Another wonderful week of MMGM and #IMWAYR (also known as the only reason I like Mondays)! In my continuing quest to battle back the recent transphobia of She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, I am excited to be recommending the graphic novel The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith! (Which I know is published by the very publisher peddling Rowling's repugnant transphobia, but I'm not punishing Smith or this book for that.)
Saturday, October 10, 2020
MMGM and #IMWAYR (10/12/2020): The Deep & Dark Blue by Niki Smith
The start of The Deep & Dark Blue introduces us to two twins, Hawke and Grayson. Hawke and Grayson are the youngest members of House Sunderlay, one of the noble families that governs their society. Their grandfather is at the helm, with their beloved cousin Reyden next in line. When a distant relative, Mirelle, attacks the family to kill all of those in line before her to inherit the throne, including Hawke and Grayson, they escape to the one place where they won't be found: the Communion of Blue, where women (and women only) weave the literal blue-dyed threads that form reality as we know it. To fit in/hide, Hawke and Grayson become sisters Hanna and Grayce. Quick-tempered Hawke is frustrated at his role in the Communion and inability to leave and fight against Mirelle. But calmer Grayce finds herself enamored with the opportunity both to learn the spinning of reality itself and to finally present as her correct gender. With their lives in danger and Mirelle's coronation just days away, will both twins find a way to survive and be who they want to be?
I had such a wonderful time reading this graphic novel! There's so much I want to talk about, but I'll start with what I mentioned only briefly above: Grayce being transgender. I've never been much for fantasy stories because I always find myself more interested in people's realistic struggles than their fantastic ones. And there are many (though not enough) realistic MG books about transgender kids: George, Gracefully Grayson (no relation—I guess Grayce's name in this book is a bit derivative), Zenobia July, etc. But many kids don't want to read a book solely about the struggles/agony they're already intimately familiar with. Thus, it's important to have representation of all kinds of kids in all kinds of stories, and that's why The Deep & Dark Blue is so exciting. The Deep & Dark Blue places Grayce's experience against the backdrop of politics, danger, and plenty of fabulous magic, which makes it a story many kids are far more likely to gravitate toward. Yet (and this is honestly what I love most) The Deep & Dark Blue doesn't sacrifice the gravity of Grayce's experience; it's not one of those idealistic let's-pretend-being-LGBTQIA+-is-a-walk-in-the-park books. We see Grayce dealing with her discomfort while presenting as the incorrect gender, her fear of being outed, her experience eventually coming out to others as female, and the happiness she finally feels when she gets to be herself. Transgender readers will likely relate (if painfully) to Grayce's thoughtfully-depicted experiences while also enjoying the story's lighter aspects, and non-transgender readers will be pulled in by the other aspects of this story and end up learning a thing or to about what being trans is like. As Mary Poppins said (sort of), "A spoonful of
sugar magic and intrigue makes the medicine realistic transgender experience go down."
There's a lot more to talk about with The Deep & Dark Blue. First, I want to talk about Hawke and Grayce together. One weirdly underrepresented group in MG books is twins, so I'm glad to see a pair of twins at the center of this book! Hawke and Grayce are identical twins, but like many twins in real life, they can be told apart: whether presenting as male or female, Hawke's hair is always a bit tousled, and Grayce's hair is always immaculate (I'm telling you this in advance, because it took me about 30 pages to catch on). Despite being identical twins, Hawke and Grayce couldn't have more different personalities. Hawke is adventurous and brave, as well as quick-tempered and irritable: he is livid that Mirelle is about to take everything from him and his family, and he isn't thrilled about dressing up as a girl every day either or never getting to fight with weapons (although Hawke is designated by the Communion of Blue as a Guardian, he is required to fight with his hands and feet only). Grayce is far calmer and more attentive (she understands Hawke in a way that he does not always understand her), the perfect disposition for her role as a Spinner in the Communion. Both Hawke and Grayce get a place to shine in The Deep & Dark Blue, and I was thrilled at how the story ends for them! And I have to say, it's refreshing to see twins who aren't expected to be the same person all the time.
What else? Let's talk about the Communion of Blue. The Communion takes new initiates (any girl who wants to join can be one) every year, teaching them the ways of one of their many roles. As I mentioned, Hawke (or Hanna, as the Communion leaders think) is given the role of Guardian, and Grayce is given the role of Spinner. The Communion uses a magical blue dye to create blue-dyed thread that, when woven or spun by people like Grayce, can create wind and water, form magical tapestries like that on the cover, or even affect human souls! Weaving/sewing are so often unfortunately thought of as women's pastimes, but this book gives them the status they deserve as a force of nature itself, harnessed by the most mysterious, powerful, and kind people of society! (June McCrary Jacobs, I think I've found the graphic novel for you!) Kindness is central to the Communion of Blue, with a woman named Sister Marta providing quite a bit of kindness to Grayce herself. There's also quite a bit of detail about the Communion of Blue's structure and roles, particularly on a wonderful visual-glossary page at the back of the book! I will say that, for whatever reason, I found the whole idea of the Communion of Blue somewhat inconsiderate of people who identify as neither male nor female, but I think the general acceptance-quotient of this book is high enough to forgive that issue (of course, I'm saying that as a mostly-clueless cis person).
Speed round! The politics and action of The Deep & Dark Blue gets a somewhat smaller role in the story than some of the other aspects, so I wasn't terribly invested in it, but it does set up the tone quite nicely! The art style of The Deep & Dark Blue is wonderful as well—it's sort of bubbly yet fierce, with tons of vivid colors and engaging spreads that will absolutely engross readers (including you!). I do have a couple of issues with the book I do want to mention (although none are deal-breakers). First, this book unfortunately falls prey to the Black-best-friend trope, with a girl named Calia in the Communion providing friendship and advice to Hawke throughout the story. This is better than having no Black characters whatsoever, but it is also a wonderful reminder that we need more Black protagonists in books, which of course means we need more Black authors as well. I will say that Calia gets more screen time and depth than any other character besides Hawke and Grayce, which I do appreciate, and the book's background characters are quite diverse as well, making this a relatively racially-sensitive book by a White author. A few more flaws, though: first, this book is a little bit too short—I wanted more time with Hawke, Grayce, the Communion, and even Mirelle's reign of terror! That's a sign that the writing is pretty good, though, isn't it? One final flaw is that Hawke and Grayce's parents are apparently dead, and that gets so little discussion it's funny—maybe a sequel is in the works? Or maybe dead parents are just an automatic aspect of MG books now.
Overall, although The Deep & Dark Blue has some flaws, it deserves a huge amount of credit for what it accomplishes. It manages to be a soothing, escapist story about a magical community, an action-packed story of danger and intrigue, and a realistic examination of what it is like to be transgender, all in one short package with compelling twin main characters and beautiful art! I really enjoyed reading The Deep & Dark Blue, and I'm glad that this story is out there for kids, transgender or not, to escape into and enjoy as well! I hope all of you get the chance to read this wonderful graphic novel!