by Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki (Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2008)

High school student Kimberly Keiko Cameron, nicknamed Skim, is a Wiccan goth who is in 10th grade at an all-girls private school. She wears dark clothes, practices reading the Tarot and is completely misunderstood by everyone around her. Her somber attitude is misinterpreted as depression and sublimated anger. When a boy at a nearby school commits suicide, Skim's school kicks it into high gear, more out of pubescent love of melodrama than any real desire to help anyone. They form, of all things, a suicide prevention club that puts Skim squarely in its sights as someone they feel they need to save. The irony is fairly heavy, there.

It's not like Skim's life isn't in a tangle already. Her parents are divorced. She broke her wrist tripping over the altar that she'd set up next to her bed, so she spends much of the story in a cast. Her best friend is beginning to torment her about her "alternative" lifestyle, which results in the two of them drifting apart. To top it all off, she becomes involved in an affair with her English teacher.

While this story is not appropriate reading material for the younger set, middle school students will perhaps find more to relate to. Skim is a fully fleshed, realistic character who is on the same quest for understanding of herself, and from her peers, that every student, every 16-year-old girl in the world, has to endure as a necessary rite of passage. She is sad and lonely, yes, and trying to figure out what love and friendship really are, but for her it's less staring into the abyss and more reflection as she tries to sort out who she is. She spends a lot of time watching without engaging in the (as she sees it) superficial world around her. Plot points are filled by silences and quietly unfolding revelations, rather than words and clearly outlined developments.

Skim isn't left to wander in the emo wilderness for long. She does eventually begin to discover who she is, and from there the book slowly begins an upward swing that results in a very satisfying yet realistic ending. Being an outsider has its rewards, one of which is the perspective gained from the act of observing, which is not always the anti-social act some think it is. She pursues a friendship with a new best friend who actually understands her, comes to terms with her outside-the-lines relationship with her former teacher, and starts to figure out what she wants to do with her life. Hopefulness replaces the sadness of being alienated. Although somewhat abrupt, the ending is more of a new beginning. Skim is connecting at last with her life, instead of just surviving.

Skim, while a unique work unto itself, exists somewhere between the practical but original approach of the Plain Janes; the harshness of Miss Lakso Gross's tell-it-like-it-is realism; and the whimsicality of Ghostworld. The comparison is not reductionist, however, because the underground battles that comprise life in high school for the misfit girls, are a very rich terrain that writer Mariko Tamaki explores with compassion and an eye for emotional detail that pulls you right in from the first page.

Jillian Tamaki's illustrations are nothing short of wonderful. Alternating between a modern brushed style and the semblance of traditional Japanese woodcutting, the lush art balances earthy and ethereal, using a combination of pencil and black ink. Full pages bookend each chapter, with a splash page in the middle. Black and white spaces are used to mark the time between day and night in a powerful but subtle mixture that also conveys the emotional content perfectly.

Skim has won the Tamakis a plethora of well-earned gongs: Doug Wright Award for Best Book of 2009, the Ignatz award for Outstanding Graphic Novel 2008, the New York Times Best Illustrated Books 2008, YALSA's Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults 2009. It has been nominated for four Eisners, a Silver Inky, and a Joe Schuster Award.

This is a book that will challenge your thinking in more ways than one. Like its protagonist, it defies easy categorization. The subject matter is meaty enough for a novel and the artwork could be reframed as prints. Highly recommended.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Mary Harvey

9 October 2010

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