This One Summer, a young adult novel by cousins Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, is probably the most visually stunning graphic novel I’ve ever read. Jillian’s (I’ll refer to them by their first names since they share a last one!) art is nothing short of incredible. I mean, check out these gorgeous blue-purpleish drawings:
If we’re talking about how I’d rate this book, I’d give the visual art ten out of ten, no question. The illustrations capture the easy, free feeling of long summer days when you’re a kid and rural/small town Ontario so perfectly. As R.J. Edwards said in their review, “If you’re ever talking about masters of the comics artform you should be mentioning Jillian Tamaki.”
Now, what’s interesting, especially for me, a self-identified word-obsessed person, is that I felt the writing and plot were a bit … underwhelming compared to the illustrations. I certainly don’t have a problem with the words taking a backseat to the drawings, which I think is definitely what happens in this book. There are full pages with no words at all, where the drawings were left to tell the story on their own. But it felt like there was something missing linguistically, that the words weren’t as rich as the pictures, didn’t live up to the pictures. Let’s see if I can explain.
This book is about two Toronto girls teetering on the edge of teenagehood, spending their summer together at a lake town in Southern Ontario. Rose is slightly older than Windy, and is feeling that superior sense of maturity and know-it-allness that only someone who is really young can so confidently exude. Rose feels a bit embarrassed by her friend Windy this summer, especially in front of the 17-year-old boys working at the general store where she and Windy go to pick up candy and horror movies. By spending so much time at the store, the girls end up being unwitting spectators and detectives in some local teen drama: an unplanned pregnancy. Rose is also dealing with constant arguments at home, and what seems like a struggle with depression on her mom’s side, although it’s never named.
There’s no question that Mariko nails kid and teenager dialogue. The dialogue is really exactly what young people sound like—not how you think they sound like, but what they really sound like. Maybe where my hesitation with the writing and plot is that I’m not sure who the audience for this book is. It feels like the story is suited more to adults than the early teen girls depicted in the novel or even older teenagers. Maybe it’s that the point of view seems like it’s from an older version of Rose. But there are some crucial scenes from the adults’ perspective: in particular, one in which Rose and Windy’s moms talk about Rose’s mom’s miscarriage, and about how Rose doesn’t know about it.
I guess one thing that would worry me about giving this book to girls the same age as the characters is some of the realistic, but nasty behaviour that Rose exhibits. Do you remember that feeling, especially as a girl and young woman with boys, when you wanted to be liked so badly, and you didn’t have the self-confidence yet to be yourself, and you were trying to fit in no matter what? When you wanted guys and older kids to like you no matter what, even if it meant being someone you’re not, or saying or doing hurtful things to impress them?
This is where Rose is: for example, there is some definite slut-shaming that comes out of her mouth, in an effort to protect her older general store crush. Windy, on the other hand, knows what Rose said was awful, and isn’t blinded by any romantic or sexual feelings. Windy, in other words, even though she’s still grossed out by boys, is kind of more mature than Rose in some way. The thing is, the slut-shaming isn’t really addressed, except briefly and timidly by Windy. Lessons learnt? It feels more like that issue, as well as other complicated ones, just sit there, heavily. As an adult, you can interpret them, know what’s happening, and understand that the novel is not condoning what Rose says—but will teen girls get that message? I’m not sure, because they’re so close, or they’re still in that space.
I don’t know, I don’t want to be the grown-up who says, teenagers can’t handle the tough stuff: I know they can handle a lot more than adults give them credit for. But I worry about girls like Rose, and what they might come away from This One Summer thinking. This beautiful, but troubling, book.