Created by: Vera Brosgol
Published by: First Second
ISBN: 1596437138 (Amazon)
When I was in high school, there wasn’t a lot of bullying. And there weren’t really any cliques. Or maybe there were but I was just too blissfully ignorant to notice. It’s not like I was especially popular. It’s not as if I wasn’t kind of nerdy or kind of artsy or kind of freaky. I mean, look at me.
Yep. This is exactly as rad as it looks.
It’s more just that I never felt as if I couldn’t, if I had wanted to, talk to someone and have them not snub me outright. Maybe it’s different in other schools around the country, but according to my experience in Orange County circa 1990, school-based YA lit just doesn’t ring true.
Generally speaking, of course. There are always a few works of the genre that don’t play to cliché. Thankfully, Anya’s Ghost avoids most of the usual traps of the form. There are even moments when I found myself gleefully surprised at a direction in which Vera Brosgol would choose to take her story. Anya’s Ghost, as one may have guessed by now, is about three things. A girl named Anya, high school shenanigans, and, of course, a ghost. So really, the joy is in the details of how the story all works out rather than in the genius of any of the three parts on their own.
Life Lesson #1: Don’t fall down pits in the park.
Just not as healthy as you’d imagine.
In the first place, Brosgol works hard to make Anya a character who very easily could be weird or strange or unwelcome but isn’t. She’s a typical teen from an immigrant family. She herself is an immigrant and by her word we learn that she’s worked very hard to compensate for her inauspicious country of origin. She’s overcome her accent, acclimated to the cultural diversity of young American life, and doesn’t dress like someone who’s just discovered clothes. (Apparently dressing like someone who can put together a plausible outfit is not something immigrants can naturally accomplish?) She’s also embarrassed by her native culture and goes to lengths to distance herself from that which will mark her as Foreign. Sometimes that means shortening an obnoxiously difficult-to-pronounce last name and sometimes it means forsaking the other kid from your country who hasn’t quite overcome his eager-foreigner tendencies yet.
In a lot of ways, Anya’s Ghost explores the same cultural experience Gene Yang looks at in American Born Chinese, the barrier between being true to our own identity and being accepted by the world around us. While Yang’s protagonist gets a perm and imagines himself white, Brosgol’s Anya is determined to be assimilated. Both books speak gently to the threat of alienation, to the social stigma attached to not fitting in. Both works, in the end, admonish the reader that fitting in isn’t the be-all, end-all of human—let alone high school—existence. And best of all, neither book comes off overly preachy in their lessons, which is always nice for stories that contain overt morals at book’s end.
Young women, know this: your fears of turning out to look like your
mother are well-founded. Age is a terrible, terrible thing. It must be stopped.
The world needs a new hero.
Brosgol uses as much care with her exploration of the high school drama as she does in keeping her protagonist well-rounded. She doesn’t travel the typical lazy storytelling route of dividing the school into neat compartments. There are no jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, skaters, goths, or loadies in evidence here. There are no Heathers. Instead, there are just kids. And these kids have their social connections, but they aren’t divided down lines so plain as Extracurricular Interest. Anya has one best friend, an Irish girl named Siobhan, but she seems on friendly (or at least neutral) terms with most people. Dima, the Russian-extracted goodie-two-shoes, doesn’t pal around in a herd of nerds but simply offends on his lonesome. And Anya’s as-yet-unreciprocated romantic interest, Sean, is not the leader of the popular kids. He’s just a good-looking guy with a good-looking girlfriend. These are realistic persons forming a realistic net of relationships.
And as for the ghost, I’ll refrain from talking too much about her, simply because her role drives the story. We’ll just leave it at this: I was surprised by what Brosgol did with what could have been a terribly cliched device. And that I could be so pleasantly pleased speaks highly for Brosgol’s product here.
I dated a girl once with haunted cleavage. Well, okay, no. I didn’t.
But pretending I did makes the whole thing seem more worthwhile.
In fact, the entire package is just extremely well-conceived. The art, while cartoony and fairly simple, is just about perfect. Brosgol employs a style that reminds me of Andi Watson’s work on later Skeleton Key (maybe crossing volumes 4 and 5), which is just a fantastic place to start. The panel composition is fluid, well-pronounced, and tells Brosgol’s story without any difficulty. It’s all very clean and tidy—and in this reminds me of Yang’s ABC. As well, Anya herself is drawn in such a way that we can see she’s a bit off from the cultural ideal but still beautiful on her own. It’s primarily her own lack of confidence that keeps people from noticing her.
So far as the writing goes, Brosgol treats her characters with respect and even when she’s not giving them whip-smart repartee, she at least keeps them from speaking like imbeciles. This is trickier than you might imagine in the domain of YA lit. Consider the best-selling Hunger Games. Or the better-selling Twilight. Dialogue is hard. Smart or believable dialogue is harder still. Anya’s Ghost pretty much nails this. (It’s not Raymond Chandler, but really, what is?)
The ghost has a point, I guess.
Prior to this work, I was entirely unfamiliar with Vera Brosgol or her work. Even now, I don’t know if she’s created anything else. But based on Anya’s Ghost, I plan to check out whatever bibliography she has as soon as this review posts. I am now a fan.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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