Book Review: Drama, by Raina Telgemeir
Few things fuel middle school life-like the drama of interpersonal relationships. Who likes who? Who like likes who? What does it mean to like somebody? What does it mean if you don’t? Is friendship more important than romance? Despite what parents might want, many kids start dealing with this stuff in middle school, and Telgemeier has captured that dissonance perfectly. In this well-balanced graphic novel, the author uses a cartoon style and light humor to offset the heavier issues raised in the story.
What struck me most about this book is how real and relatable the characters feel, especially the central Callie. It is all too easy to make middle school (and high school, for that matter) characters seem maudlin and over-dramatic. Part of this, of course, is because that’s exactly what so many of them are in real life. That rarely translates well on the page, though. Telgemeier uses a crisp pace to keep Callie from wallowing in self-reflection, even as she visibly struggles to process feelings about several of her classmates. The danger with such a strategy is that the story will become too light and avoid a real emotional experience in the characters. Telgemeier, however, poignantly times both her dialogue and art so that the characters have moments of tangible depth which keep the novel anchored. Callie and her drama crew friends are able to grow without the author belaboring the point and losing momentum.
My only hang up has to do with the world around the characters. The plot is driven by Eucalyptus Middle School’s production of Moon Over Mississippi. Callie and most of her friends (mainly 7th and 8th graders) are on the Stage Crew. Within the world of the story, they have a tremendous amount of responsibility for creating the production elements. Mr. Madera is on hand occasionally to guide and organize, but for most of the book the reader sees the students working independently. Without context, I would have thought it a high school. The crew exhibits a maturity and self-direction in this respect that just seemed a little too old to me. Now, my reading may be colored by personal experience, both as a student and teacher, but it was a feeling I couldn’t easily shake. Of course, this is a small quibble in the grand scheme and was not enough to interfere with my overall enjoyment of the novel.
I came across this book only recently, when it popped up on the most recent incarnation of the ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Books. The reason given is “sexually explicit.” Yeah, it’s not. At all. For all that Callie is concerned about romantic relationships, there is neither discussion nor depiction of sex. There are a couple gay characters, and one boy does kiss another, but it is within the context of performing the play. If this is the source of the objection, then there are some adults suffering from serious and willful blindness. Even in middle school, there are students who are self-identifying as gay. Both they and their hetero classmates need even-handed stories which depict characters emblematic of the life they are living. That is precisely what Telgemeier has done here. Any given character’s sexuality is not essential to the story but does play a role as a fact of their respective lives. In this way, I think the author gives her readers ample room to explore their own feelings on the subject. Regardless of the topic at hand, that is something all great books do.