Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary

This illustrated text/comic hybrid, in the style of such young adult works as Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Dork Diaries (but with a greater proportion of comics), tells the story of a high school girl coping with her Indian family and the usual adolescent struggles dealing with friends and boys.

I didn’t mind reading it, although it will clearly resonate much more with an audience that’s 1) closer in age to its protagonist and 2) less familiar with the comics it’s being compared to. The marketing department keeps mentioning Persepolis. I understand why, I think — autobiographies (or those that seem like they could be) are the most successful comic genre in the mainstream book market, and that book was an eye-opener for a lot of people in the industry as well as a sales success. As another story of a non-white teen girl growing up, I suppose Tina’s Mouth does have SOMEthing in common with Marjane Satrapi’s better-known work, but my concern is that the tone is so very different. Tina’s story is set in Southern California, where the big struggle is getting a role in the school play; Persepolis was about surviving a repressive political culture that might kill you for deviating from the norm. A better comparison for Tina’s Mouth would be Sweet Valley High in comic form. Someone who picks this up looking for another Persepolis will be sorely disappointed, and they likely won’t see the charms of Tina’s Mouth taken on its own terms.

While I’m criticizing the marketing instead of engaging with the book itself, I also don’t care for the tendency to label works of this type as “by (writer); illustrated by (artist)”, as though the roles were grossly unequal in contribution. Unless Keshni Kashyap knew enough about comics to dictate what all the images would be and how they were placed — and I don’t believe that, given that this is her first graphic novel; she’s previously been a filmmaker — then the work should be credited as co-authors to acknowledge the partnership of creation.

So, back to the content of the book. As an assignment in her Honors English course in existential philosophy, Tina begins keeping a diary. She lives in California and goes to a private school, so you can imagine that she doesn’t have many struggles, although she’s still trying to figure out which groups she wants to be part of in a clique-ridden world while worrying about when she’ll get her first kiss. Meanwhile, her former best friend is more interested in chasing boys and being a clotheshorse. As we follow Tina through the semester, she gets to know new people and tries new experiences.

That was one of my favorite things about the book. Its messages, to try new things, to find yourself, to engage with your family without being defined by them, are all encouraging and supportive. This is the kind of story teen girls can learn from while enjoying Tina’s drama and accomplishments.

The line drawings by Mari Araki are both accomplished and welcoming in their simple style. At times, her portraits of Tina reminded me of paper dolls, which suited the story, as Tina tried on different roles. What I liked best about the book was the way its non-white heroine was handled. Her ethnicity is a significant part of her life but not the sole defining factor. This would be a great book for a school setting to encourage understanding of diverse viewpoints and the similarity of experience across cultural barriers. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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