Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap, illustrated by Mari Araki.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2011.
Illuminated realistic fiction, 247 pages.
Lexile: not leveled
AR Level: 4.7 (worth 3.0 points) .
NOTE: This is a YA book, not intended for younger children.
Tina Malhotra is the youngest in a family of five and a sophomore at the mostly white Yarborough Academy. She’s taking an Honors English elective course in existential philosophy, and has taken on an assignment to write letters to Jean-Paul Satre about the process of discovering who she is and who she is becoming.
The format of this book was different to any I’ve read before. I hesitate to call it a graphic novel (although the dust jacket does so) because large portions of the story were carried through text only. Neither was it an illuminated work because whole pages at a time would be done in a comic style relying on both text and illustrations.
While it’s more likely to appeal to graphic novel aficionados than fans of text-only chapter books, this is a fascinating quirky book. Already in the first section, Tina is addressing microaggressions like constantly being asked “Where are you from?” (California.) She goes on to endure family parties, her brother’s engagement, and her parent’s attempt at matchmaking her chainsmoking older sister.
She finds her second year of high school particularly lonely since her longtime best friend has abandoned her for a new boyfriend and clique. She doesn’t know what to do with herself, but I appreciated that she was practical and instead of wallowing in her misery she decides to join a bunch of extracurricular activities and keep herself busy. Well, she does wallow some at times and does feel lonely, but as one would expect, she also finds she even likes some of her new hobbies and makes new acquaintances and even a few friends.
The conceit of the entire book is that it’s a philosophy class project to write letters to Jean-Paul Satre, but it’s not too heavy on the philosophy. Tina’s family is not particularly religious, but they are open to her questions and willing to support her religious practices if she decides to follow a religion. She pretends to be Buddhist in order to talk to a guy and she has interest in Hinduism, particularly the god Krishna. Her ex-best friend Alex is from a formerly Mormon family (last year her parents divorced and her mother left the church). Another friend is studying different religions, including visiting a Hari Krishna temple. A teacher leaves the school to become a Buddhist monk.
The artwork is done through flat line drawings with no shading. There are only 4 colors used: white, black, light and dark gray. That made it a little difficult to keep the characters straight at times, particularly those who look similar. It also wasn’t clear right away that the protagonist was a POC. The text usually gave enough hints as to different character’s ethnicities, but it would be easy to flip through this book and guess that everyone in it was white. I can’t decide how I felt about the artwork. At moments it was strong, but at other points I felt this would have been fine as a text-only novel.
I didn’t like that Tina made several disparaging comments about glasses (two of the people in Alex’s new group wear glasses). Slut shaming was also present. Tina is mad at Alex abandoning her and getting caught up in a new relationship, but Alex also has a right to make her own choices and it’s pretty clear from the context that she is getting caught up in her group’s norms and doesn’t need judgement. However compared to many YA books, I did like that this one didn’t present drinking, drugs, and promiscuity as something every teen does. Those actions are present, even prevalent, but not the only option.
There are many references to sex, drug use, underage drinking, and more in this book. Characters use words and gestures that skew this to an older crowd. I wouldn’t generally recommend it for most students below high school for that reason, although the themes of friendship and finding your personal identity are likely to resonate with the middle school crowd. Librarians or teachers with students who are already dealing with these topics may find this a valuable addition to their collection.
Not a favorite, but it was a fun quirky read and a very different take on the usual coming of age story. I think teens will enjoy it more than I did.
P.S. After writing this review I came across this article about the making of this book. (TW: suicide reference. Also annoying pop-up ads.)