awkward by Svetlana Chmakova, coloring assistance by Ru Xu and Melissa McCommon, lettering by JuYoun Lee.
Yen Press, New York, 2015.
Middle grade/middle school fiction graphic novel, 210 pages + extras.
Lexile: GN280L (What does GN mean in Lexile Levels? )
AR level: 2.8 (worth 1.o points)
Penelope (Peppi) Torres has a few rules for surviving at a new school. But on the very first day, she runs right into a shy boy in the hallway. What do you do when you’re associated with the school nerd on your first day? Why shove him away of course!
Beyond the Peppi/Jaimie drama, the main plot of this book follows her friends in the art club as they fight for the right to a table at the annual school club fair while bickering with the science club, their biggest rivals.
So why am I reviewing this book? Well, Peppi is clearly a person of color. My guess based on her portrayal and name is that she’s Latina, but it never really comes up. In fact, this book is incredibly diverse, with most ethnic groups represented by at least one character. There is a girl wearing a hijab and a character in a wheelchair. The characters have ethnically diverse names and sometimes appropriate backstories as well. But the best part of this? It has nothing to do with the story! There is a full plot which just happens to have a diverse cast of characters.
Now, it’s true that this is somewhat easier in a graphic novel. The characters can be drawn to look a certain way and there is no need to refer to it in the text, so it doesn’t need to be referred to as often. And honestly there were several characters who I didn’t immediately recognize as belonging to a specific ethnic group until I saw their names at the back of the book.
Let’s talk specifics. I’m going to get into some spoilers here. If you haven’t already, I urge you to go out and read a copy and come back, but if you just want my recommendations, you can skip to the spoiler-free ending.
First let’s talk about the science teacher, Miss Tobins. I absolutely LOVED her introduction. Peppi is giving a monologue about this mysterious teacher. First the teacher rides in on the motorcycle, takes off her helmet, walks down the hall, and puts on her lab coat. Through all of this we are only seeing part of her as Peppi tells us some of the rumors about Miss Tobins. She reaches for her lab glasses during the voiceover words “I have no idea how much of that is true”, and then on the next page there is a dramatic reveal with the words “but I’m ready to believe all of it.”
Perhaps I’m reading way too much into it, but I felt like this scene was deliberately and systematically challenging some of the stereotypes we have around STEM teachers. She pulls up on a motorcycle before her gender is revealed, then she takes off her protective gear and we see that she is a person of color. She stands in marked contrast to the other main teacher present in the story, the art teacher Mr. R. Miss Tobins is thoughtful and deeply knowledgeable about her subject, and has control of her classroom and students.
Miss Tobins is a major character in the book, and she is probably my favorite (after the protagonists). She comes off as a little scary at first, but we soon see that she is really a great teacher. When Peppi accidentally turns in some art with her homework, Miss Tobins gives her the chance to get some extra credit if she adds some science to her art. Miss Tobins is very strict, but also fair (she will come down on her own club if they misbehave). She is so passionate about science, which is one of the few things that can override her no-nonsense side. She really cares about her students and will come running to their aide.
Let me tell you about two other characters, Felicity and Leticia Teale. I’m going to assume that they are twins since most of the characters seemed to be in 6th grade, although they could be siblings close in age. Felicity is in the art club and Leticia is in the science club. They wear their hair differently, and Felicity is a little more heavy set and wears fashionable and girly clothes. Leticia has glasses and wears more androgynous clothes. To the casual observer, she might be mistaken for one of the boys in her club, although she is always drawn with feminine features. These two are just minor characters in the background, but I loved that they had so many details and thought put into their story. The next book in the series is going to focus on the newspaper staff, but I would LOVE to see a story about these girls, because I’m curious how they ended up on such rival clubs.
So let’s talk about two of the white characters who are diverse in a different way. Jaimie’s mother is in a wheelchair. When she is first portrayed, Peppi looks shocked (but that could be since she’s just had a near accident) and Jaimie is blushing heavily. But after that, the story is about the awkwardness of Peppi having pushed Jaimie and still never having apologized.
Maribella Samson at first seems about as un-diverse as you can get. She’s white, perpetually cheerful, and good at everything. But as Peppi gradually gets to know her, we learn that her home life isn’t what it should be. She’s driven to certain actions by what is happening in her home. Maribella’s story becomes a major sub-plot that drives Peppi to make difficult choices of her own. It wasn’t made a big deal of and was certainly portrayed in an appropriate way for middle schoolers, but I was so glad to see a realistic portrayal of a kid’s life with domestic violence, down to the fact that Maribella denies the violence and unrealistic expectations even as she’s leaving her home. More kids need to see this mirrored in fiction. /End of Spoilers
As I was reading through this book the first time, I was a bit dismayed by how many characters it had. However, after the first read-through, I realized that all of the main characters are portrayed at the end of the book, and the other students are also listed according to their club affiliation, which helped quite a bit for subsequent re-readings.
The artwork intrigued me as the white characters were portrayed with literally white skin (paper-colored), while characters of color had a range of colors from a light tan to brown. Characters were portrayed with the same hairstyle throughout but wore different clothes from day to day. I’m not super familiar with different art styles outside of picture books, but the artwork felt like it had Manga influences at some points.
Early on, Peppi goes on a science field trip. The students listen to a speaker (Jason Nguen – yes, all the STEM role models are POC, he is Vietnamese) and his talk transports Peppi to a state of wonder (and students pick up a few facts about different ecosystems as well). The artwork in this area is rendered differently and the painted-style backgrounds make a beautiful contrast to the regular style.
Chmakova really knows how to crank up the suspense (the multiple plot lines certainly help) and I never ended a chapter without wanting to read more. I have now reread this book several times. Another thing that I love about this series is that it is so very readable! There is NOTHING in here that a kid in elementary school couldn’t read, so it could be great for the kid who’s in upper elementary and wants to read about middle school.
Only a few points could potentially give a parent pause:
1.) a character does cheat on homework. It is viewed negatively and as a one-time thing, but does occur. I felt it was treated realistically within the situation.
2.) when working on a science/art mermaid drawing, one character comments that she must be a mammal and then stammers and blushes. The inference is that the character knows because she has breasts, but that is never outright stated.
3.) one major incident of theft occurs. It is a major problem of the novel and not viewed positively at all. The many moral dilemmas resulting from this are treated carefully.
4.) both rival clubs engage in some pranks at each others expense.
5.) an incident of bullying is quickly stopped by a student and teacher.
I didn’t think any of these would prevent me from giving this graphic novel to a mature third grader, but you may feel differently.
This book is highly recommended for all middle school students and classrooms. It is appropriate for younger students as well, and could be used with students who have a low reading level. Certain characters have more challenging dialogue than others, and there are some difficult words, like “supervisory”, but with a little help a student could read this independently even if they were rated at a lower reading level.
There is a new book in this series coming out next year, and I can’t wait to read it!