It has been three years since Ash’s mother, Kristin, vanished without a trace. Now Ash lives in her childhood home, where old clothes and possessions still linger, but none more precious than her old studio, which houses the secrets of a special place: Koretis. Koretis, born from Kristin’s childhood imagination, is a female-only fantastical land, filled with magic, fanciful creatures, and anthropomorphic animals. One day, after a Pride Club meeting at school, Ash invites a few friends over to explore the studio, eventually coming across a spell to transport them to Koretis. Naturally, they attempt the spell in jest, but are amazed when they find themselves on a lush hillside, discovering that there may be more truth to the stories than they realized.
Yet, somehow, Ash, assigned male at birth, is there as well. What does this mean? Everyone has always referred to Ash as a boy. Shouldn’t the spell have kept Ash out? Or does Ash’s entry into Koretis reveal something a little deeper, a story that has yet to be told?
The world and presentation of Girl Haven is admittedly simple, yet surprisingly accessible. Though I was not met with sweeping, detailed landscapes or a striking color palette, the illustrations still hold an almost nostalgic charm through their expressive qualities and designs. To give a comparison, Meaghan Carter’s style appears as a satisfying mixture of Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy and Gale Galligan’s work on The Baby-Sitter’s Club. The individual looks of the characters never come off as overbearing, although there are some instances of wonky proportions in particular panels. Adding to the overall readability of the comic, the layout and size of the panels make the images easily digestible and convey action and emotion in a way that is eye-catching and gripping. However, some scenes could have used a few transitional panels, as characters tend to sporadically appear from one location to another almost instantly, without the use of magical spells this time, of course.
What ultimately sets Girl Haven apart from other portal fantasies is its focus on gender exploration and acceptance. To see a story marketed towards children that deals with transgender identities in such a supportive and genuine way is nothing short of heartwarming. While Ash’s journey in questioning their gender is somewhat surface level, it serves as a worthy introduction to these issues. The comic showcases self-doubt and uncertainty as valid parts of this experience, while also stressing, in the preface, that this story is only one version of it, as not all transgender people share the same experiences. Since Ash’s arc is the focal point along with the journey to Koretis, this does not leave much time in this 160-page comic to develop the other characters, mainly Ash’s friends Eleanor, Junebug, and Chloe, who have the potential to be as fully developed if given the chance. Still, each of them have enough of their own stand-out moments to ingratiate them to a variety of readers.
The publisher and other sites recommend this title for the 10 and up crowd, though I believe that, due to the accessibility of its art style and layout, its simple plot structure and characterizations, and lack of serious violence or any other potentially harmful material, it is also suitable for 9-year-olds and perhaps 8-year-olds at the youngest. Positive transgender representation in fantasy materials, especially for younger readers, is still somewhat scarce, and those curious or wanting to see themselves in such stories deserve to have them readily available should they be appropriate for them. Girl Haven can appeal to children facing similar experiences to Ash or to those wondering how to be supportive to those on their own gender journeys.
Giving further context to Ash’s story, the back matter of the comic includes definitions on gender, gender identities, gender expression, and sexuality as it pertains to gender. There is also a portion highlighting the significance of pronouns and how to respectfully use them. Librarians that are interested in strengthening and diversifying their youth LGBTQ+ comic collections and have a good circulation of character-centered fantasy stories should consider acquiring this title.
Girl Haven Vol.
By Lilah Sturges
Art by Meaghan Carter
Oni Press, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 10-99
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Trans
Character Representation: African-American, Lesbian, Queer, Nonbinary, Trans,