Drawn from Life: Graphic Memoirs for Teens

Recently published graphic memoirs illustrate that the genre is pushing the format to new heights.

Some of the most celebrated comics have been memoirs such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. In 2015, Cece Bell’s Newbery Award–winning El Deafo illustrated that graphic memoirs written for children can be just as powerful. As this group of recently published titles illustrates, graphic memoirs are only getting better as they push the power of the genre and format to new heights.

Few personal accounts come close to the poignant, clear-sighted Diary of Anne Frank, and while Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Novel (Pantheon, Oct. 2018; Gr 8 Up) doesn’t replace the original, it’s a worthy translation. Ari Folman respectfully adapts Anne’s text, condensing her words but otherwise leaving them intact. David Polonsky’s cleanly rendered illustrations are rooted in a bleak reality but also take an imaginative turn. As Anne confides her frustration at being seen as an argumentative, headstrong girl, Polonsky depicts her as Edvard Munch’s wailing Scream; the opposite page portrays her as Gustav Klimt’s serene Woman in Gold—the unflappable figure Anne wishes she could be. A superb offering to read alongside the original, this adaptation lets its narrator's voice soar.

Books about summer camp often follow a familiar trajectory: after a rocky beginning, plucky youngsters conquer homesickness and forge lifelong bonds around cozy bonfires. Not so in Be Prepared (First Second, Apr. 2018; Gr 5-8), Vera Brosgol’s chronicle of her summer before fifth grade. The Russian-born author-illustrator felt like an outsider among her American classmates and begged her mother to send her and her brother to a camp for Russian children, where she hoped to fit in. But her dreams of toasting marshmallows and making crafts gave way to a dismal reality: smelly outhouses, creepy crawlies, and an unfortunate placement in a cabin of cruel, self-assured older girls.

The artist’s eye for detail and her raw vulnerability distinguish this book. Her younger self peers owlishly through a pair of oversize glasses, her yearning to belong palpable. Refreshingly, Brosgol doesn’t sugarcoat her pain, and though there were a couple of victories, such as friendship and a successful game of capture-the-flag, her greatest triumph was putting camp behind her.

Like Brosgol, Jarrett J. Krosoczka employs a mix of tenderness and unflinching honesty in his memoir. With Hey, Kiddo (Scholastic, Oct. 2018; Gr 7 Up), the “Lunch Lady” author takes an introspective turn. Krosoczka’s mother struggled with heroin addiction and was often incarcerated, leaving his maternal grandparents to raise him. Dominated by earth tones, reds and oranges, the illustrations have a sepia-like look, but this is no sentimental stroll down memory lane. Krosoczka’s crabby but loving grandparents had marital troubles, and the author often felt his less traditional family fell short next to his classmates’. Young Jarrett’s confusion and pain are vivid, but readers will be encouraged by his discovery of art, a passion that served as an outlet when life proved challenging.

Artist Julia Kaye underwent a gender transition at age 26. To cope with the rush of emotions, she drew daily webcomics, which she compiled into Super Late Bloomer: My Early Days in Transition (Andrew McMeel, May 2018; Gr 7 Up). Her minimalist artwork and spare prose make the book a quick read but an achingly intimate one. Entering a second puberty of sorts, Kaye constantly feels scrutinized—an experience that’s sometimes terrifying, sometimes exhilarating. Her collection eschews a typical narrative, instead focusing on brief scenes that emphasize that life is a series of moments. The pain of being misgendered lingers all day; donning a dress she loves is intoxicating. This understated volume captures Kaye’s transition in all its anguish, turmoil, and beauty.

Three years after her first graphic memoir, Maggie Thrash revisits her teen self. Honor Girl concluded with Maggie disillusioned after an eye-opening experience at her once-beloved Camp Bellflower. However, that jaded yet upbeat girl is worlds away from the morose narrator of Lost Soul, Be at Peace (Candlewick, Oct. 2018; Gr 7 Up). Maggie’s anxiety that coming out as lesbian will alienate her classmates turns to loneliness when few acknowledge her newfound identity. Her grades have taken a nosedive, and she’s cocooned in depression, not that her workaholic father and status-obsessed mother have noticed. She soon meets Thomas, a ghost and the titular lost soul, whose observations make her more aware of her own wealth and privilege. The author/illustrator also explores the idea of childhood and the transition to adulthood as she untangles her complex relationship with her patrician father, whose emotions are kept tightly under wraps (he coolly announces his mother’s death only when explaining why he’ll be home late the following day).

Thrash’s choppy line work and occasionally uneven sense of proportion nevertheless result in a charged, vivid read, and her candid and grimly humorous voice calls to mind Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. By invoking the supernatural, Thrash plays fast and loose with the “memoir” label, but she’s more concerned with emotion than fact, stating in her author’s note, “This story is still true, because it’s about how it feels to confront the past.” Librarians might wonder where to shelve Lost Soul—with other tales of the supernatural, with the realistic fiction, or alongside Honor Girl and other graphic memoirs? Thrash’s refusal to adhere to a genre clearly sets her apart.

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is Reference and Professional Reading Editor for Library Journal and School Library Journal and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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