Heartthrob or heartache? Sudden attraction or slow connection? With Valentine’s Day approaching, and its card exchanges popular even in some pre-schools, the recent publication of Svetlana Chmakova’s Crush (2018) was aptly timed. This continuation of the author/illustrator’s award-winning Berrybrook Middle School series targets tween readers, the age at which crushes typically first loom large. Today I look at this very enjoyable, satisfying graphic novel and another recent graphic work about first and ongoing loves, M. Dean’s memorable I Am Young (2018). That book will appeal more to teen and older readers, with its look back at how folks frequently used to get and manage crushes, before these days of (often successful) online dating websites.
Crush’s central character, 13 year-old Jorge Ruiz, first appeared in Chmalkova’s Brave (2015) and Awkward (2017), reviewed by me here,but Crush works well as a stand-alone-novel, too. I believe that readers who first experience engaging Jorge’s point-of-view here will eagerly seek out those other Berrybrook Middle School works! Chmakova does a great job communicating how Jorge’s big, athletic build—his stereotypical “jock” appearance—does not match his sensitive nature and thoughtful mind. He is one of Berrybrook’s unofficial peacekeepers, watching out for other kids at risk from bullying, and quietly annoyed at how crushes are the hot topic at school.
Wordless panels and others with word balloons filled only with ellipses show us Jorge’s gradual, then stunned realization that he too now has a crush—on classmate Jazmine Duong. As the novel’s eleven chapters unfold, we see Jorge later daydreaming about Jazmine in even softer pastels and also read his astute, rueful conclusion about his own change-of-heart about crushes: “I guess that’s why you can predict movie plots . . . but can’t predict life.”
Chmakova’s visual style, employing the manga conventions of cheek lines for blushes and wide mouths for other strong emotions, supports Crush’s story lines and character development. Sub plots involving some self-centered and insecure tween characters add dimension to school life here, as does the understated depiction of a hajib-wearing gym coach, a lesbian teacher whose wife accompanies her to school events, and what appears to be a non-binary drama club character, Nic. This rich texture of daily and seasonal school events adds heft and poignancy to the slow development of Jorge and Jazmine’s relationship from friends to “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.”
Even figuring out how to ask for—or give—a phone number for texting is a situation the pair realistically stumbles through. Along the way, Chmakova points out that Jorge admires Jazmine’s spirit and not just her appearance, unlike another shallow character. We see that sincere dating duos, like real friends, steadfastly support one another’s efforts and events. A cheek kiss and a “Hi, Jorge” sweetly conclude this tween-age saga. Chmakova’s fans will further appreciate the author’s “Afterward,” interestingly and entertainingly showing how over months she developed Crush, becoming a mom during this time period, too.
That conjunction between adult life, often linked to parenthood, and its frequently problematic relationship to tween or teen crushes is central to M. Dean’s I Am Young. This visually lush book contains six short stories spotlighting such intense emotional connections, also including a non-romantic one between two female best friends. A widowed father and adult daughter who no longer “connect” figure poignantly in another story. All these distinct stories, some set in the U.S. and others in Great Britain, alternate with episodes in a seventh, prominent framing story—the saga of one couple’s relationship with one another, begun as a sudden crush, when Miriam and George meet as teenagers at a Beatles concert in 1964 Britain. We follow that crush, continued at first through hand-written letters, throughout the pair’s lives, the passage of time signaled by different Beatles album covers as well as Miriam and George’s whitened hair. Regardless of age, Dean’s characters all have the large eyes and simple facial features and bodies of cartoon characters.
Music is important throughout I Am Young, with Dean altering her color palette and graphic style to match her other characters’ very distinct musical tastes and eras, along with the each story’s plot line. Miriam and George’s Beatlemania is shown in black-and-white, while Lisa’s later psychedelic tripping to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is depicted in deep pink, gold, and green swirls. High school seniors and best friends Kennedy and Rhea, whose growing differences are summed up in their opposing views of pop singer Tom Jones, are shown in somber beiges, maroons, and olive green.
Dean smartly varies the size and shape of panels in these stories, sometimes omitting panel frames all together, to accentuate mood and events. Similarly, she makes some pages very busy or empty, with text sometimes centered or even omitted, in telling ways. When Roberta in “Baby Fat” begins to doubt that she really was ready at 18 to marry Pepe, we see her in the corner of a page, vulnerably small against a large vista. When she unwillingly derives some comfort from returning to her childhood home, Roberta is almost overwhelmed by parental concern along with her own doubts, shown nearly smothered by the busy patterns of a subdued blue quilt.
Throughout this visually rich and emotionally wise book, Dean continues to question crushes and how we see others and ourselves. In “Nana,” the central character continues to doubt herself harshly, but she realizes that a shared love of Karen Carpenter’s music is not enough for a former school bully to become a new, close friend. In “Alvin,” the brainy central character has a retro appreciation for Chuck Berry, but that and all the theories he knows about social injustice cannot get him a date for his high school’s “sock hop.” Alvin is left alone, with a migraine headache. M. Dean cumulatively fulfills her goals for this graphic work in each story. In an interview, she said, “I want to tell stories about the foibles of youth, the mistakes and nuances, the people, places, and things that feel important.” Dean added, “I realized a title like I Am Young reveals both naivete and an acknowledgement that everyone grows older and changes.”
Readers who are mature enough to take an objective view of crushes vs. adult relationships or who enjoy music and art will take particular pleasure in Dean’s storytelling achievements here. I also believe that those of us old enough to remember the Beatles’ 1960s debuts in Britain and the U.S. will find much to be nostalgic about in I Am Young, even as I ruefully wonder if some young readers (or perhaps the tween characters in Crush) might mistake the circular vinyl record and record album covers Dean depicts for CDs! In these days of streaming music, perhaps CDs will soon lose their familiarity as well.
As someone who no longer says, “I am young” but still very much appreciates exchanging valentines with my white-haired husband, I find the final double spread pages of M. Dean’s novel particularly meaningful. On the left, we see aged Miriam and George, now barely old acquaintances, while on the right we see the couple as they first met, teenagers sitting together, with handwritten greetings to one another at the top and bottom of the page. There is something to be said for memories and being young at heart—and M. Dean captures it here.