Saturday, September 21, 2019

MMGM (9/23/2019): Guts by Raina Telgemeier

Sorry about not posting these last two weeks, and sorry that I'm still reading the novel I promised I would review a few weeks ago! I am back, though, and I have a review of the graphic memoir Guts by Raina Telgemeier.

          If you've read Telgemeier's previous two graphic memoirs, Smile (review here) and Sisters, you know that they're not just about one topic, but rather a range of different experiences and ideas. Guts is no different, but, again like Smile and Sisters, it has a topic that tends to appear a bit more than others. In Guts, that topic is anxiety. Guts revolves around fourth/fifth-grade Raina, who is dealing with a lot. After a bout with the stomach virus, Raina finds herself beginning to panic about the possibility of vomiting. That anxiety is soon followed by more worries about food, germs, and more, and, to top all of that off, Raina begins experiencing stomachaches and other unpleasant ailments. Of course, none of this is happening in a vacuum: Raina is also dealing with living in a crowded, small apartment; the stress of school, friends, and a mean girl named Michelle; and the relief/stresses/embarrassment of her therapy appointments. Raina has to figure out how to survive all of these stresses while dealing with her newfound anxiety, a task which seems impossible—but maybe it isn't.

          I don't tend to make dramatic superlative statements about books, because I've read a lot of them. That's why I need you to pay attention when I say that this is the best book I've read this year, and, if not the best book I've read ever, then close. There is so much to love about Guts! First off, it's rare to see books that deal with topics such as anxiety. It's even more rare to see books that deal with topics such as anxiety in a multifaceted way that gets not just to the heart of what anxiety is and feels like, but to all of the other organs (to continue the heart metaphor) regarding anxiety's other effects and impacts on daily life. This book has it all: the worries about food/germs/etc., the (sort of) physical symptoms, the crushing sense of utter panic, the therapy sessions, the love/hate relationship with therapy sessions, the embarrassment about needing therapy sessions, etc. I have never seen (I'm using a lot of italics today, aren't I?) a more complete, empathetic, and real depiction of anxiety in any book, which is why Guts is so amazing (especially to me, an anxiety sufferer, and to any other anxiety sufferers who choose to read it).

          But that's not all. You might expect that so much discussion about an inherently unpleasant topic might make a book depressing or upsetting. One of Telgemeier's strengths, just as in Smile and Sisters, though, is keeping the story upbeat and enjoyable to read. Guts pays a lot of attention to the good things in life, especially friends and family, and for every sad moment, there's a happier one to balance it out. Telgemeier's art style helps quite a bit: there are a number of drawings that are so expressive and exaggerated that they're hilarious. The art as a whole is another great thing about Guts: characters have expressive faces that tell readers exactly how they're feeling, and art is used in a number of creative ways throughout the book. There's one page (page 120) of four panels, arranged vertically, with each panel being a fourth of Raina's body in a different location, helping to convey how her anxiety follows her from place to place to place to place. Art is used to show how overwhelming anxiety can be—more successfully, I think, than words would be able to. Ugly waves of green, literal spirals of fear, spiderwebs, falling, being small, and other graphic devices all help to convey to readers what being anxious feels like. There's a page (page 149) that has a genius visualization of the 1-to-10 scale that therapists and other doctors use to evaluate anxiety or pain, and there's also a series of pages (pages 189-191) that show the contrast between what Raina thinks she should be feeling in one situation and what she actually feels. Even non-reviewers will realize the sheer amount of creativity and thought that went into the art of Guts.

          The last thing I want to mention about Guts is how much I love the different events and characters in the story. In Guts, Telgemeier tackles so many subjects, all with aplomb, that it's absolutely amazing. School drama, from teasing to lunch-sharing to puberty to friends making new friends to students leaving, is completely fleshed out—so much so, in fact, that it honestly could have been its own book if not for the fact that it's thoughtfully interwoven into the book's other topics, especially anxiety. Drama at home isn't left out either, whether it's sharing a room with two siblings, being unable to escape your family and find privacy, or having a relative move in with you (as if it wasn't crowded enough). The plot jumps effortlessly between every topic, staying interesting and never feeling disjointed throughout all 213 pages. The characters of Guts are also wonderful. Raina feels like a real person (likely because she is—which reminded me to write the footnote below), with a personality and interests that make her extremely likable. The other characters of Guts are great as well, from Raina's mother (who is instrumental in helping Raina get through her struggles) to her best friend, Jane, and excellent therapist, Lauren (I want to mention again how realistic the depictions of therapy are in the book).

          I want to end this review with one more thing (and one more thing after that—see the second footnote below). I have never related more to a book than I have to Guts. It really feels like my life has been put into 213 pages for me to buy at the bookstore (or for you to borrow at the library, if you prefer doing that). I never expected to see such a real, thoughtful, and genuine depiction of the struggles that people with anxiety go through, which is no doubt why I love Guts so much. If you choose to read just one book out of the many that I have recommended this year, I want you to read Guts. Whether you are an anxious person, want to understand others with anxiety, or just want an amazing read for 10-year-olds and 80-year-olds alike, you will not regret reading Guts, and it wouldn't surprise me one bit if it, too, became one of your favorite books ever.

* I wanted to mention one thing about Guts without shoving it in the paragraphs above [the following also applies to Smile and to Sisters (which I've read but never reviewed)]. I know that many of my readers/fellow MMGMers mainly read fiction, not memoirs, and it occurred to me that some of you all might be wondering if Guts might seem too different. That's why I wanted to mention that Guts feels like fiction. It's not one of those memoirs that jumps from event to event, packaging them inside neat chapters; instead, it moves smoothly through events with traditional characters in traditional settings. And yet, it's better, in a way, that Guts is a memoir, because, being real, it feels real (shocker, I know). The lessons never feels half-baked, the plot never feels stitched together (which is all the more amazing because it is, in fact, stitched together out of real events), and the characters never feel shallow or fake. Guts being a memoir is in no way a problem, even if you are used to reading fiction.

** I also wanted to mention that Guts can be read before Smile or Sisters if you want to try it first. I love all of Telgemeier's books (my review of Smile is linked above, and my review of the fictional Ghosts is here), but you might not want to have to read two books before getting to this one. Guts actually provides a couple interesting bits of backstory for Smile, as a couple characters make reappearances in both books.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

MMGM (9/2/2019): Camp by Kayla Miller

Happy September (and happy Labor Day)! In case you haven't noticed, I've been reviewing a great deal of graphic novels lately. However, I just started a new prose novel, and I love it! The only problem is...I haven't finished it, and I obviously cannot review it until I have made sure that it doesn't fall apart halfway through. Thus, I quickly read yet another graphic novel to review today, and I aim to review the other book I am reading either next week or the next. Today, I am reviewing the graphic novel Camp by Kayla Miller (the sequel to Click, which I reviewed two weeks ago).

          Like Click, Camp's main character is middle-schooler Olive. In this book, Olive is headed off to summer camp, and one of her friends from school (and from Click), Willow, is accompanying her. Olive is excited to spend two weeks doing fun activities with Willow and new friends, but camp doesn't quite go as planned. Willow struggles with being away from her parents and stuck in a new environment, and she ends up unable (or unwilling) to make friends with the fellow campers, instead preferring to stay by Olive's side at all times. Olive is just as outgoing as she was in Click, however, and as she reaches out to the other campers and starts to have fun, Willow starts to feel left behind (even though other campers are trying to befriend her as well). In turn, Olive starts to get mad at Willow for constantly pulling her away from new friends and new chances to enjoy herself. As Olive and Willow's conflict grows, will either of them be able to enjoy their time at camp? Will their friendship even exist by the time camp is over?

          The main issue that Camp aims to deal with is what happens when one friend is ready to introduce others into the group, while the other still prefers the dynamic that the two of them have by themselves. This issue is not new to MG books, but the twist in Camp is that you can actually see the conflict occurring in the present. Readers can watch Willow as she starts to feel left out, and they can observe Olive as she begins to suffer from Willow's increasing anxiety of being left behind. However, the conflict is a bit awkward in the book, as Olive has no intention of actually leaving Willow out. Willow is the one who refuses repeated invitations to join Olive and the others in different activities; just like in Click, the conflict is more a product of the character's own head than it is a product of the behavior of others. My problem with this scenario is that, because the conflict is almost fabricated by Willow, Willow ends up turning into the villain of the story, a girl who intentionally avoids spending time with others in order to make them unhappy. The book does a poor job of exploring why Willow might not want to join these activities: does she think, due to a miscommunication, that they don't want her around? Is she too shy and a bit too overwhelmed to muster up the energy to meet new people? The book seems to imply the second option toward the beginning of the book (Willow begins to feel homesick and has an awkward moment during an icebreaker), but it ends up portraying Willow as a fun-hater who won't just get over herself. I do think that the lesson Olive learns at one point in the book (that it is not her job to keep Willow happy, and that she does not need to make herself miserable doing so) is an important lesson to learn, and I appreciated seeing it. Overall, though, I felt like Olive's feelings got much more attention than Willow's, and what could have been an interesting plot that explored why some people are shy was instead a one-dimensional conflict of good versus evil.

          At this point, you're probably wondering: "So why should I even read this book?" The answer is that, despite this flaw, Camp is still a fun and enjoyable read! Like in Click, Olive is still an extremely likable main character. She is friendly to everyone, considerate of others, and always ready to enjoy herself, regardless of what she is doing. Olive is the sort of person everyone wishes they could be, and it is fascinating to see how simple being a likable person is: just be nice and happy! Another character who I really liked is Laura, a camp counselor who is instrumental throughout the story in helping both Olive and Willow think through their feelings. In fact, virtually every character in the book is likable, which leads me into the next thing I like about Camp. Like with Click, author Kayla Miller imbues an infectious joy into Camp. Characters are always smiling, energetic, and ready to enjoy themselves, and the art style is extremely expressive and fun to look at. The story is also filled with all sorts of fun camp activities: characters play in a band, build a Rube Goldberg machine, record videos, and just sit around and enjoy themselves. Even after a sad moment, you'll come away from Camp feeling happy! I also want to mention that, like in Click, Camp does a good job of displaying real-world solutions for its major conflict. Readers can observe characters reaching out to each other, inviting others along or offering compliments, and see that making friends with anyone is really that simple.

          Finally, I want to mention one other small detail in Camp that I appreciated. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Willow has food allergies as her mom reminds her that she will have to stop by the nurse's office every day to take her allergy medication. I have seen virtually no representation of people with allergies (which annoys me as a person with many of them) except in Swing It, Sunny, so I was happy to see a character like Willow for me and others to relate to. I also appreciated that no one made a big deal of her allergies or antagonized her for them; there is one moment where camp counselor Laura offers Willow a sunflower-butter sandwich (implying that she is allergic to peanuts), which warmed my heart.

          Ultimately, despite the issues with the novel's central conflict, Camp is a heartwarming and completely fun story that will leave readers feeling both enlightened and happy! I recommend it to anyone who has read Click (which I still maintain is fantastic!), and I remain excited for the third book in the series, the upcoming Act! Thanks for reading my long post, and stay tuned for my upcoming review!