Disclaimer: I, unlike the pre-teens and teenagers I taught for years, have a weak constitution when it comes to the macabre. In film form, anyway. And while yes, it is embarrassing that 12 year-olds have stronger stomachs for slasher films than I do, I take some small comfort that at least recently I have grown to appreciate a melancholy tale or two in print form. A perfect example -- I love Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead in comics form. But there’s no way I could handle watching the TV adaptation done by AMC. Maybe I’ll get there someday. Baby steps, you know?
So with my limited exposure to this genre of literature, I’ve identified a few go-to writers who can scratch this curious itch. I’ve recently become appreciative of Neil Gaiman’s particular take on the darker side of life, gobbling up the comics, children’s books, and novels he’s penned. I was even lucky enough to see him speak about his novel Neverwhere as part of Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program this past winter. So when, during this talk, he mentioned that Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost was one of the only new books he was really excited about, I knew I had to give it a shot. Spoiler: I wasn’t disappointed.
Anya is a strong-willed teenager who is evidently so concerned with fitting in that she actively shuns her Russian heritage. Anya worries that her mother’s “greasy” traditional Russian breakfast will cause her to gain weight. She actively avoids Dima, her fellow Russian immigrant classmate, whose thick accent she finds embarrassing. She even introduces herself to her crush as Anya “Brown” (rather than using her actual surname, “Borzakovskaya”) so clearly focused is she on assimilating fully into popular American culture.
Deciding to skip school rather than deal with all of the pressures that can drive a teenager crazy, Anya literally stumbles upon the ghost of a girl who has trapped in a well for 90 years. When Anya is rescued from the well, she unknowingly brings the stowaway spirit Emily with her. And though using Emily in school as an intangible talking cheat sheet does seem fun at first, Anya’s obsession with popular culture and ‘hooking up’ Anya with a hunky jock quickly wears on Anya’s nerves. When Emily feels that Anya no longer needs her, Emily’s true nature (as both a ghost and a young girl with a hidden past) begin to surface, and Emily is forced to enlist Dima and a public library (how lame!) to figure out Emily’s secret.
It’s this idea of the difficulties in establishing one’s own identity that gives Anya’s Ghost such power. Emily’s passionate pursuit of modern popular culture mirrors Anya’s quest to seem as ‘American’ as possible, and this struggle to fit in should seem quite familiar to any teenager who opens Anya’s Ghost. Fittingly composed in grey tones, Brosgol’s art is accessible, clean, and expressive. Because of her ordeal, Anya’s experiences a myriad of emotions, and Brosgol is able to accurately embody these emotions in the contortions of Anya’s face. The plotting of Anya’s Ghost is well-balanced, with fast-paced action scenes interspersed amongst the quieter character moments, which should appeal to teen readers who enjoy suspenseful reads. I will point out, however, that there is some fairly mature content here, including Anya’s obsession with smoking and her attempt to dress provocatively (at Emily’s suggestion) in order to attract her crush. These moments, however, are meaningful in the larger thematic context the story. Finding where you fit in the world is tough for a teenager -- alive or dead. And though it takes a supernatural encounter for Anya to realize that there are more important things than popularity, it is still an important lesson learned, and one that will not be lost on teen readers.