Skim, Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, Groundwood Books, 2008/2010.
I was going to save this book for the next time I write a graphic novel edition of this column, but I liked it so much I couldn’t wait. Just look at all the people who agree with me!
When you read as much young adult as I do, you get used to, and occasionally irritated by, the angsty teen voice. Accordingly, when you meet a character who stands out as genuinely unique and real, you feel like raising the book in the air in triumph. Or perhaps that’s just me. In any case, Skim is one of those characters. It’s not that she’s not angsty — she is, and plenty. She’s a goth who wants to be Wiccan, in fact, and maybe I enjoyed her so much because who didn’t want to be goth and Wiccan when they were a teen?? Okay, again, maybe just me. But there’s something about her voice that simply rings out as particularly true, past stereotypes or expectation.
It’s particularly true when a popular boy in her high school kills himself and she’s able to see past all the surface sympathy that erupts from her peers, through the hypocrisy of counselors who seek her out as being suicidal because she’s goth when the boy who killed himself was a star athlete. She seems to particularly speak the truth about her shifting feelings about her best friend, who doesn’t always act like a best friend. And she’s as honest as she can be with her confusing emotions about the drama/English teacher, Ms. Archer, who she admits is kind of a freak. Which is, of course, why she likes her.
Sing it, Sister.
Ms. Archer is a tricky character, and I still don’t know how I feel about her completely, but I like Skim enough that I still love this book. It’s not really about Ms. Archer in the end. It’s about being yourself, and having to carry on even when you’re surrounded by all the crap that is being sixteen. It’s about people surprising you, in bad ways and in good; it’s about being able to surprise yourself, too.
Another refreshing thing about Skim: as a chubby Japanese Canadian, she doesn’t look exactly like any queer teen I’ve seen in a graphic novel before, and bless that. While Skim is a couple years old and I’m just catching up to the greatness of Mariko Tamaki, I’m also looking forward to reading her newest book, a non-graphic novel variety this time but still gay, (You) Set Me on Fire, released this fall.
If these three books aren’t enough to keep you busy, this month I also recommend Sassafras Lowrey’s Roving Pack, examining the life of homeless genderqueers on the streets of Portland, Oregon, and Girl From Mars by Tamara Bach, a thoroughly bittersweet but enjoyable YA story from Germany.