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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Huggers Wanted: Review of Simona Ciraolo’s Hug Me

Hug Me

Simona Ciraolo

Flying Eye Books 2014

The Story: Felipe the cactus wants a hug, but his family isn’t the touchy-feely types. Felipe sets off to find a friend, but being a cactus, it seems impossible to find someone who wants to get close. After hurting a balloon and bringing shame onto his family, Felipe gives up his search for a friend and lives alone. Until, one day, he finds someone as lonely as himself, the perfect friend who doesn’t mind Felipe’s prickles! And Felipe gets the hug he’s always wanted.

What Wallace and I Think: This picturebook is hilarious for children and the adults reading to them. If you love clever word play as much as I do, the humour starts with the paratext as the book opens with labelled portraits of Felipe’s family which include: Aunt Obessa, Bigbrotherus Pricklearum, Cuginus Cleistocactus. There’s the hilarious punchline when Felipe is growing closer and closer with his potential balloon friend, which relies on the drama of turning the next page to find an angry cacti family member holding a newspaper with the front page reading “Cacti House Scandal. Cactus Attack. Balloon in Hospital” (npg).

The crayon heavy art is fun and in a kid-like style, making it appealing to young readers. There is little text, so the colorful images do the heavy lifting when telling the story, making it ideal for very young readers.

My only complaint is that the metaphor of the cactus wanting a hug falls apart for me. From the back cover, it seems like the book addresses what it is like to not get the love and attention you need from your family. But then Felipe continues to be rejected because he is a cactus. So then could this be a larger comment on prejudice? On assuming someone is one way because of their family?! Or am I being too much of an English Major, and it’s really just about a walking and talking cactus. You decide.

Metaphor aside, this is a fun, colorful, feel-good book little ones will love to have read to them by their favorite hugger.

Review of Drama

Drama

Raina Telgemeier

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The Story:

Write from back cover: “Callie loves theater. And while she would totally try out for her middle school’s production of Moon over Mississippi, she can’t really sing. Instead she’s the set designer for the drama department’s stage crew, and this year she’s determined to create a set worthy of Broadway on a middle-school budget. But how can she, when he doesn’t know much about carpentry, ticket sales are down, and the crew members are having trouble working together? Not to mention the onstage AND offstage drama that occurs once the actors are chosen. And when two cute brothers enter the picture, things get even crazier!”

What Wallace and I think: I am already a fan of Raina Telgemeier from reading her graphic novels Smile and Sisters. Drama is the first of Telgemeier’s work that I’ve read that isn’t directly autobiographical, so it was automatically different. I loved the fictional character Callie, who has purple hair (which no one points out as being weird=awesome), is creative, innovative, driven, and a dreamer. I also appreciated that most of the action centers on the stage crew, not the actors, giving what I felt to be a different perspective from the normative story about school plays. Yes, there was some focus on actors being pre-Madonnas, but the focus was Callie and her crew mates putting the show together, which often involves long hours, lots of hard work and patience.

There are some love triangles, secret crushes, and unrequited love/crushes, but this is not the focal point of the graphic novel, which I LOVED. Callie does want a boyfriend, she has crushes on the wrong boys (well wrong for her, boys), yet the story does not end with her finding “Mr Right.” Instead the happy ending comes from Callie pulling off the set design, and receiving a promotion for next year’s production. I found the happy ending not being facilitated by a boy refreshing, and made me like Callie and Telgemeier even more. If anything, more emphasis is placed on making good friends, and being good to those friends, then being able to find a romantic partner.

Like the past graphic novels I’ve read, I absolutely love Telgemeier’s comic style. Gurihiru Scholastic/Graphix has done the coloring for all the novels I’ve read, this one included, and the color is vibrant and rich. Often with mass produced graphic novels the coloring can be pixelated (think of old Archie comics), so I LOVE that Drama’s color is free of pixilation and extremely saturated.

Though the novel takes place in a middle school, and involves some romance (the most heated things get are a quick kiss on a park bench), it is a tame graphic novel that could be read by older elementary aged children. There is also a diversity of characters (gay, straight, black, white, Asian) which could additionally make this a great book to be read in the classroom if you are looking ways to give voice to a more diverse groups of people. And if you like Drama, I would high recommend checking out the rest of Telgemeier’s work.

The Misfits

The Misfits

by James Howe

Published in 2001 by Atheneum

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The Story: The Gang of Five, a group of (you guessed it) misfits, decide to make a change in their school by running for student council. After a failed platform attempt to represent minority students, they realize what everyone has in common are being called names. Thus the No-Name Party is formed, which challenges fellow students to stop name calling in their middle school, because, as the No-Name’s slogan says: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will break our spirit”

What Wallace and I Think: I thoroughly enjoyed The Misfits, as well as endured many cringe-worthy moments during my reading. I like that the novel presented a diverse cast of characters, and the bullying presented wasn’t over-the-top, but the everyday name calling that can stick with people for a life time. Because of this, the novel presents a school environment and situations many young readers could relate with. I also appreciated how Howe illustrated the lasting effects of name calling, by engaging adult characters who confess to child characters how they are still haunted by names they were called as children, as one adult realizes: “I believed those voices telling me I was a sissy and a mama’s boy” (204).

I also like that this novel has bled into the real world, and sparked No Name Calling week in schools. This is great that the message from the novel has been put into practice in the real world, and that if you’re inspired by reading the novel, you can actually DO something with it. For more information visit No Name Calling Week’s website here. They talk about instituting it in Jr and Sr high schools, but I think having a No Name campaign as early as elementary would be amazing; stop habits before they form.

So what did I find cringe-worthy about the novel… the character Addie. Howe was probably trying to portray her as an innocent go-getter who doesn’t think through the ramifications of her decisions. I, however, felt she was a character that did things for purely to get attention, and some of her attention schemes were HORRIBLE. For example, it is Addie who talks the Gang of Five into running for student office with a party that will represent minorities. Even that a privileged white female could think that she could represent minorities is highly questionable. Her friends point out that they hardly represent minorities (three white males and one white female), and her solution is to ask an African-American student to run with them as president, purely BECAUSE HE IS BLACK. WHAT?!?!?!? Even though her friends do subtly question her on this (“you’re picking him because he’s popular and, excuse me for point it out–again–because he’s black” [55]), and DuShawn, the poor victim who is chosen to be their token minority figure, is hurt by this, the blatant racism is not criticized enough in my opinion.  Addie tries to make grand political stands to change the world, but how it comes across is that she wants attention. She comes across as an ignorant idealist. I would be curious to read Howe’s novel from Addie’s perspective, and see how she is portrayed there.

Overall I give this book a 3.5/5. Addie really cast a shadow over the book for me (I would be curious to know how other readers felt about her, because maybe I’ll being too sensitive), but I do really love the No Name Calling Week that spawned from the book. The back cover suggests readers between the ages of 10-14, though I think even from 9-16 this book would appeal too.

We Are the Foxes

Jane, the Fox and Me

Written by Fanny Britt, Illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

Translated by Christelle Morelli and Susan Ourious

Published by Groundwood Books/House of Anansi 2012

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 The Story:

  1. Hélène (the “Me” of Jane, the Fox and Me) is bullied by a group of girls at her middle school. She tries to be invisible, but the bully’s insults are everywhere: in the halls, school yard, stairways, on the bus and written on bathroom stalls. “Hélène weighs 216!” “Don’t talk to Hélène, she has no friends now,” “Hélène weighs 316.” With every insult “The same thing happens . . . another hole opens up in my rib cage. Hearing everything. Hearing nothing” (18). Cue tears.To make matters worse, Hélène’s school is going to nature camp, and there’s no getting out of it. All her bullies will be there, and there will be no home to escape to at night. Hélène’s being an outcast will be obvious to everyone. But the unexpected happens! Hélène meets Géraldine, who laughs at her jokes, listens to her stories, tells her stories, and suddenly the world isn’t full of insults, but “full to the brim with Géraldine’s words” (87).
  1. The Fox: I’ll leave the fox as a surprise for the reader! Although the metaphorical use of the fox reminds me of the Taylor Swift lyric “They are the hunters,/ We are the foxes.” Yes, I unabashedly listen to Swift.
  2. Hélène reads Jane Eyre as bullies taunt her on the bus, and on her bunk bed at nature camp to appear “busy.” Hélène compares herself to Jane, and finds her own story follows the emotional turmoil Jane experiences. Just when Hélène is at her lowest, Jane learns “the boy [Mr. Rochester] already has a wife as crazy as kite, shut up in the manor tower . . . the moral of the story . . . ‘never forget that you’re nothing but a sad sausage’” (83). And just like Hélène’s own story, Jane Eyre “ends well” (98).

What Wallace and I think:

Britt and Arsenault’s graphic novel is powerful and heartbreakingly beautiful on multiple levels. Hélène’s story is uncomfortably relatable. Nothing out of the ordinary happens in the novel, and it could be ripped out of any current middle or high schooler’s experience. Both the author and illustrator work seamlessly together, and are extraordinary at communicating feelings of isolation born out of bullying.

  • Fanny Britt’s writing is beautiful. Some credit has to be given to the translators, obviously, as I’m reading this in English, not French. Britt is able to weave a narrative that it is painstakingly realistic. Being a graphic novel, Britt uses her sparse words wisely. They are truly the most perfect words in the most perfect spaces. The incorporation of Jane Eyre, the fox, the mother-daughter relationship, issues of female body-image, bullying in the narrative adds intricacy. I would love to read this and discuss this book with my undergraduate students (maybe next year!) because there is so much to discuss, uncover, and explore. When I’m asked how books for young readers can be considered literature, because they aren’t as sophiscated as adult literature (cue me hyperventilating and turning red), this is the type of book I would hold up in response.
  • I am a huge fan of Isabella Arsenault. Her pencil illustrations are whimsical yet gritty, have a childish aspect to them that add to the child protagonists’ voices, and are full of detail. What I am most impressed by here is Arsensault’s ability to illustrate silence. For example, after Hélène reads some of the insults written about her in the bathroom stall, there are five images absent of words which show Hélène walking to her locker with her head hung held low and shoulders slumped. She puts on her jacket to go home, as if trying to put on a protective shield, while out of the corner of her eye she watches the girls behind her silently making fun of her. Most powerful to me was Hélène standing in front of a mirror admiring a dress her mother had slaved over. We have already learned that the girls make fun of this dress Hélène was so proud of. After this image there is a double page illustration of Hélène standing in a forest in the beautiful crinoline dress head lowered, hair falling over her face, defeated slouched shoulders. This image makes my heart ache! Even though Hélène is a pencil drawing, I want to reach out and hug her! There are several moments like this in which Arsenault is able to illustrate silence and melancholy in such a way that it gives me chills. Aresenault’s use of color and type add to the complexities of the narrative. Color is only used in specific places, the insults of the bullies are handwritten in a sloppy childish hand, and the voices of adults are written in cursive. Again, its details like these I would love to explore with a class.

I give this brilliant graphic novel 5/5

While all young readers are at different levels, I would generally recommend this book for grade four readers onwards. It could also be a good book for parents to read with their younger children.