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.