I have to confess that I did not know a lot about graphic novels until recently. I also knew next to nothing about roller derbies. But Roller Girl piqued my interest — it was a New York Times bestseller, a Newbery Honor book, and graphic novels are earning themselves special places in bookshops these days. The book did not disappoint.
Twelve year old Astrid’s world is changing. It is the summer before she starts junior high. She is enthralled by a roller derby league game that she attends with her mother and her best friend, Nicole. However, Nicole does not share Astrid's enthusiasm, pulling away from her, spending time with an arch enemy (Rachel) and chooses ballet camp over joining Astrid in roller camp. When a new friend asks Astrid ‘What's your thing?’ (hers is theatre and musicals), she cannot really answer.
Yet, roller camp does more than teach Astrid how to roller skate. It empowers her. Its fierce, energetic skaters give her new mantras: “Tough! Strong! Fearless!” And the more involved Astrid becomes in this new world, the more she comes to terms with the changes in her life, from girl to teenager, to reforging her relationships with friends and her mother, and also to learning what her ‘thing’ is. Clue: she gives herself a new name for the skate track, Asteroid.
Things I loved about this book:
— the energetic story line that moves apace.
— we are plunged into the little-known world of roller skating, warts and all. Astrid falls. Again. And again. She aches. She almost gives up. ‘Thunk.’ ‘Ow.’ ‘Aaaaaaghhhhhh.’ Humour, determination, heartbreak and dreams blend in her journey to master the new sport. Plus the reader learns too; I now understand what jammers, blockers, and bouts are, and perhaps more importantly, why the skaters are exhilarated by the demanding, often painful, boisterous game.
— the story is realistic. Astrid is not perfect. She makes mistakes. She is out of her depth at the camp to begin with and does not become a star ‘jammer’ overnight. But she does improve. And she does develop skills that rescue her team and her friendships.
— Astrid’s flights of fancy made me chuckle. Her long walk home, aching and exhausted, after her first class becomes a stumbling desperate stagger through a parched, scorching desert. When she finds the courage to apologize to a friend, we see her fantasy of a teary, heartfelt reunion, quickly followed by the real life muted mumbled friend’s response. Astrid’s enforced clothes shopping trip with her mother is portrayed as a tortured trip through hell...
— we understand the complexities of becoming a teenager. Things are not black and white anymore. The ‘emojis’ that Astrid’s elementary school teacher used to explain emotions are no longer so easy to apply. Now Astrid creates new expressions: happy + sad = shad. Nervous + sick = nersick.
— girl power is on fire in this story. Sisterly camaraderie and fierce, empowered role-models abound.
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