Chiggers written and illustrated by Hope Larson
Lettered by Jason Azzopardi
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, 2008
We are ever on the look-out for juvenile comic books (or graphic novels) that look interesting. Natalya is not quite the superhero comic reader (yet). She gravitates toward Kazu Kibuishi, Kean Soo’s Jellaby, and The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew volumes. Kibuishi’s anthologies: Flight Explorer, and Art Spiegelman’s Little Lit, are fantastic for finding artists and storytellers.
We found Hope Larson’s Chiggers where we find the entire Children’s Section graphic/comic works in our local library. Hidden amidst the non-fiction with the art and how-to-draw books. This really annoys me. In the Teen and Adult sections they are in non-fiction near the magazines and how-to-craft books.
The cover and a quick flip and I am thrilled to see something other than the clownish or cartoony! In fact, Chiggers looks like more of the sort of graphic renderings I read. The dust jacket reads “ages 10-14”; the daughter is 9 and 5/6ths. Natalya is all about returning to summer camp this year; the book is about summer camp. I instantly wave it under Natalya’s nose as she is deliberating over which volume of Hardy Boys she’s read and which she might re-read. This Library day was a good haul: Chiggers, Jellaby: Monster in the City, and Hardy Boys.
Natalya read the book first, and said, when asked, “Good.” She adds it to the pile of “you should read this, too, Mom.”
Abby is back at the same old camp she goes to every summer — except for the fact that this summer, nothing is the same. Her friend Rose is a cabin assistant, her friend Beth is pierced, and now the only person who doesn’t seem too cool for Abby is Shasta, the new girl. Shasta, who was struck by lightning, whose Internet boyfriend is a senior in high school, and who is totally annoying to everyone but Abby… –Publisher’s Comments
You discover that these are tweens, middle-school-aged characters; and they are all this may imply; caught in the between.
Abby, the protagonist, is adorable. She is small-town, reads Fantasy Fiction, and a late-bloomer. Yes, I met some definite connections with this read. It is as the jacket flap suggests: this summer does not meet expected outcomes. Rose is too busy to hang out, and a bit too old. And Beth is chin deep in a music sub-culture (and all the elitism of which that comprises). A new friend, Zoe, appears who connects with Beth better and this pushes Abby to the role third wheel many times. And a new girl, Shasta, “totally annoying to everyone,” is a possible new friend for Abby. And then there is a boy.
I am not sure how familiar you are with Coyote, as a character (and/or device). He (or she) is a mysterious figure who enters a story and stirs things up, creates as well as destroys; the character facilitates change. Shasta reminds me of a Coyote. She is a bit of a trickster, and is certainly of an unknown quantity or quality. Shasta comes to camp late, and she leaves early without leaving an address and soon enough fades from existence, “For a while I used Shasta’s bandana as a bookmark. I don’t know where it went after that” (171). She has stories that are hard to verify: an internet boyfriend; was struck by lightning. Is she lying about this, or that? She introduces Abby to Teal, where Rose has failed to, though Teal and Rose are cousins (yes, I noticed both have color names, too). Shasta causes Abby to make decisions about herself and her friends. Be herself and more comfortable as herself regardless of how others receive the idea or bend to conforming to ideas of “what girls her age are.” (97-98)
It is Abby’s one foothold in childhood that keeps the potential for overwhelming dramatics at bay. The hard aspects (and terrors) faced with maturing (physically and culturally) are nodded to, but not occupying. Older boyfriends. I’m not sure how anyone else read pages 18-20, but chiggers is not the name that came to mind as way of explanation. Page 51’s interaction was nice; ah, periods while at camp. Hair styling, appearance (98). Abby, as our protagonist, the focus of the narrative, still knows how to blush. She’s a bit naïve, or at least slow to some conclusions (25). And her fantasies of a boy involve kissing and hand-holding, and elf-ears.
Reading Chiggers reminded me of watching Never Been Kissed (1999, Drew Barrymore) in the theater with friends while in college. There was a row of girls from high school below us. We were laughing, but those girls were silent–horrified. We could look back and laugh, but they were still living it. I can read Chiggers with a smile and a chuckle. And I think those nods toward ‘angst issues’ are present but dealt with gently, sympathetically as to not illicit the trauma Never Been Kissed unleashed on its younger audience members. Sure, things happen to and around Abby, but it’s survivable, and Abby is all right in the end. And it is such a short period of time.
Chiggers is pooling the various travails of friendships, new/old, young/older, girl/boy, duos/trios, real/imagined where Change, physical and otherwise, are contributing factors to how these characters connect or disconnect—to Abby. And it ends on a high note. The world is put back into place, though a slightly “further along” place.
The characters are appealing, believable without becoming cliché, as are the typical camp events and occurrences.
As for the title…
Have to say I was a bit thrown off with my encountering “bitch” in the dialogue (56). I am not surprised to find it in literature of middle-schoolers (some would call that jaded, but I remember those years). However I was surprised as the book is mingled with that ambiguous category “Children’s.” That Nate didn’t point the word out… Anyway, felt I should throw that out there as I do have friends who would be concerned…
You can learn to read a book, identify its parts, etc. You can learn to watch a film. You can learn to read a comic. I am still learning to read the comic despite that excellent fun-filled course on the graphic novel I took. It was an English Department class, so I think one with influences from the cinema department and the art department would be stellar. Fortunately the last minute Prof knew quite a lot on the subject of reading and enjoying comics. I have a desire to apply those Cinema classes (critical approach to, culture and cinema…) to the comic; and I tend to borrow the Art Composition perspective from the husband. This digression is to say. I am still working out my technique for reading and writing about comics.
One thing our class (at Portland State) explored was how people read a page or panel differently. Not what is perceived, but the physical act: read the text, look at the illustration, read the text again; illustration, text, illustration; text, glance, next panel. Chiggers was a illustration, text, illustration read for me; primarily because many pages hold little text. However the case of your reading technique, please do not just glance. Look at the illustrations.
Chiggers is told and illustrated by Larson in black and white ink; the text is hand-lettered by Jason Azzopardi. I was trying to think of a look that feels close. I think Fun Farm by Alison Bechdel yet not so fine a line, but not so heavy a pen as Marjane Satrapi’sPersepolis or Embroideries.
Cue opening soundtrack. The title page is the first frame, and the copyright page holds two more panels; the dedication page, two more. Abby is packing for camp. This is a lovely start to the book.
Larson holds to traditional panels with narrow white gutters—most of the time. She plays with the comic format, but not gratuitously. She uses overlays, wavy panel lines, partially-curved framing lines, arrows from one panel to another. Larson stylishly includes rules for a card game(16) characters are playing and instructions on “how to make a friendship bracelet” (57) like the ones the girls make.
Page 40 is a full page panel, free floating, with Abby and Shasta walking away from the reader up a forest path. The facial expressions that carry the subtext (and often the central text of our frames) are kept from the reader and we are left with the text, Abby, her back to Shasta-“Are you sick?” Shasta answers “No, it’s just a pill for migraines.” We aren’t sure whether to believe Shasta or not due to previous experiences with this character. Nor are we sure if we should because we aren’t sure if Abby believes her; we can’t see if she does. The ambiguity that firmly resides throughout the story is captured in a free-floating panel. We aren’t sure what to feel; this absence is reflected or guided by the absence of a frame. Yet, the page could also be a dream, an imaginary moment where Abby has Shasta give her a straight-answer, and an honest one. I suggest this reading only because later in the book, Abby’s dreams/fantasies have similar waved-in floating panels (101, 106+, 170). Either reading is plausible.
The visual experience would contribute to the emotional impact of the stories events (as they should).
Another example is pages 146 through 149. Abby has gone after Shasta to the field where power lines line up down the slopes on those big wooden towers. Shasta, who seems to carry electrical charge, begins to send up “positively charged streamers” toward the storm clouds descending “stepped leader” (145). An instructional piece on 145 says that these are invisible to the human eye, but in illustration, and for the sake of dramatic effect, the “stepped leader” is a vine nearing, and Shasta’s “streamer” is a snake reaching upward. Abby interrupts the connection by knocking Shasta out of the way. The charge hits the electrical lines instead. The panels have angled lines (not square/neat). The text is rough, and the text bubble jagged. Once the intensity of the moment passes (150+) we are returned to calm and orderly. Of course, there are plenty of panels with internal ambience; dagger “wall paper” relaying Beth’s sarcastic “Wow,” and her dislike of Shasta; lattice work splitting while Beth and Abby argue (59); text bubbles slithering and oddly shaped (103).
Larson uses many text-less frames to speak; their angles, close-ups or distance, postures, costumes (note Shasta t-shirt (114+)… Each panel is worth a study, as is the page, and then in conjunction with the next. There is no uniformity of page layout from the start: a hint to what we can expect from the book’s story? Normalcy and uniformity is not a word easily applied to young people—despite the effort.
There are repetitive images. The vine “stepped leader” and the snake “streamer” (from 146+) is seen earlier on page 70 when Abby is watching Rose and (camp counselor) Kirsten talking at lunch. The two are facing one another talking, with Abby in the back ground center. Their word bubbles are empty. The frame below (similar in size and shape and composition) closes in on Rose and Kirsten’s mouths. From Roses’ mouth comes the vine and Kirsten’s the snake and they move toward each other around Abby. When I figure this out, I will let you know. I can go with that invisible connection that draws people together. Just working out the snake and vine imagery.
There are really beautifully rendered moments. Page 125, Abby is trapped in Shasta’s long dark hair, and then in a temper sweeping it aside in the third frame. The lunchroom (71-73) overlapping what Shasta is doing with her medication over-top Abby and Teal’s conversation back at the table: nicely done. A favorite is the Abby in the shower while Zoe and Beth are talking about her without knowing she is behind one of the curtains (96-9).Love the sequence on 98 (after a few hurtful things were said) of Abby’s hand (with the friendship bracelet) cuts her leg with the razor. The blood trickling down her leg in the second frame with Zoe’s voice over, the third with the blood slithering toward the drain. Finally the bottom half of the page for the fourth panel, Abby is leaned into the tile wall into the jets of the shower, her hand up in a protective gesture across her; hurt on her face. At the left corner is a text bubble coming from outside “Tilt your head forward.” Zoe is speaking to Beth, who is getting her hair cut; but the image is overwhelmingly Abby tilted forward. And cue the moment Abby comes from the shower with a “shhhhhhk” of the shower curtain, “Hey guys….” (99). Zoe is priceless with that uh-oh-surprised-caught look on the last frame, “Hey, Abby.”
The expressions on the faces of characters carry the story.
The black/white is nice a straight forward; and dramatic and honest.
The lettering of the text bubbles, letters, instructions, sound effects was fantastic. The words were a part of the visual importance of this illustrated story; really cleverly wrought and well-integrated into the frame. Larson used everything toward visual representation and interaction.
There is complaint that some characters are hard to differentiate. Natalya had this complaint. That goes away. I didn’t have trouble. Larson uses profile difference (noses, chins) hair style and color, clothing/accessories, and freckles.
Knowing which panel to follow one after another was easy, even with the non-uniform layouts.
I enjoyed the playfulness, and the sophistication of the pages; but I think the daughter was a bit daunted. I don’t think that this book is too much or too layered and complex to be entertaining on the most basic level. The story is there and enjoyable, and a little practice with ‘critical reading’ skills is optional. Chiggers can be appreciated on multiple levels.