Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Graphic Novel Review: Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir. Liz Prince, 256 pages, 2014. 

I saw Tomboy a few months ago on some kind of “Best Graphic Novels Blah Blah” list, and added it to my “to read” stack. My “to read” stack probably has about two hundred books in it, but something about this one made it work its way to the top. I didn’t know much about it, but even quickly flipping through the pages, I knew I had found a great graphic novel.

We meet Liz when she’s four years old in Boston, screaming bloody murder that she doesn’t want to wear a dress that was gifted from her grandma. Her parents (especially her mom, who ends up a hero in the story) decide it’s not worth the fight, that they really don’t care – so they tell grandma “no more dresses as gifts,” and they’re cool. So we get an annotated “Liz Prince, Age 4” drawing, with her red baseball cap, a gray blazer, and sneakers. And that’s pretty much the gear we see her in for the first chapters of the book.

Early on, Liz tries to get at the definition of what a “tomboy” is – that she has nothing against pink and frilly and dainty, but it just doesn’t describe her. Is a tomboy an athletic girl? A girl with a short haircut? A construction worker? For Liz, it goes beyond clothing or extra-curricular activities, it was a defining part of her. Liking Battle Beast and Ghostbusters action figures, wrestling with boys, pretending to be Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones instead of Princess Leia and Marion Ravenwood. We follow Liz through the rest of her school years, moving to Santa Fe and trying to find friends to hang out with, acceptance, and love.

Along the way, she finds pieces of herself in other friends. People she meets along the way who help her reinforce her feelings about her “tomboyishness” realize it’s okay to be comfortable in her own skin. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, she has sad moments, but overall, this is a happy book about traditional gender roles and self-acceptance. Starting the book, and having read several LGBT memoirs, I kind of assumed (see? always assumptions about gender roles.) that she’d realize she likes girls at some point before the end of the book. By the time you’re halfway through though, you realize that Liz is heterosexual, and probably going to stay that way. And yeah, by the end, she’s still into guys, just…she’s not a “girly” girl. And she’s cool with it. We are too.

Tomboy reminded me of friends I had growing up, but reminded me of several of my students, too. Some of the kids we see pushing gender norms are LGBT, but there are some who aren’t (or that I know, or they know, or their friends/family know, or it’s none of my business I’m not prying I was just wondering geez), and our classrooms and schools need to be a safe place for those kids.

The graphic novel is thematically appropriate for secondary students, but the sprinkling of “f-bombs” in a few sections would move it up to high school pretty fast for many communities. I like that Tomboy is about gender without being about sex, that it approaches the topic in a completely unique way, and that Prince’s strong sense of self is reflected in her voice and art. As memoirs go, this is a new favorite. 

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