Peanut

PeanutWe all know moving can be hard. Transferring to a new school can be stressful. And even more so, making new friends can be traumatic. Sadie, however, has a plan to reinvent herself at her new high school. It’s easy — and free — to send away for the medical alert bracelet. She does her research, tells her homeroom all about her near brush with death after accidentally eating a peanut, and avoids the school nurse and her required student health form. But Sadie doesn’t actually have a peanut allergy. As time goes by the lies begin piling up, and every time Sadie is on the verge of confessing, she finds herself tongue-tied.

Peanut is a simple concept with a surprisingly tense and suspenseful story. This quick read looks at Sadie’s transition from her old school to her first three months at Plainfield High. Her moments at school are mirrored with those at home with her mom, who’s unaware of Sadie’s ruse. I found myself tensing up as Sadie would start eating a PB&J sandwich at home or accepting snacks from friends and school, because I just knew she was going to trip up somewhere. While she’s extremely cautious in the first few weeks of school, Sadie eventually does start to slip. She forgets to put on her medical bracelet before school, accidentally eats a chip with peanut oil, and lies about having an EpiPen.

It’s hard to like Sadie. As someone who moved a lot when I was young, I remember how strange and awful it was to start a new school. Not only does she want to make friends, but she also wants to define herself. Unfortunately, she chooses to do that with a medical condition. Sadie makes everything about herself revolve around her allergy, lying about the tiniest details fairly easily. She tells elaborate stories to other kids and gets upset when they ask questions about her condition and she can’t answer them. As the reader, we can step back and see how Sadie is making a difficult situation — moving — even worse. Simple things like bringing her friends home or having her boyfriend meet her mother are out of the question. Now that she’s made friends at her new school, she can’t behave normally around them.

The writing for Peanut is well-done, with an easy pacing that moves the story quickly, but slows down to highlight specific moments in Sadie’s life. The dialogue flows well and manages to stay away from dating itself. Halliday captures the tensions of school cliques and the lunchroom social structure. Where the writing tends to fall flat is with the development of side characters. Sadie’s group of friends is largely interchangeable, making them difficult to identify. This wouldn’t have been so noticeable, except that Sadie has several moments where she’s considering revealing her secret and she mentally reviews the cast of characters. Perhaps this was also a function of the art, but I had problems recognizing these potential confidants. If they were important enough to trust with her secret, they should have had a more prominent part in the story.

However, Sadie, her mother, her boyfriend Zoo, and her homeroom teacher are all very well-defined. The relationship between Sadie and her mother is unique in that her mom is very positive and supportive — which makes me doubly frustrated with Sadie when she refuses to talk to her mother about her problems. She has many opportunities to explain herself, not just to her mother, but passes up each one until it’s too late. You know, of course, that this is the sort of secret that will come out eventually, and probably at the worst possible moment.

This brings up an issue with Peanut. It tells the story of a girl who fakes an illness in the hopes of gaining popularity. Halliday touches lightly on Sadie’s reasoning for doing this and, yes, the allergy does give Sadie a starting point with her soon-to-be friends. This is teetering on the edge of Munchausen syndrome, but there’s no nod to this serious issue. Peanut focuses instead on the dangers of lying; Sadie spends much of her spare time researching peanut allergy symptoms, trying to get an EpiPen, and planning for ways to keep her friends separate from her mother and old friends. After the big reveal, we briefly see the consequences Sadie faces. However, the emphasis is more on the tension building up to the reveal rather than on what happens afterward.

Hoppe’s art is easily accessible for people who are new to graphic novels. The people have a sketchy quality to them, which can make them look a little rough, particularly in moments where there’s a lot of movement. Hoppe’s panels make great use of space and angles. There will be a conversation at lunch that’s focused in on Sadie and friends, then a zoom out to see all the chaos around them. Throughout the story, Sadie is the only character depicted using color; while the rest of the cast is shown in gray and white, Sadie wears a bright red piece of clothing. For a girl who reinvents herself to stand out, she is visually a centerpiece for each panel.

While I was reading Peanut, coworkers frequently stopped me to ask about the book. The cover is unusual (a bright blue with a picture of a peanut) and made them curious. Every time I explained that it was about a girl who pretends to have a peanut allergy, I was met with a confused, “Oh.” This book is one that will require hand-selling. It’s a unique story, even if it has shortcomings. If you’ve ever experienced the pain of moving to a new school and trying to find your place there, you can feel a little sympathy for Sadie. But Peanut misses the boat on exploring a more serious issue and glosses over the repercussions of her lies.

Peanut
by Ayun Halliday
Art by Paul Hoppe
ISBN: 9780375865909
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2013