This One Summer
Mariko Tamaki, writer; Jillian Tamaki, artist
First Second, 2014
This had been on my "to read" list for a long time. The recommendations of Wandering Sensei and JD DeLuzio finally got me to try it, and I'm glad I did. As a story about two girls--Rose is the eldest at 12 or 13, her friend Windy a year and a half younger--it's clearly intended for a YA audience. Set in a beach town where both of the families have cottages they return to every summer, the story begins as if this will be another summer vacation: the usual routine.
But this summer is different. Rose's mom and dad are fighting, creating an atmosphere of tension in the family. Rose has an idea of what they are fighting about, but her parents seem to be be dedicated to hiding it from her as much as possible. Which of course only makes her more curious, and angry about being left in the dark. While in town Rose and Windy become outside observers to a teenage drama involving a possible unplanned pregnancy. Emotions are clearly running high, but they have to guess at what is really going on.
The girls are old enough to start thinking about puberty, although it doesn't seem to have started yet for either of them. So there's lots of talk about getting breasts--"boobs" is the preferred term, but there's one hilarious scene where they crack each other up with every slang term they can think of. They're also at least thinking about sex, which the possible teen pregnancy ties into. Their frank discussions of these subjects no doubt account for the various censorship challenges that have plagued the book, despite winning a Caldecott Honor for illustrated children's literature and an Eisner award.
This One Summer is a very subtle coming of age story, in that there is no big climactic event or realization. The girls just contend with adult problems, probably for the first time. I like the fact that there is no omniscient narrator, so we consistently see things from the girls' perspective. There are secrets about the parental and teen relationships they become involved in, and they are not fully resolved. The narrative captures the indolence of a summer beach vacation as well as the emotional drama.
The illustration style suits the story perfectly. Done in blue wash, it's a refined alt-comics drawing style. Facial expressions are frequently cartoonish, but expressive, but there are also some lovely detailed drawings, like the splash page of hummingbirds at a feeder. I can only imagine the resonance the story might have for a teenager, but it's an evocative story for anyone who remembers childhood.