MMGM and #IMWAYR: Just Pretend by Tori Sharp
I have a few quick notes before we move into today's review. First of all, I have finally set up a Goodreads account for my blog! It is currently a bit of a mess, and I will be trying to get it finished up over the next few weeks. And if you're already reading my blog, I honestly wouldn't bother looking at my Goodreads—it's only going to have mini-reviews of the books I'm already reviewing on my blog anyway, along with links back to my blog. But I hope it will be a useful way for new readers to discover my blog so that my posts don't just disappear into the ether! You can visit my Goodreads profile here.
Also, some quick self-promotion: I have started a photography blog, A Scrapbook of Stories, that I am using primarily to participate in the #2021picoftheweek challenge hosted by MMGM's own Of Maria Antonia (which is also now open to book bloggers)! Make sure to stop by if you're interested. I also revisited my reviews from July to December 2020 in another Thursday Thoughts post—make sure to check it out!
One more thing: at the recommendation of Helen at Helen's Book Blog, I signed up for a free service called Feedly where you can see all the new posts from the blogs you read in one place. And it is awesome! I had previously been using a chaotic mix of email subscriptions and the Blogger reading list to keep up with other bloggers, but Feedly is really nice mostly because you can actually mark things as read and take them off the list, so all you ever see is new posts to read. It's great!
I'm back for MMGM another week in a row, and it's possible that I'll be back next week too—I'm on a bit of a weird reading schedule right now! So I may or may not take an extended break from MMGM in the coming weeks. Anyway, for MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending the delightful graphic novel Just Pretend by Tori Sharp.
I decided to read Just Pretend after seeing it recommended by the wonderful Sierra Dertinger at Books. Iced Lattes. Blessed, and I'm so glad I did! I'm low on energy, so here's the publisher's description of the book:
Fans of Real Friends and Be Prepared will love this energetic, affecting graphic memoir, in which a young girl uses her active imagination to navigate middle school as well as the fallout from her parents' divorce.
Tori has never lived in just one world.
Since her parents' divorce, she's lived in both her mom's house and her dad's new apartment. And in both places, no matter how hard she tries, her family still treats her like a little kid. Then there's school, where friendships old and new are starting to feel more and more out of her hands.
Thankfully, she has books—and writing. And now the stories she makes up in her head just might save her when everything else around her—friendships, school, family—is falling apart.
Author Tori Sharp takes us with her on a journey through the many commonplace but complex issues of fractured families, as well as the beautiful fantasy narrative that helps her cope, gorgeously illustrated and full of magic, fairies, witches and lost and found friendships.
I've noticed that I've mostly stopped liking MG books centered solely around typical middle-school drama. I prefer a bit more exploration of other real-world themes, and just last week, I was aggravated by Truly Tyler for its narrow focus on messages I've heard a bazillion times in books like it. But somewhat surprisingly, this middle-school-drama-focused book, Just Pretend, was engrossing enough that I read pages 36 to 298 (the end) in a single hour, barely putting the book down! So I'd like to take some time discussing what was so enjoyable about Just Pretend.
First of all, Tori (who, since this is a memoir, is not a fictional character) is an impressively compelling protagonist. Tori isn't a big fan of school, and we see several times it's because she's too smart to keep sitting around, hearing the same lessons repeated over and over. So Tori finds other ways to entertain herself, such as teaching the class to build paper mailboxes on their desks and send letters to each other, or initiating games of make-believe with her friends during recess. She reminds me a lot of Olive from Kayla Miller's books in her ability to get the other kids at school excited about her ideas—and she has plenty of ideas to get them excited about! Tori's creativity and imagination shine through the most in the fantasy story she is writing throughout the book, filled with magical beings discovering our world or trying to save their own—and delightfully, parts of her story are shown to the reader in comic form (like the rest of the book), allowing readers to see that her ideas are quite interesting and well-thought-out! Some of Tori's teachers think that she isn't paying attention in class, and that's true, but it's only because (a) she doesn't really need to and (b) it's far more interesting to channel her energy into her many passions. (Luckily, we do see a teacher later on who learns to capture Tori's attention—there's an interesting underlying theme here about education.) Tori's life is depicted in art that, while not necessarily gorgeous or inviting of prolonged stares, is clear, bright, and engaging, in a similar vein to Raina Telgemeier and Molly Knox Ostertag. (And the art is filled with references to the 1990s, when this story is set—IM, Snake, and busy signals, anyone?) One random comment before we move on: I was never totally sure how old Tori was in this story, or if she aged as the book went on, so that is slightly strange.
It wouldn't be an MG graphic memoir without the middle-school drama, and there's plenty of that too in Just Pretend. Tori spends much of her time in school with her best friend, Taylor, and two other friends, but they find themselves in different classes more often than not, unfortunately. Tori's friends love fantasy and make-believe just as much as she does, whether it's over recess, in video games, or in written stories. But Tori's friendships go somewhat awry over the course of the story, with aggravating inside jokes, secrets and silence, and even friends outside of the friend group having to move away completely. Tori has done a good job in the past of making school somewhere she wants to be, but her friendship drama only adds to the other stress she's already dealing with (as mentioned in the next paragraph). One complaint I do have is that some kind of drama happens involving Taylor's home life that is literally not explained at all and makes no sense. But in general, the depiction of friend drama is true-to-life without being overly depressing or obnoxious, so it gets my thumbs-up overall!
Finally, one of the biggest themes of Just Pretend is how Tori deals with her family. Her mother and father are divorced, and she and her older siblings Ryan and Emily move back and forth between them. Family drama boils over the course of this book: we have Tori's mother insisting that Tori accompany her and Emily to ballet practice when Tori is certain that she can stay home alone. We have conflict between Tori and her older brother Ryan. We have the slowly-dawning realization, at least to me, that Tori's happy-go-lucky father is a bit too childlike and irresponsible. And we have the drama of families moving houses and apartments, both permanently and temporarily (Tori sometimes forgets tons of things while packing just to go to her dad's apartment). Family drama tends to be an afterthought in a lot of books—we all have it, so we all forget that we even have it, so we forget to write about it. But Tori Sharp has made sure to show how aggravating families can be—and how great, too. Tori's sister Emily is supportive of her, and her father and his girlfriend, Jane, both support her writing endeavors. And even Tori's mother, who comes across as a bit mean and unattentive, develops over the course of the story too. I feel like there wasn't necessarily a clear moral or a clean resolution to the family plotlines—a conflict is introduced and then resolved so quickly that I didn't even notice the conflict had happened at all until they were throwing the resolution in my face. But overall, I really like how faithful and relatable Just Pretend's depiction of family life is.
Just Pretend may sound like a relatively simple story, but Tori Sharp has a level of storytelling skill that makes this story surprisingly enjoyable to read! This book may be one of the closest approximations I've seen of Raina Telgemeier's Smile—while the plotting isn't as pitch-perfect, the mixture of creative fun and relatable struggles is one that kids will gobble up! Overall, if you're looking for a fun, quick read for yourself or the young readers in your life, make sure to take a look at Just Pretend!
My rating is: Pretty good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 2!