Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Dasha Tolstikova's A Year Without Mom

Dasha Tolstikova's debut A Year Without Mom is an odd duck, even for a Young Adult book. It's published by a Canadian press by a Russian cartoonist who is currently living in Brooklyn. It focuses on a major life event (living apart from one's parents for an entire year as a young teenager) that has only minor consequences in the course of the book. It depicts living in Russia in a turbulent time (the attempted coup of Mikhail Gorbachev and the subsequent quashing of a military coup by Boris Yeltsin) but with only minimal relevancy to her actual day-to-day life. All of that stuff is window dressing for the book's real themes: negotiating tenuous friendships and loves as a teenager. By focusing on those specific details, Tolstikova makes the book easily relatable to anyone, while the other details provide a different take on a subject that's been addressed any number of times in YA literature, including the realm of comics.

Published by Groundwood Books, the book's biggest strength is the quality of Tolstikova's drawings. They are simple and stripped down, with highly expressive scribbles and blushes of color on faces to heighten the emotions of each character. Much of the book is really illustrated, typeset text (including the word balloons), but Tolstikova counters the sterility of that approach with the liveliness of her drawings and the unusual angles she takes on a number of pages. She uses silhouettes, extreme close-ups, two-page spreads, decorative backgrounds and all sorts of other tricks to make the pages more interesting to look at. At its heart, however, it's her character design that's the real star of the show. That's mostly thanks to her keen understanding of body language, posture and other non-verbal means of communication, even with simply-rendered faces and bodies. In fact, the lack of extraneous naturalistic detail is what accentuates the other qualities of her character design.

While there are times that details like living apart from her mom and the near-coup in Russia threaten to become major plot points (reading the book, I kept thinking something bad was going to happen to someone), the real source of conflict in the book is between young Dasha and her friends Natasha and Masha. She admires both of them because she thinks they're cooler than she is, even if they don't approve of the older boy that she has a crush on.There's a subplot where her friends start becoming cold to her and then they both seem to drop out of school, but that's later resolved and smoothed over. Then Dasha drops out of school in order to study enough to take tests to get into another school. She comes close but not close enough, but that conflict with her grandmother is also smoothed over. Everything is smoothed over until her mother returns and says she's going to take her to live in America, and the book ends with someone trying to befriend her. Again, ending without going into any details about her new life doesn't make much narrative sense, but in terms of the emotional arc of the book (making decisions and navigating relationships without the help of her mother), the ending is clearly appropriate. The shy Dasha had learned how to handle herself in her mother's absence, and that's the only story arc that matters. It's not an especially sophisticated story arc, even for a YA comic, but that's where the extraneous details and in particular Tolstikova's art made the difference and produced a book that stands out.

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