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Big Picture

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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books

The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.


Written by Mariko Tamaki; illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

Bildungsromans are, for obvious reasons, a mainstay of YA literature. Much of the depicted coming of age depends on both the truly life-changing events, which may not even be noticed or acknowledged until later, and the seemingly small events that look to an outsider like mere blips in an ordinary life but feel pivotal to the adolescent experiencing them. The best coming-of-age stories acknowledge this blend of the minute and the grand, so that readers can easily see themselves and their own combination of monumental and insignificant instances that evoke change and spot their own embarrassments, triumphs, and transformations in the evolution of the protagonist. Although the graphic novel Skim is set in the early ’90s, in Canada, and focuses on one Japanese-Canadian girl, there is such universality in her experiences both large and small that readers will see themselves more clearly through her.

“Skim” is Kim’s nickname, initially thrust upon her by her peers but now claimed as her own. Readers see other understated acts of resistance play out over several months of her quiet adventures, heartbreaks, and small triumphs. Over the course of a school year, the sixteen-year-old experiences her first love (an ambiguous relationship with the poetic Ms. Archer, Skim’s teacher), connects with one of the former social queens whose own despair has led to introspection and a new openness, and dips into local Wiccan culture. Unfortunately, as many teens already know too well, few things that seem perfect or forever live up to their potential: Skim is disappointed to find that the Wicca gatherings in the woods double as creepy AA meetings, making new friends can too often alienate old ones, and first romances (especially with flighty teachers) are more often fodder for depression than joy.

Mariko Tamaki ably keeps Skim’s perspective sardonic and witty, the sharp clarity ensuring that the defeatist narration of her less than ideal circumstances remains a perceptive analysis rather than just a whine; Skim is wise enough to see that her future will not look like her high-school years, even as she agonizes in them now. At the same time, the author avoids imposing an adult perspective on Skim’s progression toward her own enlightenment. Skim is astute but not precociously so, and however clearly she may see her mistakes, they remain plentiful.

Jillian Tamaki’s unpretentious and accessible drawings pair elegantly with the sixteen-year-old journaling voice throughout: the illustrations seem hand-done, avoiding slick stylization, yet they are deft enough to offer the reader insider access. The artful black-and-white images allow insight into Skim for which she herself may not be ready, offering additional truths about the protagonist (the visual narrative often, for instance, suggests a despair that Skim won’t overtly ’fess up to) and providing two parallel versions of Skim in which readers have opportunity to see themselves. Furthermore, the juxtapositions of haunting art and spare text provide additional dimension, and there’s meaning as well as beauty in the wildness of the Canadian landscape into which Skim frequently escapes.

This stunning coming-of-age novel will draw in not only GN buffs, who will appreciate the creative design and dramatic use of both illustration and narration, but also realistic-fiction fans who may not normally gravitate to the format but will find this a sympathetic standout. Readers may not necessarily share all their experiences with Skim, but they’ll identify with her because she is simply a girl struggling, against all odds, to find a self that feels true and meaningful. This is a fight for relevance and maturity that adolescent readers, to varying degrees, likely find themselves waging on a daily basis.

April Spisak, Reviewer

Big Picture Image

Cover image by Jillian Tamaki from Skim ©2008. Used by permission of Groundwood Books/House of Anansi.

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This page was last updated on May 1, 2008.