Willow “Willie” Sparks is having a difficult time; she and her friend Georgia are being bullied, her face is breaking out, and her haircut makes her look boyish. When Willie discovers a book with her name on it, she edits her story with a few strokes of a pen. Now, Willie looks great, and the popular crowd has accepted her into their fold. However, these changes come at a price, and Willie finds her life unraveling.
The Altered History of Willow Sparks mixes fantasy and teenage drama to bring the reader a sweet and engaging coming-of age story. Creator Tara O’Connor weaves Willie’s experiences with Georgia’s, including moments that sell the teen experience including fights between friends, unrequited love, and embarrassing moments. O’Connor’s characterization and slice-of-life moments are on the mark, and the focus on Willie and Georgia makes for a charming and relatable story.
Unfortunately, the story’s conclusion isn’t entirely satisfactory. O’Connor sets up a secret library full of the books about people’s lives. There is also a system that protects people’s futures through self-defense mechanisms such as spreading ink-like marks on the person’s body and caretakers. The concept is intriguing and visually adds some flavor; but it’s unclear what exactly would have happened if Willow had not gotten help when she did. For example, the local librarian, Mr. Ages, acts as a cautionary tale for what happens when you manipulate the books, but it’s unclear—other than the ink marks—what really happened to him. This confusion prevents the climax and conclusion from being fully satisfactory.
In addition to wanting more information on the personal books and Mr. Ages, I was curious to see some of Wilie’s life after the climax: I want to know how she accepted the return to normalcy and what kind of relationships she had with the popular students. O’Connor has an intriguing premise and a solid main cast, and I can only hope that O’Connor will revisit Willie’s world.
O’Connor’s black and white illustrations help sell the narrative. Her character designs are varied and suit the characters’ personalities. The images of Willow’s spreading physical marks ramp up the sense of unease, and the perspective that O’Connor uses in her panels draws the reader into the story. She also does a good job of conveying the setting and makes the secret library of everyone’s futures seem believable. O’Connor, like Faith Erin Hicks, has a knack for creating panels that capture the characters’ emotional states and the situation perfectly, and this skill makes the book extremely enjoyable to read.
Despite its issues, O’Connor’s The Altered History of Willow Sparks is still an engaging and charming tale that, with its focus on teenager characters and their issues, would appeal to teenage readers. O’Connor’s engaging and dynamic character designs and mix of slice-of-live moments and fantasy are strongly reminiscent of Faith Erin Hicks’ comics, such as Friends With Boys; therefore The Altered History of Willow Sparks will likely especially appeal to fans of Hicks’ work.
The Altered History of Willow Sparks
by Tara O’Connor
Oni Press, 2018