Demon Press Review: This One Summer

I hope it doesn’t make for an exceptionally unexciting article—but this is the first time I plan to review a graphic novel that I have no especially strong feelings about either way. While there are a million aspects of the book that I really like, This One Summer, by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, mostly left me with the impression that it was very good, and that I was glad to have read it, but I don’t see it as a story that will stick with me the way some other graphic novels have. Overall, however, I do think reading this book was a valuable study in personal taste.

After all, the first thing I noticed upon taking This One Summer out of the library was the several awards advertised on the cover: “New York Times Best Seller,” “Caldecott Honor Book,” and “Printz Honor Award.” I have never seen a comic with this degree of literary recognition–so I don’t think it was unreasonable that my expectations were high. And, honestly, my expectations were almost completely met. The story was charming; it was well told, focusing mainly on the friendship between two young girls and the way the main character, Rose, is forced to change over the course of one particular summer. The characters were loveable and very believable. The artwork–I could go on and on about the artwork–was perfect. It sold the sense of comfortable realism that characterized the story being told, and it gave so much depth to the characters just through their facial expressions. However, it was also totally different from what I am used to seeing in comics.

I’ve reviewed a few different types of comics here in Demon Press: webcomics, comedies, fantasies, dramas, and even an informational memoir, but I have never seen one that looks like this. Most comics have pages I can best describe as busy–arms and legs sticking out of panels, paragraphs of text here and there, “camera angles” that seem to fly all around and zoom in and out wildly. In the context of experiencing the story, this type of organized chaos in paneling works really well—to me, at least.

In contrast, This One Summer has a very simple and neat way of presenting the story. Somehow, the pages don’t have the sort of business that I am used to. And, on one hand, it made the reading experience much less exciting to me. Yet, on the other hand, gives a comforting subtlety to all of the artwork. Each page looks like one coherent piece of art. Plus, the linework is soft–almost as if drawn in pencil–and instead of being black and white, the artist uses shades of dark blue. Where a lot of other drama graphic novels use flashy visual metaphors and aspects of magical realism when presenting real-life themes (like Annarasumanara and Our Dreams at Dusk), This One Summer sticks fully to the relatively mundane. It was a totally different reading experience than I am used to, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Where, in the past, I have read dozens of chapters in a single sitting in order to write these reviews, in this case, even though the story is only a single volume long, it took me two weeks to get through, because, at times, I just couldn’t bring myself to want to read it (though being busy with college applications is probably more to blame than anything).

My feelings about This One Summer are hard to describe because they are contradictory. I can’t help but feel like it’s a less exciting version of a coming-of-age story I have heard a thousand times. Yet, at the same time, it is the subtlety and understatedness of the storytelling that really makes it stand out. It explores numerous unique yet prevalent themes with a clear understanding and maturity. However, it feels to me like it does not go into quite enough depth to be truly memorable. I think it is really difficult for artists to tread the line between drawing a mature and insightful comic with making a comic that is interesting and exciting. I appreciate This One Summer. I think it deserves every honor that it won. I know for a fact that there is an audience that holds this story dear to their heart. But somehow, because of my great expectations, my past reading experiences, and my teenage impatience, to me, this book was missing something that would make it truly special. Though, even having said that, I am glad to have read it.

— Quinn Hammon