How do you find the place where you fit in? Where do you find your people? Middle grade fiction is often preoccupied with these questions, but Jo & Rus provides answers that are a little different than the average. Upper elementary and middle school fans of the new classics of graphic novels (Roller Girl, New Kid, El Deafo) will appreciate Audra Winslow’s fresh take on the middle school story, where it’s the things we love that bring friends together, outside of the conventions of age and gender.
Jo is bullied to the point of constant misery at her middle school because she lives in a trailer park. She’s without friends and without anything to make her life joyful. She lives with her grandmother, who appears too checked out to be a comfort or guide for Jo. Jo’s only source of comfort and release is her old DVDs of the cartoon “Magic Cat,” that she watches over and over, and her prized possession is a Magic Cat keychain that hangs from her backpack. Her beloved cartoon gives Jo a needed dose of imaginary magic in her life. Soon real life provides a little bit of magic too: she saves a one-eyed stray cat (that looks remarkably like a wizard cat in the show) from a trap. The mysterious cat repays her by bringing her back to its home, a junkyard next to the highway.
At the junkyard Jo meets Rus, a high school senior who is also dealing with bullying at school because his family owns the junkyard. Jo and Rus bond immediately over the cats who make their home at the junkyard. The ruined van teeming with cats that’s pictured on the cover is home base for Jo, Rus, and their friends, and becomes the emotional center of the story. It’s a refuge from the hostile school environment, and a safe space for them to be themselves.
Rus is an open and kind kid, and he and his friends welcome Jo into their group without question and without a hint of romance or sex. They recognize a kindred spirit and make it a point to coach her in coping with her bullying. They encourage her musical talent and include her in their jam sessions. Rus is generous with his laid-back philosophy of life, telling Jo when she hears about the stresses of high school that, “it can be fun, too. Everyone has problems and gets stressed, it’s just life.”
It’s in this view of teenage friendship that author Winslow (they, their) differs from other authors of middle grade stories. There is never a question of Jo developing a crush on Rus. Although his impending departure for college causes anxiety and stress for Jo, it is only because she’s afraid of losing her friend. The book is dedicated to “the Rus to my Jo,” supporting the strong sense of autobiography in the story. It’s heartening to see stories of adolescence that highlight different experiences of gender and sexuality.
The art in Jo & Rus is full of rich natural colors and loving views of Rus’s home junk yard. A scene of the kids watching a rocket launch from behind their Florida high school shows the lyricism in Winslow’s view of a well-worn Southern suburbia.
Jo & Rus is a great purchase for most collections of middle grade graphic novels, as it rounds out more conventional tales of middle school social life like Shannon Hale’s Real Friends.
Jo & Rus
By Audra Winslow
Publisher Age Rating: 9-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Gender Nonconforming,
Character Representation: Latinx