Coming of Age With First Second: Anya’s Ghost, Level Up, and Zita the Spacegirl
Three of First Second‘s recent releases do an excellent job with stories about young people at significant turning points in their lives. You can have your choice of three different genres — science fiction adventure, fantasy, or horror — but whichever you prefer, these substantial books belong in every kids’ library.
Simply described, it’s The Wizard of Oz in space, but although the story has similarities and obvious influences, it’s Hatke’s creative design that makes it fun. Zita’s friend Joseph is sucked through a portal created by Zita messing around with a weird button found in a meteorite. After facing her fear, she goes after him.
Depending on whether you’ve seen or read them, you’ll see echoes of Labyrinth (both in the plot and a later character, Strong-Strong, who is reminiscent of Ludo), Star Wars, Mark Crilley’s Akiko, and Jumanji. Zita finds herself on another planet, populated by a wide variety of exotic aliens, all of which are trying to cope with the news that an asteroid is going to destroy the world in three days.
It’s pure luck (or authorial hand) that she manages to avoid being enslaved or killed, but her strength and focus make her admirable. Her companions wind up being a giant mouse (wearing a saddle, it becomes her steed), a traveling con artist, a grumpy flying ex-battle robot, and another fraidy-cat robot.
Zita quests after her missing friend, and even during the most frightening parts, with the motley band under attack by fearsome monsters, there are moments of humor to keep the tone comfortable, often via the wobbly robot Randy and his straightforward descriptions of what’s wrong. The animated adventures, with all the weird-looking creatures and not-too-scary threats, are drawn with energy and emotion, making for an easy, fulfilling read.
Yang has dealt with these themes before — much of his work is about growing up Asian-American and the expectations placed on the young by their parents — but never with such a light, accomplished touch. Perhaps that mood is achieved due to Pham’s primitively styled art and its smudgy watercolors.
Dennis loves video games, but his father assumes he will become a doctor. That’s going to be difficult, now that Dennis’ gaming distraction has gotten him kicked out of college. Then four angels appear, telling him that they will help him to his destiny of being a gastroenterologist. They cook and clean for him, and they remove obstacles, sometimes in especially scary ways. The simple art style allows for the angels to be drawn as a small child would — head, halo, wings, minimal body and limbs — and yet still fit in with the story.
Dennis gives up what he loves (and is good at) for the supposedly more adult pursuit of what he thinks he’s supposed to do. He starts to make friends in medical school, but any deviation from his direct path is seen by the angels as an example of weakness. All they expect him to do is study, representing the single-minded dedication of someone driven by fidelity to a dead parent’s ideals. Finally, as expected, the various bits of Dennis’ life and interests come together in a more pleasing way.
The pacing struck me as a bit uneven, with the ending feeling a bit tacked on, although welcome and clever, and characters drifting in and out. The sections on what one studies in med school are entertaining (and gross) but sometimes diversions from the main theme. Still, there’s lots here to attract teen readers struggling with similar life questions.
Of the three, this one spoke most to me personally, and the concept is the most creative. Anya, child of Russian immigrants, struggles to fit in. She’s a moody, rebellious teen, not likable, but true. (In being unpleasant but realistic, she reminded me of Ivy.) She’s mean to the geeky kid (even though he shares her heritage) while envying the pretty, popular types who don’t have time for her.
Then she falls down an abandoned well, where she meets a lonely ghost, who follows her home. The relationship between the two has a distinctive and rapidly developed arc, from acquaintance to friends to much more and then less. Friendship often comes with obligations, some of which are healthier than others, and some of which can be quite scary. The ghost promises Anya aid in fulfilling her dreams, only for Anya to realize that there’s a cost involved and that the ghost has her own motives. It takes Anya a while to understand that the ghost may not be telling her the truth; she’d rather believe in a magic helper granting her wishes. But when she chooses to open her eyes, that provides the moment at which she takes control of her own life. Instead of simply whining about what she doesn’t like, she becomes more positive, figuring out what she does want and working to get there.
Anya gains some valuable perspective on relative popularity, too, with the opinions of others showing her that maybe things aren’t as bad as she thinks, since she’s only focusing on what she’s missing. I don’t want to make this sound like a modern Pilgrim’s Progress, though, or some kind of moral instruction allegory. It’s also quite a good ghost story with unexpected twists and turns. Since the spirit died in the 1920s, there are some fun culture clash moments, which also provides Brosgol a way to have Anya explain her attitudes without having it feel artificial.
Brosgol’s art style will feel familiar to fans of Faith Erin Hicks or Bryan Lee O’Malley — it’s got the same round eyes and deceptively simple character designs — but for her first book, this demonstrates a huge level of accomplishment. Much of Anya’s time in the well is surprisingly wordless. I say “surprisingly” because it’s so clear what’s going on that I didn’t realize how silent it was until I specifically looked at it. Brosgol has an excellent grasp of motion and emotion, which makes her incredibly well-suited for this story of growing suspicion and fear.
Anya’s Ghost is strongly recommended, especially if you liked Hope Larson’s Mercury, with which it has a lot in common. This is the kind of book Minx should have been releasing; it’s ideal for teen girls, particularly. (The publisher provided review copies.)