Friday, August 7, 2009

Review -- "Chiggers" by Hope Larson

Alright, I'll admit upfront that I know very little about the female psyche. Shocking, I know. Granted, I have a mom and a sister, and I have been married for a whole year now(!), but that doesn't mean that I have any insight into the thoughts and emotions of the fairer gender. But even after the first few pages of Chiggers (happily borrowed from the Chicago Public Library), it's obvious that writer/artist Hope Larson does have such insight, and after reading Chiggers, I honestly felt enlightened. Larson captures the thrill, heartache, and awkwardness that (I'm guessing) are such a part of the adolescent female experience. Chiggers is a fun read (I read it the first time in one sitting), and I'd recommend it for middle or high school students.

The Basics
The reader follows the ups and downs experienced by Abby, a somewhat reserved (and at least introspective) teenager who is initially happy to be back at summer camp in North Carolina. She has made at least one close friend there in a previous summer, but as this friend has now increased responsibilities, Abby is forced to make new friends. Awkwardness and angst ensue.

Becoming fast friends with a new camper named Shasta (who, like her name, does not quite fit in with the rest of the campers), Abby attempts to negotiate the complicated social norms of the camp. Her relationship with Shasta is tested not only by her cruel campmates, but also by some competing affection for a Dungeon Master named Teal. Abby eventually learns about true friendship, and when camp comes to an end, the reader has seen true growth of a young girl.

The Art

Larson takes many stylistic chances in Chiggers, all with remarkable results. Swirling word balloons, unique lettering choices that move along the storytelling, and moments of the fantastic that never take the reader out of the story, Chiggers is quite a creative achievement, especially considering that Larson both wrote and drew (with lettering by Jason Azzorpardi) this 171 page original graphic novel. The characters are easily distinguishable, and Larson is deft at using the positive and negative space with her black-and-white art.

Classroom Concerns
This book is perfectly appropriate for the junior high or middle school classroom. Bear in mind that there are at least two uses of the "b" word by characters in Chiggers, though speaking from experience, this is authentic dialogue from teenagers without adults present. Though there is romance, it is strictly the puppy-dog kind.

Any vocabulary that would be unfamiliar to the reader is comically (pun intended) explained by fun little moments of narration either by characters in the story or by a well-placed narration block.

Curricular Connections
Chiggers is very much a coming-of-age tale, even though it takes place over the course of just one summer. Therefore, students could examine the character traits of Abby, Shasta, and the other campees, focusing on Abby's maturation as a young woman. Female readers (again, I'm reaching here) will especially identify with the teenage politics present in Chiggers, and will undoubtedly be able to reflect on the social tightwire act that is adolescence.

Larson's Chiggers website provides some useful additional information, including links to an article about chiggers themselves, as well a breakdown of the creation (from script to an inked and lettered page) of the book.

In this humble man's opinion, Chiggers would make a great addition to any school or classroom library.

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