Graphic Novelty²




Tillie Walden’s routine consists of waking up at the crack of dawn, going to synchronized skate practice, going to school, going to figure skating practice after school, then going home and doing her homework before sleeping. The next day, it happens all over again. On the weekends, she competes. The routine is familiar. Comforting. During an uncertain time in her life, Tillie clings to it with all she has. Her family has just moved from New Jersey to Texas. She transfers to an all-girls private school, but still has problems with bullies and grades. She also falls in love with her first girlfriend. When everything is changing – family, friends, feelings, even skating – what will Tillie hold onto, and what will she find the strength to let go of?

I’ve been waiting for this GN for a while after reading a great review in a publisher’s journal at work. There was a picture of the cover accompanying the review, and I was immediately drawn to it – purple/yellow is my favorite color combination. I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint. It completely sucks you in and keeps you in your seat until the very end. Tillie’s story of change feels just like yours – that period in middle school when everything is changing, and you don’t know what to hold onto and what to let go of. I was not an ice skater, but her stories of the cliques of the other girls in her groups resonated with me.

The art is sparse and two-dimensional – there is often an object or figure in one panel, the background either a block of white or deep purple. Yellow is used sparingly, to highlight only important or dramatic parts of the story. Lots of negative space portrays Tillie’s feelings of loneliness and emptiness better than her words could. A beautifully rendered graphic memoir.

– Kathleen

Walden, Tillie. Spinning. 2017.




I loved this graphic novel memoir! Some books really call to you because of past life experiences and I could relate to the experiences in the story because I was raised by an extremely angry father myself, so while our bios were completely different, I could connect at some level.

Author David Small was raised in Detroit with a taunting older brother, a father who was a radiologist plus an angry and repressed mother. Growing up in the image conscious 1950’s, David was a sickly child who tried to make the best of his dysfunctional upbringing by escaping into his art. At age eleven a growth began to grow on his neck, but his parents didn’t get him surgery for three more years, until it had metastasized into cancer. They kept the fact that it was cancer from him, and after he discovered the truth he was left with additional emotional scars in addition to the physical stitches and loss of half of his vocal cords.

The mother in this book was so very unlikable, and while Small didn’t portray his father in the same way, the fact that his father allowed the family to exist like that made him equally culpable. Such horrible undercurrents were running through that family over the years, and the choice for the parents not to tell their son he had cancer was inexcusable. Later he discovered that his mother was a lesbian and had significant health issues herself. Pair that with a toxic marriage, it’s no surprise that David and his brother were doomed to an unhappy childhood. However, the ending showed that with proper help from a therapist and finding supportive friends, an unhappy childhood does not prevent you from a successful and happy future.

His illustrations were so well done, with the reader easily seeing the family resemblances through the generations, and his eyes/face moving between child and teen. The drawings were all in black and white, which I thought focused you more on the narrative than on potentially distracting colors.  I enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland theme throughout, from him playing Alice as a child, to the very obvious White Rabbit therapist analogy. Of course, I enjoyed him finding peace and a passion/vocation that would move him away from his dysfunctional family. Page 302 made me tear up, seeing him as a young adult finally receiving the affirmation he deserved.


Small, David. Stitches. 2009.

Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale

The author of this book, Belle Yang, writes the story of her father’s family here. She returned home after college, and again after spending three years in China, her ancestral home, to escape an abusive boyfriend. During her time at home, she alternates between arguing with her father and listening to his tales of his family. His grandfather, the Patriarch, had four sons. The eldest was Belle’s grandfather, the rest her great-uncles. One New Year’s Day during World War II, they are all reunited at the Patriarch’s estate, where they would live for several years. One decision – to let the third son oversee the farming lands – will put the entire family through trials that both echo through generations and the land of China. Through her father’s stories, her family and their strife come alive in her mind. She gave them new life by writing and drawing their story, which turned into this graphic memoir.

I was alternately reminded, art wise, of Persepolis and of Chinese ink paintings as I read – undoubtedly where inspiration came from. The entire book is in black and white, with many different markings to show textures: a thatched roof, steam off a mug, reeds blowing in the wind. The figures are stylized, bordering child-like, but the impact of the story and the struggles of each character are conveyed perfectly. I was moved to tears near the end. This tale of family history, conveying China’s history during this period, is compelling and beautifully written and drawn. Deserves a place right next to Persepolis on your bookshelf.

– Kathleen

Yang, Belle. Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale. 2010.

Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir

Every summer, Maggie Thrash goes to Camp Bellflower. The languid days pass each as they did the day before, even the same year before. But this year… something’s different. No, it’s not the explosion of boy bands (though none are worth mentioning save the Backstreet Boys, at least in Maggie’s opinion). Nor is it the Potter craze, with everyone passing the books around and dying for the girl in front of her to finish it. No, Maggie… feels differently. Towards a counselor in the camp, specifically. What’s weird is, her name is Erin. Her feelings are sending Maggie into a huge tailspin. Could Erin possibly feel the same way? She lives in the South, and the camp is in Appalachia, where homophobia is very real and could be harmful… but she’s not a lesbian, is she?

I read the whole thing in one sitting… and was late coming back from lunch at work because of it. The brutally honest portrayal of teenage feeling sucked me in and held me until the abrupt, painful conclusion. Maggie’s dilemma is every teenager’s dilemma of first love… whomever you’re attracted to. The art was simple, almost childish, as it was rendered in what looked like colored pencil and watercolor. Yet somehow it conveyed all the confusion, uncertainty, and melodrama of teenage girlhood flawlessly. This is a story that wouldn’t have worked in any other format.

– Kathleen

Thrash, Maggie. Honor Girl: A Graphic Memoir. 2015.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. 2006.

I have picked up this book, read a bit, and put it back down a dozen times in the last year. Not because it isn’t excellent- it most definitely is- but the author’s relationship with her unhappy and distant father is much too similar to mine. This book breaks my heart, and brings up many painful memories for me. But I persisted, and am glad I did.

Author and illustrator Alison Bechdel chronicles her childhood through her early years of college, in a non-linear memoir. The Bechdel family lived in her father’s small hometown of Beech Creek in Pennsylvania, and her father helped run the family funeral parlor. Alison and her younger brothers named the funeral parlor, Fun Home, hence the name of the novel. Her parents were trapped in a loveless marriage, with the father hiding his homosexuality, although as the years wore on his affairs became less and less discreet.

This hiding of his true self shaped him into a bitter perfectionist, whose moods turned his wife into a shell of her former self, and the three children had to forever tiptoe around his outbursts and expectations.  When Bechdel enters college, she herself comes out as a lesbian, but has precious little time for her relationship with her father to change and grow with this realization, for her father died soon afterwards in what she suspected was a suicide.

A thread that ran through this book was her father’s love of literature, in addition to Bechdel’s own awakening of her sexuality, that ran parallel to her father’s. References to books such as Ulysses made connections between her and her father, with some overt symbolism that was dark and honest, but a bit forced at times.

The emotionally engaging illustrations were in black and white, and really captured the 1970’s era. Her parent’s grim marriage was subtlety represented, but she also was able to share times of humor and the joys of discovery in her drawings. Some of the illustrations were very graphic, with a sex act and a dead body being drawn in realistic detail, so this book is geared for mature audiences.

Bechdel’s raw autobiography was turned into a musical play that showed on Broadway, and she shared her feelings on that representation of her family in this enlightening nine-panel drawing Play Therapy.  That this book, and perhaps the play, can affect people deeply is a testament to the power of family and how it shapes us.


Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Roz Chast’s memoir about her last years with her elderly parents is so true to life. Her story made me cringe, made me laugh, and made me cry for I could relate to all she had been through.

My father died close to four years ago, and my mother has had several life-threatening hospital stays; making me the perfect audience for this story. My parents, especially my father (we were his second family), were significantly older than my friend’s parents. As such, this has made me the first of my friends to deal with these situations.  I originally read this book a few years ago, after reading a positive review about it and having struggled with feelings of grief and resentment before and after my father’s death.

Roz Chast is a staff cartoonist for The New Yorker and has had over 800 of her cartoons published in it, so when I picked up this book I recognized her quirky artistic style, but not her name. Roz was an only child of older, dysfunctional parents who lived in Brooklyn and had a difficult childhood with them. Her mother was extremely dominant, while her father was passive with significant anxieties and phobias. Roz left for college at 16, and eventually married and moved to Connecticut with her young family. Years later, as her parents moved into their 80’s she visited more often, and tried to step in to assist when their health issues forced them to move into an assisted living facility. All the work fell to her as she had to find a new home for them, clean out a dirty hoarded apartment that they had lived in for decades, arrange healthcare and take care of their financial matters. While Roz did all this willingly, out of respect and love for her parents, there was also a great deal of resentment, guilt and stress associated with it. Her parents hadn’t mellowed with age, so their idiosyncrasies were magnified and hard to deal with. Roz shares personal details of their eventual deaths, as she processes her feelings, knowing there are no more chances to change the unhealthy dynamic that the three of them had shared.

This amazing book helped me process my own feelings, and see that I was not alone. The feelings that my four sisters and I had for our domineering and abusive father has been hard to deal with, for while we all have grieved in our own ways it was muted compared to how I have witnessed others grieve.  So, thank you to Roz, for a beautiful warts and all memoir.


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