Friday, August 31, 2012

Recommended Reading for 8/31: Amelia Rules!

So. I am going to start this post with a shocking confession: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a little girl. I know, I know, many of you are shocked. What this means is there are all sorts of experiences that I don't have any frame of reference for. So, I have to admit that it's surprising to say that one of the best views into the mind and life of a pre-teen girl I've ever read comes from a comic written by an adult man.

Amelia Rules!, created by cartoonist Jimmy Gownley,  is the story of Amelia Louise McBride, a not-so-typical nine year old who, after her parents divorce, moves out to the suburbs with her mom to live Tanner, Amelia's aunt. Started as a comic, the series is now published as a series of original graphic novels. Amelia is completely cast out of the life she has known as a girl growing up in New York City, and is now out in a much smaller, much quieter world. But it turns out that the suburbs may not be as bad as Amelia thinks, as she meets new friends, new enemies, and has adventures that she would never have imagined back in New York.

Amelia is one big ball of energy and sass. Probably a little too smart mouthed for her age at times, and probably a lot smarter than people give her credit for, Amelia has to learn a lot about herself and about how she fits into the world. While these are slice of life stories, they are both hilarious and touching in how they are told. The cast surrounding Amelia are oddballs, but they are all very real; each character has a wonderful inner life, even if we don't see it as clearly as Amelia's, since she is our protagonist.

Amelia as a character and the stories themselves have a tremendous amount of heart. The stories, ones that are very much slightly wackier versions of the days we all had as kids, are told with a sense of humor and a warmth that makes them impossible to put down. Amelia goes through her life, observing the behavior of the people and trying to figure them out, before realizing just how much she still has to learn. The beauty of Amelia Rules! is that most of the lessons are universal. Even if we weren't tweenage girls, the experiences Amelia has are things that we've all experienced. Maybe you personally haven't lived through all of them, but everyone can find something in the stories that they've been through. Whether it's your parents splitting up, moving, your first crush, falling out with friends, or becoming a social pariah for speaking your mind, Amelia will speak to you, both off the page, as she breaks the fourth wall as narrator, and through her story.

Amelia's friends and family make up a wide and wonderful support structure for our heroine. Afetr moving out to Pennsylvania, Amelia meets the members of G.A.S.P. (Gathering of Awesome Super Pals), three kids who form the core of Amelia's friends. Reggie, their leader, reminds me a lot of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame, with his wild imagination and always scheming mind. Pajamaman, Reggie's ever silent partner in crime, finds a way to hang out with the constantly on the outs Reggie, while still being loved by pretty much everyone. And Rhonda, the final member of the team, resents Amelia for stepping on her turf, and possibly stepping in the way of her destined romance with Reggie (or so she believes), but over the course of the series, she and Amelia come to an accord, and become, if not the best of friends, at least two people who aren't constantly at each others throats. But with heroes around, there have to be villains, and G.A.S.P. has the Park View Terrace Ninjas. Ninja Kyle, their leader, is your typical Big Man on Campus jerk, but has a soft spot for Amelia and at times seems to really be a better guy than he usually portrays himself as. Ninja Joan starts out with the enemy, but quickly becomes one of Amelia's closest friends.

Amelia's world is not the world of Peanuts, where adults are just a pair of silent legs. Amelia's teachers and principal definitely don't get her, and Amelia has a tough time at school, not because she's not smart enough, but because people don't get her. Amelia's mother, Mary, tries to get her, but is living the life of a single parent, and Amelia's father loves her unconditionally, but lives in New York still at the beginning of the series, so its not easy for him to be there for Amelia. Amelia's closest confidant, and the one person who seems to really understand Amelia, is her aunt, Tanner. Tanner was an indy rock/folk star who dropped out of the public spotlight and returned to her hometown. Now Tanner serves as the person who Amelia can talk t anything about. Tanner is the relative everyone wants to have: someone who will pass no judgement, but will listen to whatever you have to say and pass on sage advice. And when Tanner, later in the series, starts a comeback tour, her absence is felt keenly by Amelia.

Amelia is presented with a lot of hard choices over the course of the series, and the reader watches her make them and to grow. Particularly touching is when Amelia and Rhonda both try out for cheerleading. Amelia makes it, but after seeing that it matters to Rhonda much more than it means to her, Amelia turns down the spot so Rhonda can get it. Amelia's sort-of-kind-of romance with Kyle, as much of a romance as ten year olds can have, is also one of those painfully awkward things that many of us remember having, and we watch Amelia go through a bit of heartbreak to come out of it wiser.

As a series that is geared for younger readers, many writers would attempt to sugar coat parts of life, to avoid a lot of the harder topics, or to cast them is a sort of generic way that removes a lot of the harder aspects of things. But Gownley has Amelia confront the harder parts of life. The first couple volumes of Amelia are mostly comedy with a touch or two of typical kid drama about Amelia's parents and her new town, but as the series extends, the series deepens. Amelia befriends a girl named Tricia, who turns out to have a debilitating, and possibly fatal, condition, and who moves away without Amelia learning if she makes it (she does, as we learn in a flash forward). Joan's father is deployed oversees for a year in Iraq, and we see how a parent being away, and in a place as dangerous as a war zone, can affect a child. All of this is done with  a soft enough touch that it isn't being beaten over the head with the Message Stick (you know the one, where a writer just walks up behind you as you read or watch their work and start clocking you with the MESSAGE since it's more important than the story), but still makes the reader confront the reality of the situation, and that the world isn't an easy place, no matter your age.

After discussing how serious Amelia Rules! can be, I wanted to circle around at the end of this peice to just say how much fun it is. There are sequences in an Amelia story that will leave you in hysterics. Any time G.A.S.P. gets involved in one of Reggie's insane plans, you know hijinks are going to ensue. Mary-Violet, an odd little girl who looks like something out of Charles Addams or Edward Gorey, is a source of infinite amusement, especially when she dons her costume and joins gasp as the hysterically angry Ultra-Violet. Amelia's observations about life have the wonderful mixture of sagacity and the world view of a ten year old that just brings a smile to the face of anyone who remembers what it was like to think that they had all the answers, and then realized how few they really have. Amelia and Rhonda's frenemyship is very funny,w ith the two of them sniping back and forth and then making up in some way that usually feels like neither really mean it.

Gownley's art is expressive, and perfect for these light tales of childhood. It is reminiscent of the great comic strips, things like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts, without cloning Watterson or Schultz. He has that sense of scale that works well in strips about kids, where the world can occasionally take on a larger than life appearance. But the character interactions that are central to the series is never lost in any scale; Amelia and everyone around her, when they need to have those moments that are life changing or simply deeply affecting, are all in the same, very real, world.

Amelia Rules! is available as a series of eight graphic novels, the first four collecting the original comics, and the latter four being original to the format. All are available at your local comic shop or bookstore. The final volume in the series, Her Permanent Record, was released this past week. If you want to read a story that will make you laugh, and maybe remember your childhood as something that was just a little bit magical, and maybe even share it with your own kids, I can't think of anything better to recommend than Amelia Rules!

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