Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
I was really excited when I found out what books I’d been assigned. I’ve wanted to read Far from the Tree by Robin Benway because I was a fan of her previous book, Emmy & Oliver, as well as because of all the buzz surrounding her National Book Award win. 16-year-old Grace, after recently giving her baby up for adoption, decides that she now wants to meet her own adoptive mother. While her information isn’t available, she does find out that she has two other half-siblings from the same mother – snarky Maya, who was adopted by wealthy parents now dealing with marital issues and alcoholism, and quiet, sensitive Joaquin, her older brother who’s been bouncing around the foster system his whole life. They all agree to meet, and become a support network for one another as they deal with break ups and parental issues and new crushes. Benway is always great at creating conflicts without clear villains, and she has a vast reservoir of empathy for all of her characters, even when they make less-than-ideal decisions. This book is going to be a go-to recommendation for readers of realistic fiction.
Spinning by Tillie Walden
Spinning is a graphic memoir by Tillie Walden about her youth spent in competitive figure skating and coming out as queer. She changes cities, falls in and out of friendships, has wonderful and terrible adult role models, and a lot of other incidents that don’t quite make a clear and concise narrative, but perfectly encapsulate how disparate moments are strung together in our memory to record our lives. Even when it’s not about Tillie dealing with her emerging identity, it’s still about the performative nature of her sport and all the gendered expectations that come with it. It’s easily my among my favorite comics of 2017.
The art is spare, doing much of the emotional heavy lifting, with purple coloring and spare but stark bursts of yellow. The style really evokes This One Summer for me, with the coloring shifted slightly. Where Summer’s detailing is lush and vibrant, though, Spinning is often as vast and cold as an empty ice rink.
And the winner is…
Spinning by Tillie Walden
Author/actor John Hodgman often says “Specificity is the soul of narrative,” and that best explains how I chose a winner between the two books. Spinning feels so authentic. I’m not a queer teen who figure skates, but Walden gives so many specifics that she created a beautiful window into that world, while also accurately mirroring my own experiences with parental difficulties, never feeling fully part of a friend group, or feeling the drive to excel at something I’m not even really enjoying anymore. Conversely, Far from the Tree has about three books worth of drama, but very little forward momentum in plot. (The middle third feels like a lot of wheel spinning.) The characters are also fairly generic, without the room to breathe and be authentic. There are some specific quirks – dipping their fries in mayo, for instance – but so much of these kids and their lives feel like rough sketches. Combine that with the fairly manipulative and cliched nature of all various drama the teens go through in Far From the Tree, and we have a clear winner.
Evan Mather is a Teen Services Librarian at Mount Prospect Public Library. He loves cooking, movies, and DMing. When he’s not working, you can usually find him trying to make his two cats to get along.