Raina Telgemeier’s breakthrough graphic novel Smile opened the door to a host of memoir-style books for tweens and teens, focusing on the angst of friendship troubles, first crushes, and negotiating the often difficult path into becoming teenagers and onward to adulthood. However, despite the flow of read-alikes, it’s only been in the last few years that a more diverse selection of voices have begun to be heard.
Rosena Fung’s story of a young tween trying to please her family, fit in at school, handle microaggressions as a second-generation immigrant, and deal with her growing anxiety is shaped by her own experiences. She is the daughter of a family that immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada and as a teen she dealt with her own mental health challenges.
Livy stumbles onto the page with a disastrous first day at a new school and the constant presence of Viola, the embodiment of her growing anxiety, who berates and taunts her. She finds refuge in her art and the library, and moments of joy as she makes dumplings with her mother at home. Eventually, she starts to be accepted into a trio of girls she joins for a group project. But the weight of her family’s expectations and the ever-growing presence of Viola keep her off-balance. As she worries that there might be something wrong with her, she grows obsessed with the family gossip about a cousin who has mental health issues and is further distressed by the break-up of the trio of girls she is trying to join. Her issues are exacerbated by the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt racism and harassment she receives as an Asian-Canadian and the child of immigrants. Will Livy break under the strain and what will her parents do when they find out how much she is struggling?
Fung’s artwork packs a huge range of emotions into the pages. As Livy’s anxiety grows, it’s shown as a looming, blue, ghost-like figure that hovers over her and drags along a torrent of negative words, thoughts, and images. Livy swings from wild enthusiasm over the things she loves, with starry eyes and bouncing ponytail, to abruptly recoiling into herself, physically crouching under the weight of the damaging words of family, friends, and her own inner voice. Some of the most entrancing art is the explosion
of sounds, scents, and tastes as Livy relaxes with her mom, creating the food they love together. Some of the most painful scenes show Livy with hunched shoulders and a nervous smile, as she struggles to navigate between the competing pressures in her life. Fung uses her nuanced artwork to show the widely differing personalities and cultures of Livy and Charlotte, the other Asian-Canadian in her friend group. Charlotte is a self-contained person, shown with a short bob, plaid skirts and jumpers, and unlike Livy’s wild emotional swings, she appears to be indifferent to the harassment they both suffer for their heritage. However, as the presence of Viola increases towards the end of the story, Charlotte breaks out of her mold as well. Once Livy is able to work past some of her anxiety, both she and Charlotte are able to deepen their friendship, with Charlotte breaking out of her containment with a genuine smile and banding together with Livy to speak out against how the other girls are treating them.
This graphic novel will appeal to fans of the fictionalized memoir genre, and also offers a welcome aspect of diversity to the genre. Readers who struggle with mental health issues or their cultural identity will find much to relate to in this story, while other readers will be prompted to consider how they relate to their fellow students and the experiences of others.
Living with Viola
By Rosena Fung
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Canadian, Anxiety, Depression, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) Character Representation: Canadian, Anxiety