of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Rising Star—Ariel Schrag
There is no shortage of teen coming-of-age novels. The negotiation of the (never as exciting as expected) prom, the first kiss, the first drink, and the feeling that your current crush is your only true hope for happiness have all been covered in young adult literature for decades. Readers cannot seem to get enough of even classic versions of this story, and it is always refreshing to see a new take on this genre. In her literary exploration of the topic, Ariel Schrag offers three twists: a graphic-novel format, a brutally open autobiographical style, and a peer's-eye view, since she started her first book at fifteen. Schrag approached her high-school experience with an anthropological eye, carrying a notebook and tape recorder through school and keeping every note passed to her, scraps of which appear within some of the panels. This ethnographic attention to detail results in a compelling authenticity, wherein nothing is tempered or exaggerated.
As is standard, all of Schrag's graphic novels were first published as individual comics before being collected into book form; each volume follows one school year. The graphic novels are sturdy enough to hold up under library use, and teen reviews have indicated that audiences enjoy reading the entire year in one sitting. Although Schrag has not yet hit large-scale popularity, all three of her books are worth the possible extra effort to purchase them, and they'll appeal to readers of Carolyn Mackler, Alex Sanchez, and other novelists treating young adult coming of age.
Though Awkward was Schrag's first writing effort, it was published after the success of her more sophisticated second book, Definition . The first two books cover her freshman and sophomore years in high school, and it is easy to see the increasing sophistication in both the art and in the narration. It is to the credit of Definition and the unexpected surge of popularity that accompanied its release that Slave Labor Graphics was willing to go back and publish her earlier volume. Potential , based on Schrag's junior year of high school, is the most artistically accomplished volume, showing a skillful and fluid interbalance between the text and the accompanying illustrations. Indeed, there are three distinctive approaches to art in Potential : the usual heavily inked characters, intentionally drawn in a cartoonish style to emphasize anonymity in a large high school; the grotesque Munch-like distortions that reinforce the intensity of emotions (lust, despair); and the lush and delicate ink washes that illuminate her fantasy sequences. All three styles accompany her often sarcastic and always witty personal commentary, which is counterpointed with speech-bubble conversations between characters.
College life seems to have slowed down the publishing rate for her senior year volume (three of eight comic-book chapters of Likewise have been published over the past two years), however, Schrag has indicated in interviews that she is excited to finish the book and move on to new, perhaps slightly less personal, topics. However, it is unlikely that Schrag will ever fully move away from her autobiographical approach as she indicates in an interview with Sequential Tart (a comics online zine), “I'm always happier when I read a book that's a true story or find out that the story parallels the author's own life. And I'm happier doing non-fiction.”
This series is best suited, in light of the topics covered, to older teens, and they'll appreciate the honesty and revelations of Schrag's voyage. Behind her detailed exploration of her own sexuality, first loves, and experimentation with drinking and substance use is her increased comfort with her true “geek” self: she loves science, surprises herself by enjoying class on occasion, and longs for true love (even if it isn't with a boy). While her life may be wilder than that of some readers, teens similarly seeking to become more comfortable in their own skins will find much to identify with.
--April Spisak, Reviewer
Books by Ariel Schrag
Definition . Slave Labor Graphics, 1997
Awkward. Slave Labor Graphics, 1999.
Potential . Slave Labor Graphics, 2000.