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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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.

Review: SuperMutant Magic Academy

SuperMutant Magic Academy (2015)

Jillian Tamaki

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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

Review of American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang

Published in 2006 by First Second

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The Story: The graphic novel American Born Chinese tells three seemingly unconnected tales:

  1. Jin Wang’s family moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to a new neighbourhood, and Jin finds he’s one of the only Chinese-American students at his school. He and his other Chinese friends are picked on constantly, and to make things even worse, Jin falls in love with a stereotypical All-American, blonde haired, blued eye girl in his class.
  2. The Monkey King was born from a rock, and soon after establishes his monkey kingdom. He’s mastered the Arts of Kung-Fu, the Four Major Disciplines of Invulnerability, and has achieved the Four Major Disciplines of Bodily Form. However, even with power and adoring subjects, the gods, goddesses, demons and spirits of heaven only see the Monkey King as . . . a Monkey. The Monkey King yearns for the respect he deserves.
  3. Chin-Kee is the accumulation of every negative Chinese stereotype. Once a year he visits his cousin Danny in America and RUINS HIS LIFE. After every visit Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the ridicule his cousin brings. This year’s visit is worse than ever.

What Wallace and I Think: A review on the back cover of my edition compares American Born Chinese with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (a wonderful comparison in my opinion) in that they both explore “the impact of the American Dream on those outside the dominant culture” (School Library Journal). This is a story as old as the American Dream itself, but with the current success of ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, nearly ten years after it was first published American Born Chinese’s continues to be significant. Yang’s graphic novel tackles stereotypes, as well as the effects these stereotypes have on first-generation Chinese-American children. At its core, the graphic novel is a coming of age story for Jin who must learn to integrate himself in American culture while also maintaining his Chinese roots. Because of the constant teasing and racist assumptions Jin’s peers make, Jin thinks the only way to be accepted into American society is to erase his “Chineseness”. But, as a wise woman tells a young Jin (after learning he wants to be a Transformer when he grows up), “It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul” (29). What Jin must determine is whether forfeiting his soul to become what he thinks he wants is worth the price.

The Monkey King’s story is a delight and a gateway to further exploration of Chinese fables. The Monkey King is tied into Jin’s story-line in a surprising way, and also introducing readers to a traditional Chinese story. The Monkey King is a main character is the Chinese Classical novel Journey to the West, and is also found in later stories and adaptations. The Monkey King’s section loosely follows the story line of Journey to the West. Like the classical novel, Yang’s Monkey King is imprisoned under a mountain after rebelling against heaven, and is only released from the mountain when he agrees to accompany a Monk, Xuanzang (who also appears in the graphic novel), on a journey. Yang updates the fable, for the Monkey King’s mission intersects with the story lines of Jin and Chin-Kee. Comparing the Monkey King’s protrayal in American Born Chinese to his classical protrayals could make for interesting discussions.

The Monkey King shows those heavenly snobs who's boss!

The Monkey King shows those heavenly snobs who’s boss!

Chin-Kee’s story line should make you feel uncomfortable. Blatantly a racist depiction of Chinese stereotypes, Chin-Kee forces American-Chinese characters to confront fears of how they’re being perceived. Chin-Kee is the conscience of the graphic novel and acts as a “signpost” to Jin’s “Soul” (221). He also acts as the signpost and conscience of readers who may be to blame for acting similar to Jin and Danny’s bullies in the graphic novels; to those who are to blame for naming the stereotypes and bringing them into being. Mary Roche argues a main benefit of reading literature is that it opens us up to the lived experience of others, deepening our sympathies and understanding beyond our own lived experience. Given the chance, this is what American Born Chinese can accomplish, especially through the depiction of Chin-Kee and how he links up to the two other story lines. And to those that already identify with Jin’s experience, the graphic novel functions as a friend, who will warmly put his arm around your shoulder and say “you are not alone. You matter.”

This is a young adult graphic novel, and I would recommend it to grade seven readers at the youngest.

I give this novel a 5/5

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.