In the spirit of the Wiccan main character, I declare Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim to be utterly magickal. It’s dark, and beautiful, and heartbreaking, and sad, and perceptive. Skim has a wonderful balance of teenage angst, earnestness, and heightened emotion. And although it takes the classic form of a teenage girl’s diary, this graphic novel is anything but what you might expect from that format. I first read this book about five years ago, and remember really liking it; re-reading it, I think I appreciate even more what a subtly moving and poetic work of art—visual and linguistic—it is.
For a book that takes on subject matter such as teen suicide, the effects of racism and sexism on girls’ body images, depression, the complexities of discovering queerness amidst a homophobic environment, and that cruelty particular to teenage girls, Skim is surprisingly fun to read. It’s never preachy, for one thing, and it presents a wonderfully nuanced and complex view of these issues. Our narrator is Kim, aka Skim, which, she explains, is a nickname she got “because she’s not.” She’s a high school student at a girls’ school in Toronto; she’s not cool, she’s not skinny, she’s sad, she’s an aspiring Wiccan, and she just might be falling in love with her quirky, hippie English teacher, Ms. Archer.
Jillian Tamaki’s drawings are exquisite, beautiful shades of white and gray and black. Sometimes they span an entire page, or even two; sometimes the background is a black night sky sprinkled with stars; sometimes the page is mostly white, scarcely touched by the scratch of ink with only a few grey outlines of clouds and black birds. Characters’ faces are wonderfully expressive, and the girls’ bodies are real: all shapes and sizes and colours. Two of the book’s most emotionally charged scenes, including the last one, are expressed solely through pictures, and in some way this gives them an emotional immediacy that words would just spoil.
This is not to say that Jillian’s cousin, Mariko Tamaki, doesn’t do an amazing job with the words. Her writing is a brilliant mixture of authentic-sounding teenage vernacular—“Being sixteen is officially the worst thing I’ve ever been”—and simple, poetic revelations like this description of a girl whose boyfriend committed suicide: “Katie was at the back. Her face looked like a bag of stones, hard and small.” Tamaki also gives us two sides of Kim’s thoughts by including words crossed out in her diary. For example: “Ms. Archer was busy today and I only saw her in class.
She didn’t really look at me.”
What the novel does best, through both words and pictures, is depict the bitterness of first love in a painfully realistic way. As Kim tells us: “Things that make me sad: Love. Things that make me happy: Love.” Also: “Being in love is not what I expected.” And: “My heart feels like a piece of chalk stuck in my throat.” And this happens:
Weirded out by the student-teacher thing? Don’t be. I mean it when I say this novel deals with everything in a subtle, smart way. Just know this: Skim is a brilliant book. If you need one more thing to convince you, did I mention that amidst all this teenage angst, depression, and queer kids hurting themselves, Skim is actually quite funny, in that dark, cynical way teenagers can be when they think they’re world-wise and know everything? Like I said, the book is simply a little piece of magic, trapped between the covers of a book.