Book/Author: Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol (2011)
Reviewer: Jeriann and Bethany
Age/Genre: YA Supernatural Coming-of-Age Graphic Novel
Preferred Reading Environment: We recommend getting a hard copy so you can read it in a nice park, without squinting. By a well, if you really want an immersive experience.
Reading Accoutrements: The snacks your great grandparents enjoyed.
Content Notes: muuuuurdeeeerrrrrrrr, prejudice against immigrants
Bethany: This book tricked me. I found it while browsing online for new books to read and the name “Neil Gaiman” caught my eye. Jeriann had brought up the author Neil Gaiman to me on several occasions and so I told her about this graphic novel I’d found – that happened to be on sale! – and we decided we’d review it.
Jeriann: When Bethany sent me the link to the book’s sale page, I saw an awesome cover, Neil Gaiman’s name, and some generally positive reviews. I agreed to do a co-review. Then, several weeks later as I went to open it on my Kindle, I noticed that Amazon was telling me a different author’s name. Vera Brosgol is the actual author and illustrator – Neil Gaiman’s name was on the cover as a recommendation blurb. Also, I had not realized this was a graphic novel.
Bethany: When I started reading this book, I opened it on the Kindle App on my phone. The words were so tiny! And I couldn’t get it to enlarge at all! Enter, my pounding headache. I might even feel more positive toward this book if I hadn’t had to squint through the whole read. Forced-frowning puts me in a crappy mood.
Jeriann: Yeah, this is definitely not a book to read on a phone. I read it on my Kindle, which was just about bearable, but there were still issues. The text could have been bigger, a zoom function would have been much appreciated, and the swiping controls kept going a little wonky for me. All in all, I recommend either reading this on a large computer screen or getting a hard copy. Enough about format though, let’s get to the actual story.
Anya’s Ghost is the story of Anya. The teenaged daughter of a single mother, Anya’s family moved to the US from Russia just before she started school. Anya attends a private high school (the third worst in the state, according to her) where she tries her best to blend in with her all-American classmates. She ignores the only other Russian at her school because she doesn’t want to be associated with his nerdiness. She feels like he deserves to be picked on because he doesn’t try hard enough to fit in or hide his accent. To Anya, it is the responsibility of the bullied to assimilate in order to avoid torment, not the fault of the bullies for being dicks. She actually says “you can’t really blame them” in reference to the bullies at one point.
Anyway, Anya is walking home from school one day and she falls into a forgotten well in the middle of a city park. While down there, she meets a ghost, Emily, who tells Anya that she fell down the well and died over 90 years ago. Emily is also a teenager, but Anya isn’t really interested in helping Emily “find peace,” she just wants to get out of the well. Eventually, a passerby hears Anya’s cries for help and agrees to help her out once she assures him she’s hot. (We don’t see whether he was pleased or disappointed by her actual appearance, as the book quickly moves past this shallow asshole to Anya’s recovery at home.)
Soon, Anya realizes that Emily followed her home because one of her bones ended up in Anya’s backpack. She’s not thrilled to have a ghost tagalong, but quickly comes to learn the perks of an ethereal companion. Emily helps Anya cheat on tests and spies on her peers so Anya can have opportunities to hang with the popular crowd. Quickly though, Anya realizes that Emily is not being completely honest with her, and fears that popularity might not be worth the consequences.
Bethany: At the beginning of this book, Anya was really bitter, broody, and generally surly – even to her friends and especially to her family. Honestly, she was kind of an asshole, as many teenagers are. I didn’t love her behavior when I first got to know her.
Jeriann: I felt like this was a pretty nuanced look at how teenage angst can be amplified by cultural factors, especially for immigrants and the children of immigrants. There seems to be a small Russian community in Anya’s town, but she has no interest in participating in it, as she feels that will increase her barriers to fitting in.
Bethany: And apparently all teenagers want to fit in…
Jeriann: Yeah, the teenage representation in this book seems a bit stereotypical. The party scene could have been the party scene from any 90s teen movie, and most of the side characters are pretty one-dimensional. The one attempt to give the “popular girl” some depth ended up making us question how she could be so self-aware but still make the decisions she was making.
Bethany: The message seemed to be that every teenager is just looking to fit in however they can. I mean, Anya and her friend Siobhan smoke cigarettes because they think it makes them look cool. Even the other Russian immigrant student, Dima, just wants to have friends at his new school – which makes sense, because everyone wants friends. But the focus of the book seemed to be that having friends at any cost was the goal, instead of that being yourself will attract friends who will support you.
Jeriann: Dima doesn’t try to change himself to please others though, like Anya does. He remains true to who he is and suffers for it. Anya alienates herself from her family, who could provide support, because she partially blames them for her failure to fit in. In the end, Anya seems to realize that she’s pushing people away in favor of shitty people who will never care about her. This book does have some good messages about loneliness and popularity, but I felt that they needed to be fleshed out a little more in order to really hit home.
Bethany: In general, the beginning felt like we took too long to build to anything, and the end felt rushed, which definitely added to the shallowness of the messages. It also made the climax of the plot seem a bit forced and even incomplete at times. Siobhan’s character doesn’t even get a full story arc – she’s there at the beginning and at the end, but there isn’t any real character development. At the beginning I actually thought she was a bully, but it just turned out that she and Anya were surly assholes together. At the end, I was hoping for some sort of development in the relationship between the two, but I was disappointed.
Overall, this was an intriguing graphic novel, but it fell a little short. It is still a good read, and we think that teenagers could take some good messages from it, but we would have loved to see this stretched into a series that had time to address the issues more meaningfully. The art was fun and stylistic, and we’d love to see more from this author/artist.
What’s the last graphic novel you read? Share it with us so we can check it out, too!