'This One Summer' Is a Story for All Seasons
Mariko and Jillian Tamaki don't take the trials of girlhood for granted
By Wayne Alan Brenner,
10:00AM, Thu. Jul. 24, 2014
First Second Books, who recently brought us Paul Pope's magisterial romp Battling Boy and Gene Luen Yang's historical drama Boxers and Saints, adds depth to the usual mid-year media offerings with a powerful new book from cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki.
This One Summer, a gorgeously illustrated hardcover of 320 pages, is just the thing to engage your thoughts and emotions during this summer – or any other time of the year.
From the publisher's description: "Every summer, Rose goes with her mom and dad to a lake house in Awago Beach. It's their getaway, their refuge. Rosie's friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had. But this summer is different. Rose's mom and dad won't stop fighting, and when Rose and Windy seek a distraction from the drama, they find themselves with a whole new set of problems. One of the local teens – just a couple of years older than Rose and Windy – is caught up in something bad, something life-threatening. It's a summer of secrets, and sorrow, and growing up, and it's a good thing Rose and Windy have each other …"
It's also a good thing, we suggest, that your reporter chose to outsource the Chronicle review of this fine work; so that, instead of proffering his middle-aged mansplaining take on the distaff tale, we present the highlights of an interview with three Austin women who also read the book for us – and found it just as complex and compelling. Three Austin women: Julie Gillis of the sex-positive confab Bedpost Confessions; Erika May McNichol of character-driven improv troupe The Frank Mills; and Kristin Hogan, artist, self-proclaimed comics geek, and the creative force behind Squid Friends.
And their experience of This One Summer?
Julie Gillis: I read the book in one sitting – couldn’t stop reading it.
Kristin Hogan: Me, too – I read it twice.
Erika May McNichol: It was definitely one of those sit-down-and-burn-through-it reads.
And was there a particular character they identified with?
Gillis: I think I identified more with Rose. Just because there was a time when my mother was not happy, and I didn’t understand why that was. And I probably would’ve had a crush on a video-store guy that was gross. And not really being sure what to do, not having answers and having to make things up? I went through that. And we would go down to Myrtle Beach every summer, when I was between ten and 14, so the story felt very authentic – I experienced a lot of the same things, the same sensations. The gossip, the older teens having the drama …
McNichol: There’s the lens of having empathy with the situations in the book, in kind of the developmental phase, and also – Julie mentioned this earlier, and it resonates with me – being a parent? And seeing this stuff on the, like, horizon of your child's life? And having that surge of anxiety about it? I remember exchanging messages with you, Brenner, when I was in the middle of it, and there was this palpable anxiety I had for Rose’s amorous/kind of confused/weird feelings toward the guy in the video store, the one they call “The Dud.” And I loved Windy’s character. I aspire to raising my kids in that way – that they’ll have some sort of lens other than the slut-vs.-conquest set-up. You know? But I think I identified with both of them. Especially in terms of the physicality of going through the transition from girlhood to womanhood. I kinda took on that same, like, amorphous shape – as you accumulate body fat, and then it moves to other places?
Gillis: I had really long legs and this, like, tube of a body.
Hogan: I was the tallest of the kids in my neighborhood. I always felt like this lanky weird teenage – because I was taller than my short friends. And I got to college and I was like, “Everyone is the same height as me – I’ve just been hanging out with tiny people!”
McNichol: I was just at the pool with Courtney Hopkin, and we were talking about how everyone goes through that. And the people, those rare people who don’t seem like they latch into some shared human experience where we’re all awkward and weird for a while? So I definitely saw myself in Windy – but I had the judgmental tendencies of Rose, and didn’t work all that stuff out until much later.
Hogan: I identified with both of them. I had a very long childhood, so I was still a kid, being like “Let’s drink sugar and watch mooooovies!” Whereas I was also the oldest of my friends, and my best friend growing up was a year-and-a-half younger than me. So I was one year ahead of her in school. So I went off to college and had my freshman year while she was still in high school. And it was like this weird year for us, because it was a notable age gap. Like, “Oh, you’re still here, in our neighborhood, doing high-school stuff. And I’m all by myself in college.”
Gillis: That’s what I call the larval stages. So, like, babies until they’re about four months old, they’re in a larval stage. And then puberty is another larval stage, where the body does this weird contortion kind of thing. And eighteen-to-twenty-two is this other state where you’re really becoming fledged. And then menopause, I’m sure – as I’m approaching it – I’m sure it’s another larval stage.
Hogan: And, identifying with the characters, I felt like the teenage girl – like, “Why is mom such a jerk? Why is she being such a jerk?” And then, at the end, I was like, “Why did no one put her in therapy? No one’s addressed this woman’s problems, no one’s helping her.”
Gillis: I have two boys, a ten-year-old and a 14-year-old. And I think I explain situations in my life to them, but sometimes they’re like, “You’re so stressed out, what’s going on?” And they don’t necessarily get what’s going on in the adult world, because there’s no way for them to truly have the cognition and the emotional space at that age. I remember the situation was the same with me and mymother when I was ten, and so it was almost a physical thing to read the book.
McNichol: I didn’t have that kind of processing about it. But you mentioning it did remind me of how the dad was almost kind of a Disneyland parent, for Rose, at the end. And my parents divorced when I was fourteen, so I went through that process of being, like, “My dad is an a-hole, and my mom can do no wrong,” which was kind of in the reverse. But later, in my twenties, I had this moment of “Oh, they were just humans – with their own faults and rough edges.”
And did the narrative live up to – or thwart – any expectations?
Hogan: I’d think something was gonna happen in the story – and then it totally went to another place. I thought the mom had cancer – because, when we first see her, she coughs? And there’s this thing they’re not talking about? So I was like, “Ah, she’s been diagnosed with cancer and they haven’t told the kid yet.” And that didn’t happen. And then they heard those things in the woods after they’d been watching the horror movies, and I thought, “Oooh, someone got killed in the woods! They’re gonna come across the body and then figure out who did it!” And that didn’t happen either.
McNichol: As the story was playing out, I thought, “Oh, the experience over the summer, this one summer, is that Windy makes a move on Rose.”
Hogan: That’s what I thought! I thought the younger one was gay, and she’s gonna come out, and – that never happened, either. But maybe the next summer?
McNichol: But then, in thinking about it, I was like, “Why, in my mind, can a pretty mature, feminist teenager only be gay?” You know what I mean? Like, she can’t just be … I dunno.
Hogan: Well, every single time they’re talking about heteronormative sex, Windy is always like “Ewwww,” and she’s always talking about breasts, and she’s like, “We went to this camp, and everybody was a lesbian except for this one person,” and so I was like, “Ah, she’s gay.” I think the authors, intentionally or not, gave us enough breadcrumbs …
And what about how the story was illustrated, the whole sequential-art combination of text and image?
Gillis: I’ve never been much of a graphic-novel or comic person. But I found this extremely easy to read, and it just sucked me right in. I was a little hesitant when I opened the book, because you were like, “I want you to read this book,” and I was thinking, “Oh, it’s a graphic novel, I’m gonna be a failure at this.” But then I was like, “Oh, wow … ”
Hogan: I like the dry-brushing – that's hard to do, if you don’t do it right – and this is really nice. There’s no funky camera angles; everything is just as you actually see it – which I like, because that’s how I draw. You don’t get any Marvel superhero foreshortening stuff.
McNichol: I like how the panels were drawn, were paced to capture pregnant pauses or moods around what was happening.
Hogan: Double-page spreads to slow the time down.
McNichol: Yeah! And I’ve read other comics, like a lot of Chris Ware’s stuff, where there’s a lot of shit that’s all packed on one page? And this book had a very simple, easy-to-access way that it was laid out.
Hogan: And there was this one panel – the only time in the whole book – Tamaki draws Rose’s stomach going “flip-flop,” so you can see it – and I got to that point and kind of paused at that one panel. Because, “Wait, you took me out of reality there for a second.” I really like that gimmick, but I’m glad she didn’t do it the entire time.
McNichol: And she uses a different technique to indicate flashbacks, when she’s not telling the story in realtime.
Hogan: Or when Windy and Rose are watching a movie.
And, finally, is this a story that's better appreciated by someone around the same age as the protagonists? Or who's older and looking back?
Hogan: I think things that grow up with you are the best things. Like, give the book to someone who’s around the characters’ age, and have them read it. And let it sit on the shelf. And then, twenty years later, they’ll pick it up and see it again through the life they’ve lived? All my favorite things are like that. I love anything that lets you experience it later in your life. Like, “Oh, I understand that now – I’ve been through that now.”
Gillis: I think a fourteen-year-old and an eighteen-year-old and a twenty-five-year-old would have very different experiences of this book. I feel the same way about several books I read – like Dune – when I was fifteen. I re-read it recently, and I was like …whoa.
McNichol: It’s funny that you say it that way, because I got Little Women from my grandmother when I was twelve. And I was like, “What’s this bullshit?” And it sat on my shelf amongst the trophies and other fancy books. And I basically did the Cliff’s Notes in order to get through high-school lit with it? And then, later, I read it and I was like, “Oh my God.” Same thing with Pride and Prejudice. And with This One Summer, I think that someone who was the characters’ age could definitely get into it. I try to give my daughter age-appropriate graphic novels, and I’ll try to force this one on her when she gets to be that eleven or twelve-year-old age. But there’s additional layers to this story, with the subtext of the guy who’s creepy at the video store, when you see it through the lens of adulthood, and how all those people turn out in their trajectory, and what it meant at the time …