My first comics, longer stories than the Sunday newspaper and collections of Peanuts and Garfield borrowed from the library, were the Archie comics. After pining over them in the grocery store checkout line I would get bags of hand-me-down clothes from my cousin with similarly passed down Archie books in little digest formats. I devoured these in my upper elementary school years, loving the glamorous world of teenagers that seemed to suggest the 50s and the early 90s were all the same. I must have read dozens, but I don’t have a single one among my books saved from childhood, they were ephemeral and timeless; the world of Archie continuing on long after I had moved on as a reader. I was still years away from my larger comics awakening as an older teen, but I think an understanding and love of the format was first planted in me by the Archie comics. While I haven’t kept up with all of the decades of Archie comics since my childhood, I have enjoyed the moving Mark Waid updates and the fascinating gritty trajectories of the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and Riverdale. When I saw this foray into modern middle grade comics I knew I had to check it out.
The Riverdale Diaries: Hello, Betty! treads the familiar middle grade territory of changing friendships at the start of middle school. Betty Cooper writes the titular diary, narrating her confusion and frustration as her best friend Val Smith (presumably the future Pussycat band member) pursues her passion for music. Val’s interests are clear to the reader from the start, making the split between the friends a byproduct of Betty’s inability to really listen to her friend and a benign oblivious bossiness. While Betty is still wrapped up in Sparklespacelandia, the STEM fantasy world they created as little kids and played through the summer (à la Cardboard Kingdom), Val picks a music elective and learns electric guitar from very cool pink haired classmate Toni Topaz. Suddenly left without her buddy, Betty has to choose Drama as her elective, a catchall for students not fast enough to snap up other options. She becomes fast friends with Kevin Keller and they team up against the mean girl energy of haughty diva Veronica Lodge. As Betty finds her footing using her imagination to fuel the class play, she also starts to mend her friendship with Val. She even finds a way to work with frenemy Veronica.
The writing isn’t particularly remarkable. The kids feel younger than 6th graders, the pretend world Betty and Val have played all summer feels several grades younger. The characters don’t so much develop as Betty finally starts to understand more about them. Betty’s arc and the characters’ realistic interactions were the strong points, but it falls short of Sarah Kuhn’s previous work in Shadow of the Batgirl. A lot of characters are introduced, the “cast” page at the beginning lists 16, including the Drama teacher and Betty’s cat. Val, Betty, Veronica and Kevin Keller get the most play, but Archie, Jughead and a deep bench of side characters from the Archie world are present too. The titular diary element is somewhat confusing. We see Betty writing in a book, we see that she is drawing the ideas from the fantasy world, and we have boxes of first person narration, but it isn’t always clear how they’re connected. While much of the narration resembles the inner thoughts and feelings of a diary entry, there’s no familiar diary entry format and some boxes read more as general narration such as “The next day.” The disconnect was jarring at times but might not bother young readers.
The art hits a sweet spot between classic comic strip kids like Peanuts and the traditional Archie character designs. J. Bone finds a style that brings in the older comics but makes them feel accessible to modern kids, not at all dated. The heads are cartoonishly a bit oversized with spare facial features but enough for plenty of emotion. Betty, Archie, Jughead and Kevin are pink, but Val, Veronica and many of the side characters have a variety of skin tones. Nothing in the book adds any dimension to their cultural identities. The overall color palette is bright with varying blocks of flat color in place of backgrounds for many of the smaller panels. I loved the emotive bolts of color and sound effects interspersed throughout. There’s great dynamic movement in the characters. Visually it’s a delight to read. My 7-year-old daughter spotted it over my shoulder and knew right away she wanted to read it.
Volume 1 of The Riverdale Diaries is successful in bringing the fun and melodrama of the older Archie comics to a new, young audience with a story that speaks more directly to them. It’s not the best example of middle grade writing but it’s much more rewarding than the shallow catty, backstabbing love triangle that engrossed me in my first Archie forays. Elementary readers who enjoy realistic school comics will find a lot to love. A lack of clothing styles and technologies that pinpoint a time will keep it relatable for years to come. I’ll be grabbing it off the shelf for kids disappointed when all the Shannon Hale and Raina Telgemeier are checked out and I’m curious to see where the series goes.
The Riverdale Diaries, Vol. 1: Hello, Betty!
By Sarah Kuhn
Art by J. Bone
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Traits: Black