How I Made It to Eighteen (Roaring Book Press) / My Life as a Book (Henry Holt & Co.)

A look at two tales of disaffected youth: webcomicker Tracy White’s tale of a girl recovering from a nervous breakdown, and Janet and Jake Tashjian’s story of a reluctant reader forced off to "learning camp."

 

How I Made it to Eighteen (Roaring Brook Press)
156 pgs., B&W; $16.99
(W&A: Tracy White)
 
My Life As a Book (Henry Holt & Co.)
224 pgs, B&W; $16.99
(W: Janet Tashjian: A: Jake Tashjian)
 
Disaffected youth are the staple of comics and graphic novels as much as of indie movies, and this week we take a look at two treatments of the theme. How I Made it to Eighteen is Tracy White’s autobiographical narrative of her nervous breakdown at the tender age of 17. My Life as a Book is a more light-hearted look at a few months in the life of Derek, a young man stamped with the label “reluctant reader” whose mother decides, horror of horrors, to pack him off to Learning Camp for the summer.
I was not familiar with the work of Tracy White before reading How I Made it to Eighteen but she has quite a following and the reason’s not hard to see: her web comics (www.traced.com) offer a deceptively simple and wholly original take on modern life from a distinctively female point of view. Or as she put it, the comics are “lived, written and drawn by me. guaranteed 95% true.”
How I Made it to Eighteen plunges you into the world of the author after her admittance to “Golden Meadows Hospital” by opening with a spread of a completely black page except for the words “I miss my life” and a second primarily blank page which has a small drawing of a girl on a hospital bed in the lower right-hand corner and three short sentences spaced across the page diagonally: “It seems so long ago that everything was normal/ When will my stomach stop going 1,000 miles per hour?/ I want to feel like me. I just don’t know who ‘me’ is anymore.” We learn in subsequent pages that she was admitted after a suicide attempt and has a history of depression, drug use and eating disorders.
The story of How I Made to Eighteen, told by Tracy in the first person along with a chorus of her girlfriends, is one of a clearly intelligent but seriously disturbed young woman gradually working through her problems and coming out on the other side. There’s no shying away from the details of her suffering or of her self-destructive behaviors but, ultimately, this is a hopeful book because she did survive the breakdown and is now a successful artist and illustrator. Her artistic style relies on simple but expressive line drawings and she uses a variety of page layouts, each chosen to enhance the emotional truth of the story. This is a very impressive book which will appeal to adults as well as teenagers (and not only to females!) because the protagonist’s journey is one common to the human condition and not limited to the teenage years.
Derek, the protagonist of My Life as a Book, has a less serious problem, although in his mind it is probably just as important: he likes to draw but hates to read anything more challenging than Calvin & Hobbes. In fact, his school’s summer reading list seems like a terrible oppression designed by adults with the particular intent of destroying what he feels is his right to a care-free summer climbing on the roof and pelting the UPS truck with water balloons. Even worse, his Mom decides to send him to Learning Camp, two words designed to send a shudder through any reading-reluctant child. It works out better than he expects, however, because he manages to pursue his own agenda—solving the mystery of a girl named Susan James who drowned at Martha’s Vineyard—while also keeping the adults in his life reasonably happy.
My Life as a Book is a mainly prose book accompanied with stick figure illustrations in the margins (reminiscent of Diary of A Wimpy Kid) that illustrate vocabulary words. You’ll be surprised how clever some of the drawings are, and this approach is particularly good for real-life Dereks who are reluctant readers themselves. The target market for this one is ages 10-14 and that feels about right, although it’s complex enough for parents to enjoy as well. I have only one qualm and, not being the parent of a school-age boy, I’m just putting it out there for consideration. Do parents really want their kids reading a novel in which the main character climbs on the roof of their house to deliberately break the satellite dish and gets away with nothing more than a mild reprimand? Just sayin’, that’s all. | Sarah Boslaugh
 
To learn more or to view a video trailer of these titles, click here for How I Made It to Eighteen, and click here for My Life as a Book.

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