Posts Tagged ‘coming-of-age’

#CBR4 Cannonball 24: Blankets by Craig Thompson

BlanketsBlankets by Craig Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blankets is aptly named. Imagine pulling out an old blanket and wrapping it around yourself. Breathe deeply of its scent; of dust and mold and mothballs, with a whiff of winter nights and pillow forts. For Craig Thompson, writing this graphic novel must have been like pulling out his past and immersing himself in it, inhaling the euphoria and pain of innocence lost.

Craig was raised in an evangelical Christian household. He was picked on by others and unpopular at school. He had to share a bed with his little brother, Phil. One year, he goes to a Christian winter camp, where he meets Raina. The two have an instant connection and begin a long-distance correspondence that culminates in Craig’s visiting Raina for two weeks.

Thompson paints a stark, sad, and unfortunately accurate picture of many churches and evangelical groups in America today. It made me really sad to see the kind of church he grew up attending. They taught him vague principles without any scriptural evidence, governed him by guilt instead of pointing him to the grace of the gospel, and were more concerned with outward conformity than inward renewal. Far too many churches like this exist, and then wonder why their youth abandon their “faith” as they grow older. I grew up in a church similar to that. I grew up feeling isolated and marginalized at church, which I resented because it just didn’t sit right with me that I was being rejected at the one place that I thought had no choice but to accept me. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the true gospel (beginning with my own sinfulness and need of a Savior) and stopped thinking so much about myself and started thinking more about others.

lone wolf

And the whole trend of encouraging young men to go into ministry as a ploy to convince them not to abandon the faith is sad and ridiculously unbiblical. I’m thankful that Thompson had the foresight not to go into ministry out of guilt or because he was flattered by older men who told him they thought he’d be great at it. I don’t know any teenaged boys who know themselves well enough to know whether they’re called to ministry. Oh, and you have to be called. You can’t just appoint yourself to this role, and if you’re not sure, other people can’t make that decision for you, either.

*steps off soapbox* But the novel isn’t just about religion. The novel is also a raw look at first love. Most of us are familiar with the rush that comes with that first infatuation; the first time we meet someone who turns our insides to goo. And even more amazing is the moment when that person reciprocates your feelings.

But, then, real life is a lot harder than you want it to be when you’re seventeen. Raina’s parents are getting a divorce, and she’s often left to care for her developmentally disabled adopted siblings, Ben and Laura. Craig wants to support Raina, but the reader is left mumbling to herself, “Get outta there, kid; it’s going to be too much for you.”

Blankets is a beautiful coming-of-age story about family, friendship, first love, and learning the ropes of life. The artwork is superb and the story, well-told.

But it did leave me quite sad. Once you leave that innocence behind, there’s no getting it back. It happens to all of us, but that doesn’t make it any easier to let it go.

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Cannonball 53: Black Hole by Charles Burns

Black HoleBlack Hole by Charles Burns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn’t very popular in high school. I wanted desperately to hang out with the cool kids, but they avoided me and ignored me. My unpopularity was a disease that they didn’t want to catch.

Charles Burns makes social diseases of this sort the literal premise of Black Hole. In the novel, there’s a sexually transmitted disease (which I recently heard is now called a “sexually transmitted infection.” Apparently, it’s not a “disease” unless there are symptoms) that manifests in strange ways. Some people with the disease are able to hide the symptoms: skin that sheds like a snake’s, webbed fingers and toes, a tiny mouth that whispers what you’re really thinking. But others are forced into hiding because the change in their appearances is grotesquely apparent, and there’s no hiding that they have the disease.

Burns takes a raw look at the world of adolescent friendships and the very real pain they cause. Teenagers do crazy things, but it’s often because they’re feeling pain and isolation, and they don’t know how else to cope. Burns follows this pain and isolation — sometimes obvious, but sometimes hidden — to conclusions that may seem farfetched, but are disturbingly common to the reactions that many of today’s teens have to their own perceived social “diseases.”

Now, I have no problems admitting that I’m quite the prude. There’s quite a bit of nudity in this graphic novel, and it was jarring for me. When I come across graphic scenes in books, I can usually skip ahead to where the coast is clear. But a picture is worth a thousand words, and I often unwittingly read entire scenes at a glance that I would have preferred to skip. It would be naïve of me to blame the author for that, and I’m not. But I do want to warn my fellow prudes that Charles Burns puts the “graphic” in “graphic novel” with this one.

Black Hole is a novel that will get to you. It’s jarring, raw, and poignant. It’s not something you’ll forget in a hurry, and that’s both a good and a bad thing.

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Cannonball 14: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan GreenBlack Swan Green by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who’s ever watched Mean Girls knows that there are castes in school, the same way that there are castes in Indian society. There are the Brahmin, the highest caste, which everyone reveres. There are the Untouchables, the lowest caste, which everyone shuns. And then there are some castes in the middle which nobody really cares about unless you’re in one of them.

There aren’t many Brahmin. It’s an honor to be Brahmin, and if everyone were Brahmin, it wouldn’t be as much of an honor. There are plenty of Untouchables, but not so many that they’d overrun India and take it by force.

Most people fall into those obscure, in-between castes, and nobody cares much about them. Or so they might think, at least.

When I was in junior high, I was in that in painful, nameless, in-between caste. I wanted desperately to be popular, but my every effort to win the friendship of the popular kids was summarily rebuffed. Every once in a while, one of them would throw me a bone and be nice to me (sometimes so that I’d let them cheat off me), but it never lasted. I hated life in those days. I felt like a total loser, and I despaired because, in my heart, I believed it was true.

David Mitchell captured the essence of my despair, put it in a thirteen-year-old English boy, threw in a few other hardships, and made a masterpiece.

nicholas hoult

It's like About a Boy, but not as lighthearted.

Black Swan Green is the story of young Jason Taylor. Jason lives in Black Swan Green, a nice neighborhood in Worcestershire. He has a stutter, he’s unpopular in school, he just broke an antique watch of his grandfather’s that his father gave him, and there’s something weird going on between his parents that he just can’t figure out.

Jason’s story is, in many ways, typical. He has some disadvantages: his stutter, his unpopularity, his desperate desire for popularity. He also has a few advantages: his parents are well-off, there are kids even less popular than he is for the popular kids to pick on, he’s not a complete idiot.

And it’s Jason’s averageness that makes him so relatable. Most people have relatively unremarkable upbringings. Our parents had problems and sometimes took them out on us. We fought with our siblings. We got annoyed with our friends. We were tempted to do the wrong thing in order to look cool. And it’s the sincerity of Jason’s reactions to these situations that make the story so compelling.

phoebe prince

Most of us have been tempted to do what Phoebe Prince did at some point.

Mitchell is fair in his portrayal of Jason’s bullies through his eyes. We can feel Jason’s hatred and fear of these boys, but Mitchell also gives us short glimpses of what might make these kids they way they are. Jason, as a kid in the thick of this bullying, doesn’t think that far about it, but the adult reader has to consider it, if only for a moment.

There are several brilliant scenes in the book; the teacher’s class discussion about secrets, Jason’s visit to the House of Mirrors at the carnival, the episode with the gypsies. And there are plenty of laughs to be had, too. It wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of life as a thirteen-year-old boy without a few laughs.

Mitchell’s writing is pitch-perfect. He does an excellent job of communicating Jason’s thoughts to the reader, but still writing beautifully. Sometimes, you have to make your main character a poet in order to write poetically from a first-person point of view.

susie derkins

I used to have Susie Derkins hair, and wear khaki cargo shorts I stole from my brother under a Chicago Bears jersey I found at a garage sale. That was when I was nineteen. Now, try to imagine how much MORE awkward I looked at thirteen, and you'll understand why I didn't post an actual photo here.

This book called my thirteen-year-old self to mind so vividly that it was almost as though I were in the room with myself: hunched over self-consciously, wearing jeans and a Simpsons t-shirt because she didn’t have any sense of style, hair unmercifully permed by her mother, thick glasses made for American noses inevitably slipping down her face, which was screwed into a perpetual frown of dissatisfaction with herself.

This was a girl who, in her desperation not to lose the two more popular friends she had, went along with their cruel decision to ditch a third less popular friend. She wrote a really mean letter to that third girl and never explained herself and never apologized. She signed that letter with her name because she wanted the two friends she had left to be impressed with her courage. She forever regretted knowing that, whenever the third girl looked at her after that, she would always see the decisive signature at the bottom of that heartless note.

When that third girl was finally accepted back into the group, with no explanation and no fanfare, she never could bring herself to apologize for that note.

(Sue Mei, if you’re out there somewhere, I want you to know that I regretted writing that letter the minute I sent it to you, and I’ve been wanting to apologize for it ever since. I hope you can forgive me.)

If I could talk to that ill-adjusted thirteen-year-old girl, I wouldn’t tell her to just suck it up because everyone goes through this phase. I wouldn’t tell hug her and tell her that everything was going to be okay.

I’d just tell her I was sorry for her, and that I always would be, but that these are the things that you have to go through in order to grow up.

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Cannonball 25: The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary

The Luckiest Girl The Luckiest Girl by Beverly Cleary

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I’m a big fan of realism. I love a good, gritty novel that doesn’t pull punches about the reality of life, and the harsher the lesson learned, the more invested I get.

But there must still be a little idealism in my cynical, little heart yet (probably nestled next to the part of me that loves puppies and babies and lolcats) because I absolutely loved The Luckiest Girl.


(But I digress.)

I grew up on Beverly Cleary, and I love the Ramona books. I had no idea that Cleary wrote young adult fiction as well, and I was impressed by this one.

Shelley Latham lives a great life in Portland, Oregon. She has loving parents, great friends, and a nice boyfriend. But she’s inexplicably bored with her perfect life, and when she gets the opportunity to live in California for a school year, she jumps at the chance.

She makes friends and gets along well with the family friends she’s staying with and even ends up dating the boy of her dreams: the school’s basketball star, Philip. Along the way, she learns a lot about family, friends, dreams, expectations, and herself.

It sounds terribly cliché, but, somehow, it isn’t. Cleary’s tale of a young girl’s first taste of freedom and independence is sweet and honest. Despite the fact that there’s no tragedy in the storyline, it still feels real, and that’s mostly a credit to Cleary’s depiction of Shelley. She’s a nice girl, but she has flaws, and one of them is a flaw common to many young girls: she just doesn’t know herself, yet.

And that’s why Cleary’s story rings true. Shelley’s reactions are honest. She worries about whether or not an impulsive decision was a mistake. She exults over the smallest hint that the boy she likes might like her back. She’s frustrated because she sometimes doesn’t understand her parents, and seeing another mother and daughter dynamic helps her to understand her own relationship with her mother.

It’s all very innocent, but, then again, the book is set in a much simpler time (it was originally published in 1958).

While it wasn’t the usual “high school = misery” story that I usually gravitate towards (mostly because I identify with them more), I still thoroughly enjoyed The Luckiest Girl. It’s a sweet look at a young girl’s coming of age, and it made me wistful without feeling manipulated. Beverly Cleary should get more credit than she does.

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A Simpler Time is Still the Same: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
To Kill a Mockingbird is a book about growing up, civil unrest, racism, hatred, love, friendship — it’s about life. It’s a classic that most kids read in high school. I had a friend who refused to read fiction, but he read and liked this one.

Perhaps it’s the way that Lee lays bare not only the thoughts, but the very heart of a young girl growing up in the Civil-Rights-era South. It’s remarkable how reclusive Harper Lee was able to so perfectly capture the voice of young Scout Finch.

Told from the perspective of a young tomboy (the aforementioned Scout Finch), the book is by turns funny, maddening, and heartbreaking. It’s a complete picture of Scout’s life — everything from acting out the stories about neighborhood mystery Boo Radley to the trial of Tom Robinson and the toll that it takes on the entire town.

It’s a great reminder that, although times are different now, people are essentially the same, families are essentially the same, friendship is essentially the same, and growing up is essentially the same. Whether you learn from television or from events unfolding in your own hometown, there comes a point where you realize that the world can be a cold, unfair place, and there’s no going back to the way things were.

But the book ends on a hopeful note — the world can be pretty harsh, but if you have people who care about you and that you care about, you’ll be okay.

Seriously. Must read.

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