by Derek Royal
The latest book by cousins Jillian and Mariko Tamaki caught my attention for several reasons. First, Jillian’s art is truly eye-catching, her style and monotone acolor scheme are perfect for the kind of “real life” story being told here. Second, this is a narrative about a summer vacation at a lake beach, and beach getaways hold a particular place in my heart. (And this nostalgic feeling is accentuated for me by the fact that my family will not be going to the coast this summer, as we usually try to do.) Yet another reason why I gravitated toward This One Summer is that it’s just been published by First Second. As anyone who listens to The Comics Alternative podcast knows, this is one of the publishers that Andy and I get most excited about, and you can never go wrong with any book that they put out.
This One Summer is the story of Rose, who travels with her parents to their vacation spot at Awago Beach (a fictional Canadian town), and her younger friend, Windy, who vacations there as well. Rose’s family visits Awago annually, and every year she and Windy get together to swim, relax, hang out, act silly, and just enjoy their summer reprieve from school. This one particular summer — thus, the book’s title — is different from the rest, as the tension between Rose’s mother and father comes to a head. The discontent emanates from her parents’ previous attempts to have another child and how each parent, especially Rose’s mother, Alice, reacts to the situation. This summer is also significant as a turning point in Rose’s sense of herself, both as a maturing young woman and as a sexualized subject. In this way, Windy (who is a year and half younger) stands as an effective foil to Rose, in that her relative immaturity makes Rose’s growth stand out. Indeed, Windy is a childhood force of nature, and Jillian Tamaki constantly draws her in motion, jumping around, acting up, cracking jokes, and almost never sitting still. Rose, by contrast, is often represented in a more stationary and deliberative manner. She is the diegetic narrator of the book, her observations or “voice overs” reading almost like diary entries, so her positioning in the story is more reflective. Whereas Windy easily jokes about wanting big boobs, Rose considers the ramifications of her developing body.
Much of Rose’s summer attention is centered on an Awago local, an older boy named Duncan. She and Windy observe from a distance the unfolding drama between him and his girlfriend, Jennifer, especially as it relates to an unintended pregnancy and the tensions that unfold. These events are narrative complements to the dilemma facing Rose’s parents, and Mariko Tamaki does wonderful job at juxtaposing these two storylines and adjoining them through the book’s narrator/protagonist. Yet, while the paternity conflict within Rose’s family repulses her and drives her deeper into herself, the turmoil between the teenage couple draws Rose closer to her fantasy love interest: Duncan. In this way, the Tamakis create a fascinating narrative that captures the real drama of adolescence, the push-and-pull of forces that contribute to maturity and that, for better or worse, shape us as adults. Through the eyes of Rose, we discover that an uncomfortable reality undergirds our sense of innocence, that maturity is as fascinating as it is disturbing, and that adults aren’t immune to pettiness and spectacle.
It would not be a mistake to call This One Summer a contemplative book, one whose tone easily reflects the leisurely and free-flowing nature of (ideal) summer vacations. And Jillian Tamaki’s art has a wispy, carefree, and even breezy quality that lends itself well to the story’s theme and its pacing. Much as you will find in manga (a style that informs Tamaki’s art), there are segments of the narrative without much action, visuals that primarily establish setting and tone, and what Scott McCloud has described as an aspect-to-aspect transition between panels. This kind of illustration style is one of the strengths of the book, and it allows us a deeper look into Rose and her evolving sense of self.
The Tamaki cousins have created a powerful follow up to their debut graphic novel, Skim, the story of an angst-ridden teenager, growing into maturity, struggling with isolation and a whirlwind of emotions. But framing This One Summer solely as young adult literature — and as something intended mainly for a teenage female readership, as you might find with the now-defunct Minx line of graphic novels from DC Comics — would be doing the book a disservice. On its inside front cover, the publisher compares it to the cousins’ debut work, calling it a “teen graphic novel.” If by that they mean a graphic novel about teenagers and growing up, then fine. That is certainly the subject matter of the book. But if by “teen graphic novel” the publisher is referring to its target audience, insinuating that this is a book more for adolescents than it is for adults, then they are sorely underestimating their material. The text is multi-layered and narratively sophisticated — in both story and visuals — and is much more than a tale of “growing up” or crossing developmental thresholds.
In fact, This One Summer is familiar territory for First Second: an elegantly wrought graphic novel that straddles the line between an older and younger readership. We’ve seen this kind of book many times before with First Second, and just over the past year with examples such as Paul Pope’s Battling Boy and Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham, and Alex Puvilland’s Templar. Indeed, these two books have recently been nominated for an Eisner Award under the “Best Publications for Teens (ages 13-17)” category. And while you could argue that both of these works are also intended for non-teen readers, I can certainly see why the publisher apparently intended to submit these as contenders for the “Teen” award (although the presence of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints on that same list is more of a head scratcher). This One Summer has a similar feel, and that’s one of its great strengths. It’s a story that can be appreciated on multiple levels, and while in the hands of divergent audiences who may come to the book with different expectations.
Get your copy of This One Summer, as well as other books featuring the work of the Tamaki cousins: