Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review -- "Anya's Ghost" by Vera Brogsol

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.


  1. I just started following your blog for my Education and Technology class, and your blog caught my eye because of its emphasis on graphic novels. I was curious how you choose 'acceptable' graphic novels, determine appropriate ages for certain graphic novels, and how you incorporate them in the classroom?

  2. Welcome, Ishmael!

    It's difficult for me to describe my process for selecting what is 'acceptable' or not. Basically, though, I rely on my teaching experience, which includes six years of high school teaching and two years of middle school teaching. And since Lexile scores aren't available for 99% of comics, I make sure that I look at sentence structure, difficult/inappropriate vocabulary, as well as panel layout (straightforward vs. more complicated) when deciding on which comics I used.

    I will say that I've been lucky enough to have some fairly open-minded administrators who've let me test out comics in the classroom. My sell was that this medium has a unique power to engage struggling readers, as they're aided by the blend of images and text. Though bear in mind that these same administrators, who may have looked past similar language in novels, often winced at even the slightest hint of any suggestive material in comics. It's almost as if they figure, "Well, we let you bring in funny books. Don't push it!"

    As far as incorporating them into the classroom, there are two primary strategies I've employed.

    Independent Reading:
    When students needed a book to read independently, I would steer them toward graphic novels, whether they were motivated readers or not. Considering I had images of superheroes plastered all over my classroom walls, they were already curious. School and local libraries recognized the power of comics long before teachers did, so students can find any number of critically acclaimed comics and graphic novels there. I also kept three longboxes of my own (kid-friendly) comics in the classroom for students to read during independent reading time. I would often dig through $1 bins at my local comic shop to find cheap runs of kid-friendly titles.

    As far as incorporating comics into the ELA curriculum, I made sure to take themes that we were already exploring in the course literature and look for comics that would fit that mold. I used "Bone" by Jeff Smith, for example, with my seventh graders because it tied in with our yearlong theme of "Celebrating Diversity" (I attempted to use Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese" in the same unit, but was told that some of the potty humor was too touchy).

    I hope that gives you some insight. I'm always willing to help, so feel free to follow/message me at @comicsteacher. And if it's not too much to ask, tell your teacher friends about my blog! The more readership I get, the more motivated I am to generate new content!


  3. Thank you so much for response! It was very helpful, and I have passed along the blog to my fellow colleagues!


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