Before there were billboard top tens and international tours, before the name “Cass Elliott” or the lines “All the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown) / And the sky is grey (and the sky is grey)” there was a little girl named Ellen Cohen, born in Baltimore in 1941, who was determined to be a star.
California Dreamin’ by Pénélope Bagieu tells the story of this little girl who would become Mama Cass Elliott: her birth to Russian Jews who’d fled their homeland, quitting high school just months before graduation to pursue stardom, her captivating personality and the various rivalries, friendships, and loves that motivated many of her actions. And, of course, her unparalleled singing voice. While funny and enchanting throughout, Bagieu’s telling doesn’t gloss over the sticky parts of Elliott’s story. From interpersonal drama between band members to drug use to the fatmisia* with which Elliott was often met, the sunny and shadowy sides of life are both a part of California Dreamin’.
Told through short vignettes each narrated by a different member of Elliott’s community, including her mother, father, childhood friends, voice teacher, and various bandmates, the book constructs a dimensional vision of the star-to-be. The different narrators also ensure a story that keeps the reader’s interest. The whole tale isn’t revealed all at once, but instead emerges piecemeal in much the same way as individual tracks make up a complete album. Bagieu’s writing is engrossing and funny, with a warm, conversational tone that thankfully wasn’t lost when the text was translated into English from its original French. Researched using multiple nonfiction resources, a short bibliography appends the text in addition to a fun “playlist” of important songs by The Mamas and the Papas.
Equally captivating is the book’s art. Cracking open the vividly-colored cover reveals pencil drawings all in shades of gray, black, and white, but these monochrome illustrations are anything but lifeless. Bagieu’s art is expressive and sensitive, skillfully morphing to better emphasize its subject, whether this is the firmness of a childhood jealousy or the dreaminess of a drug trip. While the text of California Dreamin’ documents how Elliott was too often seen as talented and captivating “in spite of” her fatness, the illustrations show clearly that Elliott’s beauty and fatness were in fact indivisible.
Ideal for older teen readers interested in music, the Beat Poets, and ’60s culture generally, it is important to note that drug use (weed and LSD) features prominently in California Dreamin’. Sex is implied but never explicitly included. Misogynistic and sexualizing attitudes towards women, on the other hand, are included, making this text a great one for inciting discussion of the various prejudices that women face in pursuing their dreams, love interests, and careers. A great recommendation for those new to graphic novels, Bagieu’s expressive art and accessible writing combine for a book that is at once a quick, enjoyable read and a well-researched addition to the canon of graphic biographies for teen readers.
* Why “fatmisia” instead of “fatphobia”?
by Pénélope Bagieu
First Second, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Grade 9+