Review: SuperMutant Magic Academy

SuperMutant Magic Academy (2015)

Jillian Tamaki

tumblr_ng4babIGz51qf56dmo1_1280

Warning: This graphic novel includes sexual content, has references to drug and alcohol use, and is geared towards high school students. So, if you’re not yet a high school student, please ask your guardians’ permission before reading.

The Book: SuperMutant Magic Academy is a collected anthology of some of the most popular comics from Jillian Tamaki’s comic blog of the same name (checked out mutantmagic.com here) Due to its being a collection of short, stand-alone comics, there is not a traditional narrative plot (until the last fifty or so pages), though the more you read the more you learn about the individual students.  The story is set at a boarding school, but less attention is paid to the magical mutant classes than to the students navigating their external (zits!) and inner (what does it mean to be alive!) crises. So do not expect a Harry Potter-esc book. If anything, this is a fantastic distortion of Harry Potter created expectations.

What Wallace and I Think: First, a little information on Jillian Tamaki. Not only is she Canadian, and grew up in the same city as me, but she was once the center of a debate that helped to change how we look at comic artists. The graphic novel Skim (2008) was written by Jillian’s cousin, Mariko Tamaki, and illustrated by Jillian (another school story, and it is an amazing book  you should check it out, especially if you find you like Magic Academy). Skim was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, but only Mariko Tamaki was listed in the nomination. The comic community was outraged (and rightly so). A graphic novel’s images are just as important, if not more so, as the text, and leaving Jillian out of the nomination was ignoring her important and imperative contribution to what made the graphic novel so wonderful. An open letter was circulated and sent to the Award committee, and was successful in including Jillian as a nominee.

Back to Magic Academy! This collection is weird, wacky and wonderful. The humour is dark and touches on subjects such as the students’ existential, romantic, and technological crises. Some of the jokes fall flat, but due to the short narratives of the individual comics, if one comic isn’t your taste you can quickly move along. I also wonder if some of the humour is aimed more at adults reminiscing about their teenage years, than at actual teenagers. Though, the majority of strips can be easily relatable to young and old, such as one of my favorites. During an assembly two main character have this conversation:

Marsha: When I was a little kid, I thought I’d be free when I could go to school. Then I thought I’d be free when I learned how to fly a broom. THEN I thought I’d be free when they stopped forcing us to take gym class. But then you just get use to it. And you find something else to chafe against. I guess you’re always gonna be unsatisfied with something. That is so depressing.

Wendy: Well we do graduate next semester.

Marsha: WHAT? WE GRADUATE?

Wendy: Haha! What? Did you forget?

Marsha: I guess I just figured we’d be stuck in here forever . . . (153)

The feeling of being trapped in an never ending school cycle seems easily relatable to both an adult looking back on their school experience, as well as a teen still stuck in that cycle.

However, there are others, such as when a group of girls start freaking out because Wendy has a grey hair (“OH MY GOD, pull it out!”), and their completely white-haired teacher tells them “Okay girls, that’s enough. Back to work” (100). This appears more aimed to the adult obeserving their younger selves through teenagers/children in relation to their current older status. There is also a lot of jokes surronding teachers, and students asking them if teaching is really what they wanted to do with their lives, that would hit home more with an older reader than I expect it would with a teen who has yet to really feel the pain of upset expectations.

Tamaki gives us a plethora of interesting characters who struggle through high school, and with the thought of leaving it. My favorite may be Everlasting Boy. Most of the strips centering on him show him dying and returning to the earth. He often seems sad and lonely. We discover he has been around since the beginning of time, has lived as other organisms, and has not just called earth home. Yet, he is humble about his vast experience, for example: “Everlasting Boy, do you thinking this is the best time to be alive?” “You mean, throughout the course of history?” “Yeah.” “Depends on who you ask, really.” (165).

Though I enjoyed the anthology, I found the characters so engaging I longed for more of a cohesive plot-centered narrative that would develop these interesting characters more fully. I know this is asking too much of an anthology of collected comic strips, but I found I loved the last section of the book because it offered more of a traditional narrative.

I recommend this book to high school students, as well as adults with a good sense of humour 🙂 (especially teachers) and give it a 4/5

Advertisements

Olemaun and Alice

When I Was Eight

Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

Art by Gabrielle Grimard

Published in 2013 by Annick Press

images

The Story: Olemaun, an Inuit girl, longs to go to school so she can learn to read the outsiders’ books, especially the book about Alice that her sister Rosie reads. Olemaun begs her father to take her to the outsiders’ school until he reluctantly lets her. But school is nothing like Olemuan imagined. A black-cloaked nun cuts off her long hair, strips away her warm parka, and takes away her Inuit name, and calls Olemaun instead Margaret. For weeks Margaret does nothing but chores: scrubbing the floors, washing the walls, dishes, and laundry. Margaret is no closer to being able to read, so she takes her education on herself and teaches herself to read. One day, intended to shame Margaret, a nun throws a large book towards Margaret and tells her to read, and Margaret “confidently sliced through the words without a single moment of hesitation.” Margaret feels powerful from this victory and realizes she is “Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. . . I finally knew this, like I knew many things, because now I could read.”

What Wallace and I Think: This is a picturebook about Canadian residential schools. Let that sink in. I don’t remember being taught about residential schools when I was in school. It may have been mentioned, but there wasn’t any emphasis to make it stick in my memory, and I think this was intentional. Why? Because Canada, our nation, is embarrassed, ashamed, by what was done to Indigenous children in these schools. And what do we do when we’re embarrassed about something? We don’t talk about it, because talking makes the knot in our stomach, lets others know about that thing we’re embarrassed about, that we don’t want other people to know about. It makes us, the person who is embarrassed, uncomfortable.

But those like the Fentons are telling their own stories, so that what was done is not ignored and not forgotten. The Fentons do this by writing a picturebook, to start education about this dark history young. When I Was Eight is the true story of the Margaret Fenton’s experience at residential schools, and she has dedicate the book to “the Indian Residential School survivors who haven’t yet found their voices.” And perhaps it may help those to find their voices if what happened to them wasn’t ignored, and this picturebook is a step is solving this ignorance.

So as you can probably already guess, I think this is an important picturebook that needs to be read to children. It will take many children outside their own lived experience and help to develop their empathetic sensibilities, and will give voice to many children whose own family members are still coping with what was done to them in residential schools.

I could recommend this book being read to children as young as six or seven (grade one age).

Review of Dark Companion

Dark Companion

Marta Acosta

Published by Tor Teen in 2012

51YbXv+dchL._UY250_

Disclaimer: this novel involves sexual content, as well as drug use. Please consult with your parents before reading

I’ve been working on a project about the intertextuality of Jane Eyre in 21st Century children’s and YA lit, and yesterday I finally finished reading my primary sources (hurray). The last book I read for this project was Dark Companion by Marta Acosta. This YA book started as an online novel, and was so popular with readers that it was picked up by Tor Teen and published “officially” in print and ebook format. I spent yesterday reading all 350 pages, one because I had too, and two because it was a real page turner.

The Story: Jane was orphaned at eight, and has been hopping from foster home to foster home until finally landing in a group home run by the horrid Mrs. Prichard in the rough neighbourhood of Helmsdale (called Hellsdale by the residents). After working hard in school, Jane is accepted to the prestigious Birch Grove Academy on a full scholarship. Here Jane finds a new group of friends, enjoys her classes, loves her beautiful little cottage nestled in the woods, and even develops a serious crush on the headmistress’s son, Lucien. However, Birch Wood is too good to be true, and Jane begins to question the seemingly sinister activities taking place at the school: why did the school nurse, Mrs. Mason, kill herself? Why did the former scholarship student, whose place Jane has filled, abruptly leave? Why is Lucien so obsessed with Jane’s blood? As the back cover write-up states “As Jane begins to piece together the answers to the puzzle, she must find out why she was brought to Birch Grove—and what she would risk to stay there.”

What Wallace and I think: Since the promotional quote from the Kirkus Review on the front cover says that this book “gives vampires and their victims a long-overdue makeover” (really, is it long-overdue?! Has this reviewer been living under a rock?) I am not ruining the surprise by saying the book does deal with vampires. Because of this I immediately started making comparisons to Twilight, as I’m sure anyone reading a YA book about vampires would do. Because I feel this trend is overused, I wasn’t overtly hopeful. As well, though Twilight is somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me, and I can understand why it has been so popular, I find the abusive undertones and Bella’s passive acceptance of her treatment and utter devotion to both boys highly disturbing. There is nothing about Bella’s relationship with Edward or Jacob that young readers should wish for in their own romantic lives.

So though I was cautious when starting Dark Companion I was quickly won over, and was convinced by the end that THIS is the vampire book I could get behind.

  1. I found the “modern” update of vampires in Twilight very cheesy (ie. They sparkle…what?!). Acosta’s reimaging of the vampire myth I think does a better job of bringing the legend into the modern world. Acosta’s “vampires” are not the undead, they don’t have fangs, they don’t hunt people, and they are not immortal. Instead they are humans who have an enzyme deficiency caused by a recessive genetic disorder that causes a biological desire to replace their damage DNA by drinking blood. They drink animal blood, will eat red foods and drinks to trick the cravings, and will drink human blood when available.
  2. Jane is a strong and realistic flawed character who says no. She is often confused by her feelings for Lucien (of course she is, otherwise there wouldn’t be any drama), and it at times boarders into dangerous Bella and Edward like territory. But Jane ultimately is in control of her body and decides what she wants. Jane understands pain is not love, and says no. Jane saying no, and whoever she says no too stopping whatever they are doing when she says it, is important.
  3. I remember feeling uncomfortable and sad when watching the third Twilight The night before Bella’s wedding she is alone in her room, with only a quick goodnight from her dad, and Edward is out for a “stag” with his friends. It made me think back to my own “night-before-the-wedding” surrounded by my family and my best girlfriends. I felt supported and loved. My wedding day didn’t feel like just a celebration of mine and my husband’s love for one another, but of the love we shared with our whole community of family and friends. Bella didn’t have that because she isolated herself from her family and friends through her complete obsession with Edward. Jane connects with three girls in the novel, and grows close to them, leans on them, and is still standing with them at the end. Along with Jane’s saying no, Jane’s having true friends and not letting herself become completely sidetracked by a boy, I found refreshing.
  4. Acosta’s novel patriciates in Victorian gothic conventions, which I think she does well. I love that she opens each chapter with a quote from the very best gothic writers and works of the Victorian era like Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood; Bram Stokers’ Dracula (obviously); Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia”; and John William Polidor “The Vampyre”. I appreciated this because it set the tone throughout the novel, and, as I always hope, could peak the interest of young readers to check out these texts for themselves. As well the novel is a reimagining of Jane Eyre in an imaginative and surprising way that I greatly enjoyed.

I give this novel a 4/5

Tom and Hetty’s School Stories

In the past week and a half I’ve read eight school stories from the Victorian and Edwardian eras for my comprehensive exam. Below are reviews of my favorite two.

Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes (1857)

This novel holds a special place in the history of children’s literature because it is the first boys’ school story written for children. After the publication of Tom Brown the genre of boys’ school stories was extremely popular from the Victorian period into the 1950s.

There was a revival of this genre, though not specially for boys, with the publication of Harry Potter. Many have argued that Harry Potter participates in Victorian boarding school story conventions. Proof of this argument can be found in Tom Brown as I noticed several similarities between the two. In many ways Tom Brown feels like the great-great-great grandfather of Harry Potter. The way the school is described reminded me of Hogwarts ( for example the School-house hall: “It is a great room thirty feet long and eigtheen high, with two great tables running the whole length, and two large fireplaces at the side, with blazing fires in them” [92]). The three best friends in Tom Brown was also familiar. Tom and Harry both share the spotlight in their respective stories, often put their heroism to the test, and are the centre of attention in their schools. The role of “best friend” are filled by East and Ron, and both are loyal best friends to Harry and Tom. East and Ron are fun and well-meaning, though not the smartest, and often get into trouble without meaning too. George Arthur is a prototype for Hermione as he is the smartest of his friends, often their conscience, and cares more about his grades then excelling in athletics.

Tom Brown’s School Days takes place at Rugby school, a real school which author Thomas Hughes attended, and that is still in existence today! While Hughes was a student at Rugby, Dr. Thomas Arnold was the headmaster. Dr. Arnold instituted many new practices that since have become common place in English boarding schools (and will be familiar to those who have read Harry Potter). Significant changes Dr. Arnold made include:

Dr. Arnold had his students study history, math, and modern languages (ie. German, Italian, French, not just Latin and Greek as had been the standard)

Dr. Arnold developed the Praeposter or Prefect system. The prefect system gave high achieving older boys from the upper classes power over the rest of the students, which was intended to keep order in the school. Prefects were placed in each dormitory to monitor the younger boys, were hall and class monitors, and could decide how boys who misbehaved were to be disciplined. Basically Percy Weasley was the ideal Prefect.

Dr. Arnold loved sports, and he allowed his students to take part in sports, like field hockey and football, as an alternative to hunting and fighting (yes fighting was allowed). School sporting events mark some of the biggest and most anticipated events for students in the novel, which again can be seen in Harry Potter in the excitement and emphasis that is placed on Quidditch matches between houses (competition between houses is also in Tom Brown).

Though the Rugby school environment may seem as foreign to contemporary readers as Hogwarts, there are timeless themes that run through the novel. For example, bullying is present throughout the novel. The edition that I read included in the preface a letter written to Thomas Hughes that draws attention to bullying within schools. The author of the letter tells Hughes:

A boy may have moral courage, and a finely-organized brain and nervous system. Such a boy is calculated, if judiciously educated, to be a great wise and useful man . . . but one nights bullying may produce such an injury . . . that this usefulness is spoiled for life (xxxvi)

Over 150 years later, the destructive effects of bullying on a child’s spirit is well known and still too common. Tom Brown is bullied by older boys when he first enters the school and Tom is only able to overcome his tormenters with the help of others. When other boys rally around Tom the bullying ceases. This is an important lesson, and I hope would inspire any young person to likewise not be a bystander to bullying in their schools.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Tom Brown’s School Days and how much I enjoyed Hughes writing (simply beautiful). I give it a 4/5

vaticansport

Tom, Arthur, and East

A World of Girls: The Story of a School by L. T. Meade (1886)

L.T. Meade  started writing at 17 and wrote over 300 books during her life. A World of Girls is arguably Meade’s most famous. What I appreciated about this book, and what I found refreshing about it amidst the other Victorian school stories I was reading, is that the characters felt real. They weren’t perfect. Everyone is flawed. Even the head mistress (which is usually a pillar of perfection in these types of school stories) makes mistakes.

The novel follows Hester Thornton (called Hetty) who is sent to Lavender School shortly after the death of her mother. Hetty is stubborn, proud, unforgiving, and has a quick temper. She has trouble fitting into Lavender School because the other students find her extremely stand-offish and difficult to even strike up a conversation with. Hetty immediately and irrationally dislikes the school favorite Annie Forest. Most of the plot centres on the feud between Hetty and Annie, which is portrayed in an entertaining (in that it makes you want to see what happens next) and realistic way (in that you could probably relate to similar relationships in your own life).

The characters that surround Hetty and Annie are dynamic and interesting. There is Hetty’s first roommate Susan Drummond who is perpetually tired and impossible to wake up, and who always carries around lollipops. There is Dora Russell, a upper year girl who is spoiled and proud, and yet gets in trouble for reading Jane Eyre (its banned at the school!). There is Tiger, a gypsy dog who is so intelligent that he can actually understand what people say to him. Oh, and there’s gypsies, which are always a good time.

This book is arguably more accessible than Tom Brown’s School Days. Thomas Hughes devotes a lot of space to descriptions which I know some readers find tiresome, and he also makes very Victorian specific references that could confuse those not knowledgeable of the era. World of Girls has timeless themes like friendship and bullying that continue to make it relatable, and has exciting twists and turns that are entertaining (did I mention gyspys?!?!) and the characters are more vibrant which makes for a more pleasurable read. I give it a 5/5.

illus-fpc

Annie tries to win over Hetty

If either of these novels sound interesting to you, they can be read online for free at the Gutenberg Project.

And if you’re interested in the other books I read this week, but didn’t talk about, they are listed below and most can also be read on the Gutenberg Project.

James DeMille’s The B.O.W.C. (1869) 4.5/5 (I may post on this book at a later date, because it is excellent)

William Mayne’s A Swarm in May (1955) 4/5

Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873) 4/5

Angela Brazil’s The Fortunes of Philippa (1907) 3.5/5

W. Farrar’s Eric; or Little by Little (1858) 3/5