of Tolstikova’s illustrations, which lends to the feel that it is twelve-year-old Dasha describing this year to the reader.

I found the character of Dasha extremely appealing. She is strong in her sadness, self-reliant, and creative. Apart from her mother leaving, there are several events which are emotionally taxing for Dasha: she develops her first crush on an older boy who is already dating an impossibly sophisticated and cool girl (she wears black nail polish AND smokes in the school hallways! How is Dasha supposed to compete with that?!); she is ignored by her two best friends due to their jealousy over Dasha being placed in an advanced math class; she decides to apply to a better school, and undertakes the application process (studying for the exams, taking the exams, developing her extracurricular resume) without any help from her grandparents (indeed she doesn’t even think to tell her grandparents what she is undertaking); and she must navigate a visit from her absentee father. Dasha traverses these landmines largely all on her own, not because there is no one to help her, but because she is so self-reliant she doesn’t think to ask for help (both her strength and weakness). She is a strong character, and though there are blacked out pages with the words “Dark Days,” and sometimes Dasha only has the energy and strength to hide in her bed, she is never defeated and shows her strength in being able to continue on in the midst of sadness.

Dasha’s family is equally as engaging, and presents strong female characters. I found it inspiring to have a mother character who follows her dreams. Though Dasha is sad to be separated from her mother for a year, she does not begrudge her mom’s attempt to pursue her passions. Likewise, her mother does all she can to stay present in Dasha’s life when away, and after her year away, decides she cannot be separated from her daughter any longer and takes Dasha back to American with her. Dasha’s grandmother is another interesting character: she’s a writer who takes Dasha to writers’ retreats; she has cool journalist, writer, artist and intellectual friends that live all over the world; and she encourages Dasha’s creativity by putting her in art classes. When Dasha finally opens up to her grandmother about her impossible first-love, her grandmother does not belittle her feelings (by saying something like, oh it’s just puppy love, you’ll get over it) but takes Dasha’s experience seriously and offers comfort.

Though this book is marketed as young adult, I think the graphic novel would be enjoyed by readers in elementary school as well. The graphic novel is beautiful and offers a narrative style and story that is refreshing so that, like so many good children’s and YA books, I believe it could be read and enjoyed by a vast age range.

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Moose Justice! A Review of Moose by Max De Radiguès

Moose

Max De Radiguès

Published by Conundrum International, 2015

Disclaimer: this graphic novel depicts graphic physical and sexual violence. Please consult your guardians before reading this book.

The Story: Joe is being relentlessly bullied, both psychically and psychological, at school by Jason. It is in the natural world that Joe finds some peace and comfort, but when Jason bombards Joe’s one place of safety, a chance event leads to a shift in the boys’ power dynamics and leaves Joe with a difficult moral dilemma which will have you questioning not only the choice Joe makes, but the choice you would in his shoes.

What Wallace and I Think: Moose was originally written in French and appeared as mini-comics that were eventually published as a collection. De Radiguès translated Moose into English, and the English version was very recently published by the Canadian publisher, Conundrum.

De Radiguès’s comic is drawn simply with black and white images. It feels like a quiet story, as there is little text, and often there are full pages with no text at all. The scenes in which Joe is bullied by Jason are filled with the verbal and psychological abuse that Jason spews. But when Joe is alone, often immediately following these bullying scenes, the reader instead is shown how Joe is coping visually. Indeed, we rarely read any dialogue that is spoken by Joe, and when he does, often the speech bubbles and text are drawn “wobbly” to indicate the difficulty Joe has speaking for himself (and by extent standing up for himself, for this has dangerous consequences).

Though the comic is drawn simply with clean lines, De Radiguès details the bullying Joe faces in a way that, at least for me, brings a complex emotional rise out of the reader. The injustice, unfairness, and out-right cruelty of Jason to Joe is the focal point for much of the story, making the reader side completely with Joe, as there isn’t any sympathetic explanation for why Jason acts the way he does. Making Joe so sympathetic, and Jason so completely unsympathetic, indeed a hateful character, is part of the complexity of the graphic novel, for it makes the moral dilemma in the latter half of the book all the more complicated. Making Joe such a victim and Jason such a villain is a trap! And I fell right in! For me, without giving anything away, the novel’s climax and end led me to interrogate the hatred I felt towards Jason (that had me wishing he could experience some of his own medicine), and whether Jason’s fate is justified by his treatment of Joe (for I was wishing something horrible would happen to Jason through most of the book), and of course led me to wonder what decision I would make in Joe’s position, and the moral implications of what my decision would be.

Moose is a fast read (took me about half an hour) but it made me reflect long after I had finished reading it. I felt uncomfortable with what I discovered about myself during these reflections. As someone who tries to live by the creed of “Do No Harm,” and bell hook’s call to choose love, because doing so is a revolution, I was shocked at the vehemence of hateful and violent thoughts I had towards Jason. But I think this is exactly what the graphic novel is designed to do. It is the graphic novel’s ability to haunt you after reading that makes this something young adults and adults should read. If you are in school, and dealing with situations similar to Joe’s, it may open up an interesting space to interrogate your own feelings and position. This graphic novel is powerful not only due to the story it tells, but in its implicating gaze outwards towards the reader.

And there’s a Moose. So, read it peeps!

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