Hope Larson has been a talent to watch for the last few years. Her strengths have always been her design sense, her unique stylizations and her character design. I've rarely seen a young artist with such an assured and confident line, and her books to date (Salamander Dreams and Gray Horses) have had a dreamy, ephemeral quality to them. Her newest book, Chiggers (published under an imprint of Simon & Schuster), is her most ambitious work to date in terms of both its visual impact, its narrative and the complexity of her characters. Though this book is pitched to teenagers, one never gets the sense that Larson is talking down to her audience, but rather is writing a fairly sophisticated and clever story that a teenager might want to read.
The story revolves around Abby, a teenaged girl attending a summer camp. Uncertain of her place in the world and her shifting sense of identity, she hoped to reconnect with an older friend at camp. When she quickly found her connection with her friend was now tenuous, she reached out to others in her tent who were noticeably cooler than she was. When a new girl named Shasta joined the tent, the order of things with Abby and her old friends is immediately disturbed. Shasta is just eccentric enough to convince Abby's friends of her "otherness", yet Abby feels an immediate kinship with her.
In addition to a deft handling of teenager personal politics, Larson throws in an additional narrative element: Shasta was once hit by lightning and she still seems to attract an unusual set of electrical phenomena. This almost-fantastical element sets it apart from standard slice-of-life fiction, especially such fiction aimed at teens. At the same time, the cliques, betrayals and shifting senses of identity will be familiar to any teen reading this story (or anyone, really).
What makes this such an engaging reading experience is the way Larson integrates word and image, especially in her lettering. The decorative touches in her art are a part of the overall feel she's trying to create in the story. Other aspects of Chiggers are reminiscent of zines, like Larson throwing in directions to a particular card game or instructions on how to make a friendship bracelet. Little diagrams pop up to explain phenomena like anvil lightning and chiggers. One page where a bunkmate is scratching herself loudly & incessantly at night has the sound effects floating up like a cloud. On another page, where Abby is trying to come up with words to console a friend but can't find the right words, a blank Mad Lib comes up in her thought balloon as she realizes she's got nothing. When Abby and Shasta realize that they've both read the same fantasy book and love it, there's a panel showing them as elves, embracing a giant volume of the book.
These whimsical decorative touches aren't there just for show--Larson makes them an important part of the book's emotional narrative. They quickly get across key bits of information as to particular character's moods and states of mind, seamlessly integrating these bits of fancy into the book's regular narrative. One of the most crucial ways she does this is by focusing on eyes. The eyes of her characters are enormously expressive and tell much of the story all on their own. Larson's ability to use gesture and facial expressions to get across the broad, dramatic feelings of her teen characters is what makes the entire book work. It's especially important because while her character design is solid, there were times when I had trouble telling certain characters apart. All told, this is Larson's most accomplished work to date. She grounds her whimsy in strong characterization and tells a familiar story with an great amount of style. Larson's strong command of the language of comics makes her a young talent where one expects every new project to be an evolutionary leap above its predecessors, and hence something to be anticipated eagerly.