Life is difficult and emotions get in the way, so when surgery to numb the pain and remove hearts becomes available, people are intrigued. No need to suffer through the pain and grief from loss. Everyone, it seems, signs up for the procedure. Everyone, but June. The Faint of Heart by Kerilynn Wilson is a beautifully crafted graphic novel that explores the importance of emotional connections.
June feels alone with a heart in a world without them. Her family is dismissive, she no longer has friends, and teachers chastise her for imperfection. With no heart, all emotions are numbed, not just the painful ones. No more emotional distractions to get in the way of success in school and work. Relationships lose their importance, and family life becomes cold and calculated. But once numbed, these sacrifices no longer feel relevant.
June is different, She is an artist and she cherishes her emotions. She observes her friends and family that alongside the loss of pain, also lose empathy and interpersonal connections. June becomes more and more determined, not only to keep her heart but to help those who are numbed to begin to feel again. It is more complicated than she anticipated, but with the help of a friend, who despite the loss of a heart, is beginning to experience emotions again, June goes on a mission to find the scientist who started this whole thing.
The Faint of Heart is being marketed as a YA mixture of Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind and Severance. It is a well-crafted story that explores some of the same themes related to love, loss, and definitions of success or happiness. It is an analysis of our relationships with ourselves and each other. These themes may resonate with teens who face a daunting future as they navigate new and difficult emotions and relationships.
Wilson’s artwork is gorgeous. Just as our emotions bridge connections with others, wisps of fibers connect panes across some page spreads, She also expertly uses color throughout the book. Many of the illustrations are in black and white with splashes of yellow, orange, and blue to illustrate heart and emotion. As the story progresses, and the emotions begin to shift, so does the use of color. Her illustrations help to illuminate the beauty in life that would be lost without emotional connections.
This is Wilson’s debut graphic novel and hopefully is an indicator of great stories to come. The illustrations in The Faint of Heart are exquisite and beautifully capture the characters and themes from Wilson’s story. It will be purchased for my high school collection, where I am confident it will find a number of readers. With a mixture of science-fiction and a character-centered story, it will appeal to readers from a number of genres, whether or not they are new to the graphic novel format. I recommend it for graphic novel collections serving teens and older middle-grade readers.
The Faint of Heart By Kerilynn Wilson Harper Collins, 2023 ISBN: 9780063116214
Publisher Age Rating: 13 and U
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Ephemera, a beautifully written and illustrated graphic memoir by Briana Loewinsohn, opens with the dedication “For my mum and other things not built to last,” a perfect encapsulation of her story. Loewinsohn’s childhood was filled with plants in the place of family. She sought out connection and nourishment in the absence of a mother lost in her own struggles with mental health. It is filled with emotion, vulnerability, and rejuvenation among plants.
The story isn’t linear, rather, it is an almost poetic exploration of Loewinsohn’s childhood through the lens of her adult memories, processing the trauma from her childhood in a way that also embraces the small moments of love and beauty among plants from a mother who had little to offer. The book is split into 3 chapters, “Dirt,” “Water,” and “Light,” the ingredients for gardeners to properly nourish plants. Each chapter opens with a two page spread with the title embraced by plants thriving under the respective ingredients. It then alternates between scenes from Loewinsohn’s childhood among trees and plants with her as an adult, attempting to nurture the plants of her childhood back to health, rejuvenating the garden with knowledge she learned from her mother as a child.
Plants, flowers, and people need nourishment. Some survive in difficult conditions, and some struggle in conditions in which others thrive. The mother wilts, but Loewinsohn survives. Her mother, like many plants, is ephemeral, meant to be cherished, but not for long. It is a book of love and mourning. Of life, beauty and loss.
The pages where Loewinsohn as an adult gardens, remembering her childhood are illustrated in warm brown tones. The plants are dry and in need of nourishment, in contrast to the thriving spring like plants of her childhood. However, those childhood pages are illustrated in cold greenish blue tones. Much of her childhood in the book was alone with plants, vines and flowers filling the space left empty by a mother who wasn’t able to give her the nourishment she needed. But even if they appeared on the surface to be thriving, the cold lack of nourishment for the plants and Loewinsohn as a child, has led to pain and trauma that she attempts to explore and understand as an adult. However, with warmth and nourishment, the plants and Loewinsohn can begin to heal.
After reading a digital galley of Ephemera, I immediately pre ordered a print copy for my personal collection. I usually lean into the convenience of ebooks and audiobooks, but I desperately wanted to hold this book. It is beautiful. The publisher, Fantagraphics does the illustrations and story justice in its printing. The book is a work of art that will be cherished by many. It might not stand out on the shelves, but once held, its beauty is obvious. Ephemera is highly recommended. Adults are the intended audience, but this book may do well in high schools where memoirs or literary graphic novels are well-read.
Ephemera: A Memoir By Briana Loewinsohn Fantagraphics, 2023 ISBN: 9781683966906
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
High school is a time of transition. A time for coming of age. Relationships change. Both family and friends. Some end, others evolve, and new ones emerge. You begin to see yourself in a new light. It’s a time when many are suspended in limbo. For Deb JJ Lee, a Korean-American author and illustrator, their high school years were a time of tumultuous self-discovery. In Limbo is Lee’s graphic memoir chronicling the choppy waters of adolescent relationships and sense of self.
Lee struggles to find their place at home and at school. After emigrating from South Korea as a young child, they struggle with their identity and being other, not really Korean but not really American.
The memoir navigates relationships and emotion with great care and depth. After years of playing the violin, Lee comes to the realization that their passion is art, not music. The transition is difficult. Friends are in the orchestra and their parents invested so much time and money in lessons. This limbo between music and art is the theme throughout their freshman and sophomore year. And, as with the other themes of transition throughout the book, there are moments of dread and moments where the weight is lifted and Lee feels happiness or at least some peace. This is clearly communicated through the changing imagery in Lee’s illustrations. Their posture and facial expressions transition from feelings ranging from bored through sadness and loneliness to contentment if not happiness. During the lowest of lows, the panels fill with black smoke, drowning out everything else. But as they emerge from limbo with greater peace, the illustrations begin to shift as well. Rather than focusing on illustrations, Lee begins to find beauty in the details of every day. The pages turn into intricately drawn slice-of-life illustrations. But the peace is temporary, as they continue to navigate life transitions.
Lee’s story will be validating for many. Childhood friendships evolve and no longer seem to fit, and even new brighter friendships sometimes start to fade. These feelings are both devastating and almost universal for teenagers.
From the beginning it is also clear that the mother and child relationship is strained, another very personal and universal experience. However, as the memoir unfolds, it is clear that this mother is abusive, and that the strain in the relationship is far from universal. There are moments when the mother seems to begin to understand her child. When transitioning from music to art, Lee’s mother supports and encourages them, knowing that she must support what her child’s passions are, not what she wants them to be. However, that moment is more of an exception than a rule.
At one point in the memoir, Lee suggests that their mother avoided scrutiny from CPS because of “tiger mom” stereotypes of Asian mothers. Lee’s relationship with their family is complicated. Lee at times fears their mother, but at other times feels loved and supported. The dad is mostly sympathetic and warm but allows the abuse to continue. The complexity of the family dynamics unfold in the narrative as teenage Lee begins to unpack their trauma, a choice that invites the audience to acutely feel the betrayal.
The story will be validating for many. Lee is honest about their struggles and journey with relationships and mental health as a teen. There are no clear-cut solutions or fulfilling peace in the end, but there is therapy and the sense that they are on their way to self-acceptance.
In Limbo is not an easy book to read. The pace of this memoir is slow and deliberate. It focuses on Lee’s arc as a teen coming into themselves, rather than the events of their high school years. The content is also heavy. The book includes depression, abuse, and suicide attempts. However, for those who find their way to this memoir, it is a rewarding experience. I will highly recommend it to students who are fans of Tillie Walden, weighty memoirs, or anyone who needs reminding that the comic medium is a literary art form worthy of acclaim.
In Limbo By Deb JJ Lee Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250252661
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18 NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Korean-American, Nonbinary, Depression Character Representation: Korean-American, Depression
My Life Among Humans by Jed McGowan follows a lonely and misguided invading alien who tries to navigate a life hidden among humans. McGowan twists the typical alien invasion story and instead focuses on the perspective of the alien, a one-eyed bio-engineered creature with no body and 6 legs who also happens to be desperately lonely.
Alien invasions are a ubiquitous plot in popular media. These stories with strong themes of fear and suspicion are common in books, television, and film. The majority of these focus on “the other,” a manifestation of societal fears of the unknown. Even in stories where the aliens are redeemed by the end, there are usually strong undercurrents of fear and suspicion before the final resolution. That exists in My Life Among Humans, however, it is not central to the story. Instead, rather than breaking down fear, McGowan’s plot builds empathy.
I’m a sucker for redemptive arcs and misguided innocence, and well, any story that flips conventional stories. I just really loved this book. The unnamed alien has been sent to earth and assigned to study humans. It begins by sending a spore into the mind of Will, a high school boy, to observe and record his every thought, movement and emotion. Then its daily observations are sent to “the manager” who merely states, “report received.” Every day follows the same pattern until the alien is eventually asked to observe more humans, and things begin to swerve from its established plan and mission.
The alien is lonely, desperate to please (or at least not upset) its manager, and tries hard to follow its instructions – to stay hidden and merely observe. But it is curious, and lonely, and is eventually caught by Will. Desperate to fix the situation, the alien, in a panic, discovers its ability to control Will, and by extension other humans. This leads to a cascading series of unfortunate events, where the alien is left trying to pick up the pieces and cover its tracks.
McGowan’s illustrations add emotional depth to this story. At first appearance, McGowan’s visual style doesn’t match my personal preferences. His hand-drawn illustrations are reminiscent of both vintage science fiction and early computer animation, appropriately connected to the visual style of many other alien stories. The real beauty in the illustrations is his ability to capture emotion. Illustrators rely heavily on facial expressions and body language to express emotion, however, this story has unique challenges. The alien has essentially no body or face, just one eye, and tentacle-like legs. Yet, the alien’s character is developed through its emotional responses. Its loneliness, fear, innocence, and curiosity are clearly evident in every panel.
McGowan also expertly illustrates the moments his human characters lose control of their bodies. Their emotions aren’t lacking, they have been lost, a loss that is felt in the illustrations.
Upon my reread of My Life Among Humans to write this review, I fell in love again. It has emotional weight, and after each read, I walked away with a warmed heart. I recommend it for adult and teen graphic novel collections. However, I also think this could be popular with middle-grade and younger teens. The story would be appropriate for younger audiences, and the illustration style would not feel overwhelming for those who are newly introduced to the format. I will purchase (and heavily recommend) it for my high school collection. I think the initial interest will be from younger high school readers but the story has heart and poses a number of interesting philosophical questions, which will appeal to older readers as well.
My Life Among Humans By Jed McGowan Oni Press, 2023 ISBN: 9781637151990
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16), Tween (10-13)