Review: Drama

Theater is a strange life. Like many forms of art, it tends to attract people who don’t quite fit in elsewhere. For everyone I know involved in theater, this started early. It’s something they fell into and never fell back out of. It’s their passion. It’s their life. Even if they end up doing something else, they never quite leave it behind.

As much as Raina Telgemeier‘s Drama (Graphix/Scholastic, 2012) is about crushes and young love, it’s also about the theater and the community of friends it creates.

Our cute, purple-haired protagonist, Callie, has found her passion early. She loves theater — but refreshingly, her heart is backstage. It’s great to see a young girl character in a story about theater that isn’t interested in being on stage. She’s too busy making big plans for her set design and puzzling out special effects. She’s not toiling away in obscurity waiting to be discovered; instead, she knows exactly what she wants to be doing and does it well. She has her moments of self-doubt and confusion (usually involving her relationships with boys!) but her confidence in herself is delightful.

I loved the realism of Callie’s relationships with the boys in her life — her initial boldness with Greg and her tentative affection toward Jesse as well as her playful and sweet friendship with Justin. Equally great is how she relates to the girls in the book — while there is a bit of conflict with her best friend Liz, they’re clearly best friends. Even Bonnie, who’d be a “mean girl” in another book isn’t presented to be that much of a threat but just someone who runs in a different social circle.

I don’t think Telgemeier’s art has ever been stronger.  She seems to have pulled in a few more manga-inspired touches — big, expressive eyes and exaggerated facial expressions. As sharp and perceptive as her writing always is, much of the joy of this book is in the silent panels. Her ability to communicate complex emotions, from Callie’s joy, concentration and worry, and quiet moments with deceptively simple lines is unrivaled. Telgemeier makes comics look so effortless.

While my advance reader copy was mostly in black and white, the few pages of color by Gurihiru that I did get went far to set the mood of this book. I can’t wait to see the whole thing in color.

Perhaps the greatest joy of Drama is how perceptive an eye and ear Telgemeier has for kids of this age. She never talks down to them. One of my major complaints about a lot of middle grade and young adult novels is that the characters seem to act like an adult’s conception of what kids and teens should be like rather than how they actually are.  In some ways, Callie and her friends may seem a bit older than their 12 and 13 years, but in other ways, they’re exactly how I remember being at that age, just with more computers and text messages. You don’t realize how young you are: you end up being a strange mix of innocent and perceptive, smart and awkward. These are kids figuring out who they want to be and that’s something that’s easy to relate to at any age.

And to me, that’s the greatest takeaway of Drama: how much of myself, even now, I saw in it. I’d love to tell Callie and the kids her age reading about her that these things get easier — that boys stop being confusing and that everything goes the way you want. But I can’t. What I can say, though, is that if you believe in and admire Callie, you’ll have a pretty good head start on the rest of us.

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