Reading Gumballs is like being invited to read someone else’s journal. Gumballs is comprised of a few dozen stories that are color-coded in the table of contents into a few different categories: twins-triplet, pleasant people, tales of being trans, illustrations, personal ads, visual diary, Tobias, and miscellanea. While only one of these gumballs is labeled visual diary, it’s the best way of summing up the book as a whole. It’s deeply personal and wholly intimate, whether the stories are childhood memories, what they ate one day, or short fictional stories about an awkward kid named Tobias. This personal invitation into Erin Nations’ life makes his experiences highly relatable for the reader. Even if you’ve never experienced social anxiety or gender dysphoria, being placed into the daily situations he describes effectively conveys the tension and struggle of his experiences.
Nations speaks frankly about being trans, and how his emotions and experiences around gender affect his daily life, whether that includes being harassed on the subway by strangers, what gender dysphoria feels like, the mixed blessings of second puberty, the joy of a stranger using the right pronouns, and the excitement of seeing physical changes after starting hormone replacement therapy. This openness makes it a perfect read for teens or adults who might be able to identify with some of these feelings, or to answer questions about exploring their gender that they never knew how to ask.
The book doesn’t have a single or overarching narrative, which keeps it fresh and somewhat unexpected. The humor in Gumballs feels less like a concerted effort to make you laugh, and more like sharing the absurdity of daily life with friends over drinks. The pages that fall under the sarcastic “pleasant people” category are primarily one-page customer service interactions that Nations has had at his job at the grocery store. These are some of my favorite pages, as they are somewhat bizarre but altogether too believable; I have to wonder if he’s actually said all of those responses or if these pages hold what he wishes he could say.
Nations’ art style is primarily blocky, including the speech bubbles, with mostly flat colors, evoking the style of a newspaper comic strip or zine. However, the book is fairly text-heavy, and the art usually functions to support the text fairly closely. There are some very personal instances that are told with fairly great detail, building trust with the reader. There are also a few moments when Nations declines to illustrate what he narrates—how taking testosterone affected his sex drive and how it affected his genitals. In the second instance, he instead draws himself saying, “I’m not drawing myself naked. It’s just not gonna happen…” Even though he has created such an open book, he still literally draws and communicates his boundaries, making it easy for the reader for respect these boundaries and understand that just because they are invited into someone’s life does not mean all details are up for discussion. This is important, because cisgender people frequently ask trans people invasive personal questions that they wouldn’t otherwise ask a cis person. Gumballs is an opportunity for readers to learn and broaden their perspectives on gender, particularly for folks who may not think about these issues often.
This title was a 2019 Eisner Award nominee in the category of best publication for teens, and while this book is also relevant for adults, I think it would make the most impact in a young adult section. Librarians should be aware of the following content notes for this book: there is some non-sexual nudity, brief discussion of suicide, dealing with transphobic remarks, some swearing, responsible alcohol consumption, and discussion of genitals as they relate to gender and hormone replacement therapy.
By Erin Nations
Top Shelf, 2018
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Trans
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, LGBTQIA+ Creator