Tagged: Memoirs

No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant

Comics memoirs don’t have to be about something life-shattering that happened when you were younger. It just seems that way sometimes. And, to be honest, any book should be about something important: one old piece of fiction-writing advice is that a story should be about the most important thing that ever happened to that person. [1]

Of course, not everyone has a father who survived the Holocaust, or fled their birth country when very young because of upheavals, or was unable to speak for months at a time, or had a major intestinal condition as a middle-schooler, or…so on. But everyone’s life was changed, at least once. So everyone has at least that one story to tell.

Hazel Newlevant is a relatively young cartoonist, about a decade into their career. No Ivy League  was their new graphic novel for 2019; my sense is this was a bigger book, maybe more of a breakout book, than Newlevant’s previous work. I could easily be wrong: but the “Comics” page on Newlevant’s site seems to mostly have shorter pieces. My sense is that cartoonists list all of their work until the list gets too long, and then prune down to book-length works and either just “Shorter Stories” or a couple of categories of those shorter pieces.

This is a story about a seventeen-year-old named Hazel. From the afterword, it’s based on Newlevant’s real life, with details changed for everyone else (like so many memoirs). Now, I want to apologize if I screw up pronouns from here on: Newlevant’s site describes theirself as transmaculine and uses they/them pronouns, but the Hazel in the book presents as female and uses she/her. This is not a transition story: it’s a story about a person who later transitioned, and I’m going to try to be precise in talking about Hazel (the seventeen-year-old character in the memoir) and Newlevant (the decade-older person who made the story).

Hazel is a high-achieving homeschooled kid in Portland, Oregon. She seems to be an only child, the kind whose parents poured everything they ever wanted into her upbringing, and that’s the kind of homeschooling she had: the regular-schools-aren’t-good-enough-for-my-awesome-child kind, not the keep-my-brood-away-from-secular-temptations kind. She has a small group of other homeschooled kids she hangs and works with regularly; they’re making videos for a national contest to promote homeschooling with the hope of using that money to go on a road trip the coming fall to see the band Guster in concert.

Another making-money scheme is a summer job: Hazel gets hired into No Ivy League, a youth group that will spend the summer removing invasive ivy from Forest Park, a gigantic semi-wild area in the city. There she’s thrown in with a large group of other kids her age for what may be the first time in a long time: certainly the most mixed group that she’s ben part of

, in race and background and outlook and life experience.

The bulk of the book is about Hazel’s time with that group, for good and bad. She learns to play ultimate frisbee and gets sexually harassed; she works hard and has to deal with people very unlike those she’s used to. There’s no one lesson, no one big thing – she does get sexually harassed, but just once, briefly, and she reports it. The aftermath is messier, since it leads to her harasser being kicked out of the program, and everyone knows it was because of her.

(This is also mildly parallel to a very inappropriate flirting that Hazel carries on – one-sidedly, only from her – with one of the adult leaders. She says things to that leader arguably as bad as what was said to her, and does it over a longer period of time.)

The biggest piece of the experience is Hazel realizing how insulated homeschooling has made her, and how it’s intertwined with her privilege. Like the grind she is, she tries to fix the situation by reading a bunch of books and learning better. (It’s not the worst reaction, certainly! Frankly, it might be about the best possible one.)

No Ivy League is not about A Problem in the way so many memoirs are – or

, if it is, the “problem” is vastly larger and ubiquitous. Hazel can’t solve the problem, and it’s not her problem the way it usually is in comics memoirs. She can learn more, and understand better, but all of her vegan living and good intentions won’t change that most of No Ivy League is made up of “at-risk youth,” and all of the ways that’s coded, and all of the ways all of those kids have not been set up to succeed a tenth of the way she has.

Hazel does learn; she does do better. And one hopes the reader learns alongside her. I’m pretty sure that’s why Newlevant chose this story to tell: it’s a story about a young person learning more, and doing better. My sense is that No Ivy League is aimed at people like Hazel – young, well-meaning, probably more privileged than they realize, and in need of something to make them pop their heads up and look around.

Newlevant tells that story in a mostly quiet, naturalistic way. Their lettering is softly rounded, the art is watercolor but mostly in shades of greenish gray, the people are a little bit cartoony but their surroundings are precise and real. This is not a story that will hit you over the head; it will creep around the sides until you’re right in the middle of it without realizing. Even if you’re not a privileged seventeen-year-old, No Ivy League has a lot to offer.

[1] It’s not perfect advice, obviously – what about series characters? But it’s good new-creator advice, to focus on stories that really matter to your characters. And “your characters” are “you” for the autobio cartoonist.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Invisible Differences by Mademoiselle Caroline and Julie Dachez

I tagged this as “non-fiction” and “memoir,” but it’s isn’t, exactly. This is the story of Marguerite, a twenty-seven-year-old French woman who gets diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s written by Julie Dachez, who is now thirty-six and who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in 2012.

So the reader’s assumption is that Marguerite has been constructed to be somewhat different from the real Dachez. Some details are not what actually happened to Dachez, for whatever reason, and those changes were large enough that she changed the name of the central character, while still presenting it all as “my story” (though “my” here tends to attach to Marguerite).

That’s Invisible Differences , a graphic novel published in 2016 in France and translated by Edward Gauvin for a 2020 English-language publication. Well, actually, I’m still simplifying. I originally thought Mademoiselle Caroline was purely the artist, but the book itself makes it clear that she also adapted Dachez’s script – maybe it wasn’t quite in comics-panel form to begin with, maybe it was but Caroline made changes for better panel flow and readability, maybe some other complicated working relationship to end up with these finished pages.

So it was written by Dachez and Caroline, to some degree. It’s the story of Dachez, to some degree. It’s accurate and realistic, but maybe not “true” in the purest sense of that word.

I know that people on the autism spectrum are often concerned with little details like that, which is one reason I go into such detail here. (The other is that I am concerned with those details, and fascinated by them, even though I’m not on that spectrum.)

Since I’m American, I’m used to seeing the competing “America is better than anyone in the world at X!” and “America is totally horrible at Y, unlike these other countries!” arguments. Invisible Differences is partially the same sort of thing applied to France. As Dachez and Caroline present it, Freudian psychotherapy still rules mental health in France, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is underdiagnosed and undertreated, particularly in women. There’s an extensive section of notes at the end about what Autism is and how it’s treated in France, which could be helpful to people newly diagnosed and their families and friends. 

I’m happy to note that my own son (diagnosed as various things on the spectrum in his first decade-and-a-half before the ASM-5 consolidated it all into ASD in 2013) had good support and care; it’s rare to see some health-care thing that the USA actually does better than an EU country. This is more a book for people getting this diagnosis in adulthood, or maybe adolescence, than the typical US timing of early childhood.

There isn’t a whole lot of “story” here; it’s about who Marguerite is, how she learns there’s a label and an explanation for some parts of her life that have caused her friction and anxiety, and how she transforms her life to align with what she learns and what she decides she wants to do with her new knowledge. It’s a profound journey for her: she was unhappy in really central ways that she doesn’t seem to have even thought were able to be changed until her diagnosis.

I’m going to see if my on-the-spectrum son is interested in this book; if he does read it and tells me anything, I may add notes here or later. But, for now, and speaking purely as someone who knows a person on the spectrum, this is a thoughtful, honest book that I think will be great for ASD-diagnosed people, particularly those coming to the diagnosis later in life.

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Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

The Fire Never Goes Out by Noelle Stevenson

No one’s story is as smooth and clear as it looks from outside. It might seem like someone has had only success after success, rising quickly, winning awards and conquering worlds at a young age. But you’d have to ask that person what it was really like.

The Fire Never Goes Ou t is a “what it was really like” book, covering roughly the past decade in Noelle Stevenson’s life. That was a decade where she went through art school in Baltimore, was discovered by an Internet audience, got a literary agent and a book deal, published a graphic novel that was a bestseller and an Eisner winner and a finalist for real-world literary awards too, graduated and got jobs writing and producing in Hollywood, was showrunner for an acclaimed popular TV show, fell in love and got married.

The comics collected here are about what that all felt like to Stevenson, how she was driven and tormented and felt like she was both on fire and had a hole straight through her body. (Comics are an ideal medium for this kind of personal reflection: Stevenson can just draw herself the way she feels

, burning or covered with spikes or with a gaping hole in her chest, talking with her younger self or changing looks and style from drawing to drawing. And she does: she makes great use of the freedom comics gives her.) From the outside, it looks great: that rising arc of a career and life that we all think our twenties will be or should have been. From the inside…my guess is that Stevenson was both driven by her passions and demons to achieve what she did, and that those passions and demons made it all much harder and the crashes worse than it would otherwise have been.

But she did get through it: this is the story of getting through it. Assembled from the comics she made at the time, starting in 2011 in that first year of art school and running through her marriage in 2019. Much of the book is made up of long year-end posts she did – I’m not sure what social platform, or if they’re still available there, but they were stories made to be told in public and shared with her regular audience immediately – on her New Year’s Eve birthday every year from ’11 through ’18.

This book is triumphant, through adversity. It is true. It is aimed at the generation coming up after Stevenson, living their own complicated lives and feeling their own fires and holes in their chests, and I think it will help a lot of them, either directly or by telling them it’s OK to ask for help.

She has the fire. I believe her when she says it will not go out.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation by Wilson, Ottaviani, and Butler

When you’re talking about people who have an inordinate fondness for insects, you probably mean either God or E.O. Wilson. And only one of them is a person you can actually have a conversation with. (Well, Wilson is 91, and probably still busy enough that it would be tough to get some of his time — but you know what I mean.)

Actually, you can differentiate them a bit more than that — God is said to like beetles better, and Wilson was always an ant guy. Just in case the distinction becomes important in your life.

Edward O. Wilson is the towering biologist of the 20th century, which is particularly impressive since that was such a physics-heavy century. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for books he wrote, is responsible for hundreds of scientific papers and possibly the foundational biological theory of the era, and is one of the pillars of the conservation movement. Naturalist  was his memoir — the story of how he grew up, got interested in ants, got into science, and navigated most of his career. That book came out in 1994, when Wilson was 65, and just a couple of years before he retired from active teaching at Harvard — but, as I said above, he’s still going strong now at 91, and has published as many books since Naturalist as he did before it. So the idea probably was that Naturalist was going to be basically the story of his life, but he may need to add a second volume at this rate.

Naturalist has had a strong life, and has been particularly influential on young readers interested in science — obviously those kids who like bugs, but also the ones who end up going into chemistry or physics or possibly even (gasp!) engineering. [1] So clearly someone — maybe even Wilson himself, since he’s obviously a smart guy with a lot of ideas — thought it would be good to do one of those new-fangled “graphic novel” versions of Naturalist, since all of the kids love them these days.

(I may be deliberately making this sound silly for comic effect. But it was a good idea.)

However it happened, Island Press — the nonprofit that publishes the prose edition of Naturalist — found Jim Ottaviani, the premier and almost only writer of science in comics form, to adapt Wilson’s book into comics and cartoonist, illustrator, and cartoonist C.M. Butzer to draw it. Colors are by Hilary Sycamore, but the pre-publication proof I read only features color for the first seventeen story pages, so I can’t really speak to her work here as a whole. The graphic adaptation came out last November, and is widely available now — so now there are two versions of Naturalist available to be handed to a budding scientist, one of which features lots of pictures of ants to go with Wilson’s words.

As usual with Ottaviani’s work, there are lots of caption boxes and dialogue — he likes to get in as many of the real words of the books and scientists he’s adapting as possible. So this will be a denser graphic novel than many readers are used to: I’d say that’s no bad thing, since science is demanding and full of details that require close attention. Anyone looking for something quick and surface-y is not cut out for a life in science to begin with.

And, of course, this is the story of a life, and one intertwined with field exploration, collaboration with other scientists, and writing — some of it is about external action, but most of what was important in Wilson’s life happened in his thoughts, as he examined ants around the world, thought about them back in Massachusetts, scribbled ideas on a board with colleagues, and bounced their theories off the real world to make sure they actually worked.

I wish there were more graphic novels like this, and fewer about punching people, but that’s the world we live in. Intellectual activity is always less popular than punching. But this one is out there, and it’s really good at what it does. If you know someone who could be a scientist eventually, this would be a good book to give her.

[1] Note: your present writer’s son is a budding engineer, in the second year of a five-year undergraduate ChemE program, and so he kids because he loves.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Guts by Raina Telgemeier

Several hundred thousand people — mostly girls, mostly under the age of fifteen — already have very strong opinions on this book in particular and Raina Telgemeier in general, and it’s unlikely that anything this One Old Guy could say will shift any of them in the slightest. (And most of them love it and her — not everyone, since nothing is universally beloved, but close.)

Raina Telgemeier is the pre-eminent maker of comics in our time: the crest of the YA graphic novel boom, the reigning queen of the Scholastic Book Fair, author of some of the most circulated books in thousands of libraries. A whole lot of comics fans have no idea who she is, though: the dismissive explanation is because they think only superheroes (or maybe the slightly larger pamphlets-on-Wednesday* market) count as comics, the more reasonable explanation is that everyone focuses on the stuff they like and care about, and comics is now big and capacious enough (like books, or movies, or TV) to have entirely separate, disjoint worlds within it.

But, yeah, Raina is huge. When she had a new book out last year, it was a massive publishing event. It was called Guts ; I got to it this week.

Telgemeier started her comics-making career by adapting four of Anne M. Martin’s perennially-popular “Baby-Sitters Club” books into comics, and then, just about a decade ago, had her first comics memoir, Smile , about dental troubles she had starting in middle school and how that affected her life. It was a massive bestseller, and was followed by the similar memoir Sisters  and the fictional GNs Drama  and Ghosts  (both about tween girls not unlike the way Telgemeier portrayed her younger self).

Guts is in the same vein as Smile and Sisters: starting from a moment in Young Raina’s life and moving forward through the months after that to show her dealing with a medical/personal issue. This time, it’s a stomach flu or something similar when she was in fourth grade: probably the first time she vomited since she was a toddler. That led to more worry about intestinal issues, which led to anxiety-induced stomach pains, and so on — the whole spiral, at the age of about ten. (And that’s not uncommon, actually — especially for relatively smart, sensitive kids of that age, even more so for girls.)

Of course, anxiety is never just about one thing, and it doesn’t stay compartmentalized: Young Raina’s school work suffers, and it causes trouble with her friendships (and one definitely-not-a-friendship, with Michelle, who starts off bullying Young Raina) as well. Young Raina eventually starts talk therapy, because her parents are worried about her. (And Telgemeier has an afterword, frankly about the fact that she’s in therapy even now, and that her anxiety is more controlled, but never “went away.”) That’s the story: how Young Raina started an anxiety/stomach spiral, and how she started to deal with it. Like a lot of things in life, dealing with it is ongoing and continuous.

Guts is personal and true and specific, and I’m sure a lot of librarians and teachers are happy to put in the hands of other kids going through something like Young Raina did. But Telgemeier’s work is more than just that: we were all kids once (some of us still are), and we all had and still have things that make us anxious and worried. Guts is about that feeling, that process — understanding what makes us concerned, what can lead into that spiral. And it’s also a good story — Telgemeier draws open-faced kids whose emotions are all right there (as they are at that age) and shows us what it’s like to be those kids, whether they’re named “Raina” or not.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.