Slip, written by Marika McCoola with illustrations by Aatmaja Pandya, explores the intersection of art and emotion. Jade has been accepted into an intensive summer art institute where she will be tasked to create a cohesive portfolio of her pottery work. Her work is technically beautiful, but it lacks perspective. She must tap into her emotions for inspiration, but she is in a dark place, and wants to keep those emotions bottled up as best she can.
Just before leaving for the institute, Jade gets a call. Her best friend, Phoebe, is in the hospital after a suicide attempt. Jade is drowning in terror, anger, and guilt. She wants nothing more than to talk to Phoebe, but Phoebe needs time to heal on her own, and Jade must face this summer and her emotions alone.
The graphic novel does not spend much time on Phoebe’s thoughts or perspective. We only know that she is in the hospital and not ready to speak to friends. Instead, the story focuses on Jade’s journey to healing. Her emotions are overwhelming, and Jade is desperate to keep them out of mind and her art. Jade’s story is not unique and many of her emotions are universally felt. The book explores the idea that art can help people process and also make connections through emotions. FJade’s personal journey explores how she can let go of control and process her emotions in and out of art.
There are a few discussions with other students at the camp about mental health and suicide and art. In one casual discussion over a meal, they consider the prevalence of mental illness among artists. Their discussion is casual, and Jade walks away upset. I wish that the themes from their talk had been explored with more depth. The students at one point consider whether or not “madness” is a benefit. A stronger connection in that scene could (and maybe should) have been made that those dealing with mental health issues (such as Jade) can process their emotions through their art, and push back against the view of mental illness as a benefit.
There are a few more details from the book that I wish had been handled more delicately. Jade intentionally sets paper on fire to “see” Phoebe, which is not a safe choice to explore her emotions. There are also multiple times when Jade responds to the lack of communication from Phoebe by mourning their friendship. Phoebe needs to focus on herself, and lack of communication by someone in a mental health crisis is not indicative of relationship status. Jade’s emotions and feelings about this are understandable. The absence of communication with a friend during a difficult time must be sad and overwhelming, but fears of a lost friendship were unfounded and should have been explicitly addressed. When topics as complicated as attempted suicide and mental health are approached, it is important to deliberately and explicitly debunk responses that are potentially harmful and problematic.
While these critiques are important, as a whole I found the book both compelling and beautiful. Pandya’s use of a rough hand drawn illustration style focuses on emotion over technical precision and details, beautifully mirroring the themes of the book. The majority of the book uses a monotone gray color palette, but moments of intense emotion (good and bad) are colored with shades of red. At first glance, it may seem strange that the illustrations in a graphic novel about art lack technical complexity, but the book is about the process and not the end result. Hand drawn sketches do better when exploring that process than a more polished style would.
McCoola’s handling of the queer romance between Jade and another camper, Mary, is refreshing. The romance is a side plot and not the primary focus for Jade or the book. The romance and their relationship does not heal Jade, rather, the relationship is in the background to her personal journey. Her emotions and personal revelations affect the trajectory of the romance, rather than the other way around.
I also loved the touches of magical realism in Jade’s journey. Her art created in moments of frenzied emotion are beautiful yet dangerous, coming to life and terrorizing Jade. These pieces find peace when she brings to life (through fire) fond memories of her friendship with Phoebe, but it is a temporary peace. There is unpredictability and turmoil in complicated emotions. Remembering the good times and positive thoughts are not a resolution to hurt and anger. Rather, Jade has to let go of her control of her emotions and accept them as they are before finding peace (and better art).
I recommend Slip by McCoola and Pandya for high school and young adult collections. I think many teens will feel connected to Jade’s journey and her art. Personally I know that several of my readers will appreciate the story.
By Marika McCoola
Art by Aatmaja Pandya
Algonquin Books, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)