It takes guts to face one’s fears! But this effort is worthwhile . . . even if the results may take time.
This realization is the focus of author/ illustrator Raina Telgemeier’s new graphic memoir Guts (2019, color by Braden Lamb), where the punning title also refers to the anxiety-produced stomach problems Raina experienced in 4th and 5th grade. Many young readers may already know this popular, award-winning artist’s earlier memoirs, Smile (2010) and Sisters (2012), but each memoir stands on its own. One need not have read about Raina’s many teeth problems (in Smile) or how she and her younger sister struggled to get along (in Sisters) to appreciate the insights and rueful humor in Guts. Yet first-time readers here will surely want to read more by gifted, empathetic Telgemeier. Her other works include two original graphic novels aimed at tweens and teens, including one I reviewed here, as well as graphic adaptations of four Baby Sitters Club books. Aspiring authors and illustrators will also find tips in Telgemeier’s recent “how-to” book, Share Your Smile: Raina’s Guide to Telling Your Own Story (2019).
Guts begins wordlessly, with Telgemeier showing us how she and her mother suffered after they both caught younger daughter Amara’s stomach bug. Cartoonishly expressive eyes and green features in this full-color work convey the discomfort of their nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Boldly-lettered, vividly-colored sound effects accompany some of these scenes. Yet Raina comes to realize that the fear of puking or having diarrhea—her anxiety over this—is another sort of illness that she has acquired. Anxiety literally causes her pain as well as debilitating worry, affecting her actions at school as well as with friends. She is so afraid of catching another stomach bug! When medical tests all prove negative, the 5th grader at first wonders, “Can you be sick even if you are not sick? Can you be healthy even if you hurt?” Learning about anxiety, the symptoms it may cause, and how to deal with these situations becomes this book’s emphasis.
Therapy is an enormous help. The sympathetic, non-judgmental coaching Raina receives from her therapist permits Raina to handle the battery of anxious fears she has—ranging from puking in public or failing at school to death and war. (In interviews, Telgemeier has explained how learning as a kid about the nuclear bombing of Japan, described in Barefoot Gen, a Japanese graphic novel, affected her.) Visually, the artist effectively depicts the impact of all these worries as a looming, encircling set of fears. Yet learning how to ground herself physically, breathing and thinking through one anxiety at a time works for young Raina. It helps her with cope not only with physical distress and her concerns about this but later with worries about puberty and its body changes. These grounding techniques also become a way to handle the stress of her best friend’s seeming abandonment—a situation Raina at first literally experiences as “a total punch in the guts.” Throughout Guts, we sometimes see events from Raina’s visually limited viewpoint—adding immediacy to these situations—as well as from broader perspectives.
Wordless images again come to the forefront towards the conclusion of Guts, when Raina is handling stress more effectively, making new friends as well as retaining her oldest one. A joking—rather than worried—“FARRRRRT” in the memoir’s final sleep-over image captures Raina’s changed attitude. She now has a more comfortable, accepting and self-aware attitude towards her body and possible problems. She also realizes that other kids have their own worries, often akin to hers. As Telgemeier has her younger self say admiringly to a formerly disliked girl, “You’ve got guts.” A final Author’s Note helpfully updates readers with how the adult Telgemeier handles stress and her sensitive stomach.
Just as Guts concludes with Raina and friends looking forward to 6th grade and middle school, readers will finish this sympathetic and hopeful book looking forward to reading or rereading more graphic works by Telgemeier. I know that out of respectful curiosity I plan to look at her “how-to” book, Share Your Smile.