White, blonde-haired Sam used to be called “Gaijin” by her classmates in Japan, now she’s “Faranj” in Harar, Ethiopia. She doesn’t have any friends to help adjust to her new life until she meets Lielet, a black tomboy who shares her love of horror movies and insecurity about seeming immature. When local reports indicate something is killing livestock and moving on to human victims, they can’t help but search for clues and maybe take on the mysterious killer on their own.
Little Girls has a lot going for it on the surface. Not only are the starring tween girls bonding over a killer mystery in the streets and fields of Harar, Ethiopia circa 2004, but a parallel story of the monstrous Kerit of Kenyan legend rising to power drives the tension to a fever pitch as the stories edge closer and closer to a climactic showdown. There is a seven-page sequence that directly juxtaposes the girls’ preparations and socializing with Kerit and the hyenas gaining ground and playing around. Cultural references intermingle, including notes indicating when a character is speaking Amharic or an Oromo variant dialect. Characters casually observe hyenas’ behavior and what their neighborhood is used to the animals doing. Lielet asks Sam about life in Tokyo, and she lights up while describing Harajuku and Shibuya. “We could go, and I could dye my hair blonde!” Lielet exclaims.
The coming-of-age angle is also relatively strong: Sam and Lielet both talk tough, but are really just yearning for connection. Lielet feels like an outsider compared to the local queen bee and her drones, including that she sees them as having changed ever since their bodies matured. Sam deals with the dual alienation of being an ethnic minority as well as moving to a new environment. Watching them enjoy Nightmare On Elm Street and other horror movies together brings to mind the friendship of This One Summer, and their plucky town map labeled with points of interest would not feel out of place in Stranger Things or Paper Girls. Family-conscious readers will let out a sigh of relief to see Sam answer to her father and Lielet to her mother (via her big brother)—meaning these two aren’t without some level of adult supervision in their lives. When the big, fuzzy Kerit intimidates them while saying, “Such… big things happening all around you. Little girls aren’t made to handle… such things…” readers will cheer their loudest for these two to prove themselves.
The artwork, including artist Sarah DeLaine and colorist Ashley Lanni, can feel detailed when depicting a cluttered bedroom or crowded spread of hyenas fighting lions, but is otherwise pretty sparse. The comic spends a lot of time following Sam and Lielet through drab streets and expanses of grass, with many panels relying on a single color for the background. That’s not necessarily a bad thing and combines with the wide grid layouts to make for a simple reading experience. However, when taken into consideration with the lackluster ending, the book comes up a bit short.
After Kerit is dealt with, the girls briefly debate Lielet’s older brother about the impact of their actions. Lielet writes off the exchange as her brother’s usual downer reasoning and the issue is not considered further. There is also an all-too-brief suggestion near the end that the book’s events somewhat resemble those of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War as well as ‘Selassie’s escaped palace lion.’ Readers will have to look up the significance of these events, as the book merely name drops them and moves along. There is also a standout moment at about 146-pages, where narration occurs to speak for Sam for all of one scene. These inconsistencies harm the coherence of Little Girls, a tale that seems to take pains for clarity in some ways but drops the ball in a couple of others. This is nonetheless a neat, self-contained tale suited for tweens and up, with the harshest content coming from violence between animals and the grossest lines being about collecting hyena urine (mixed with gravel) and cow’s blood (from a butcher).
By Nicholas Aflleje
Art by Sarah DeLaine
Publisher Age Rating: T (12+)