Tuesday, December 28, 2021

31 Days of CCS, #28: Jarad Greene

Jarad Greene's semi-autobiographical YA book A-Okay is proof that literal truth is not particularly relevant when it comes to this genre. The narrative is always more important than literal facts (and these facts are actually beyond one's ability to adequately portray them for many reasons), both in terms of the story narrative but doubly so for the book's emotional narrative. 

In Greene's case, there are elements of fact from his life in the character of Jay Violet. Greene was referred to as a "porcelain doll" for having nice skin and dressing well. His severe acne flared up in his senior year of high school and later in college. With regard to his asexuality, it's something that he didn't understand and identify as until his mid-20s. The character of Jay Violet is an 8th grader and confronts both these questions regarding his identity and his appearance during this time. Greene's own experiences obviously informed the events of the book, but A-Okay is a smooth narrative because Greene was less concerned with the precise timeline of these events and more interested in that emotional narrative: the feelings that Jay Violet experiences during the course of the story. 

A-Okay contains multiple storylines. It includes a running plotline about friendships and how they often center around identity, and how they can radically shift in one's teenage years. It's a graphic medicine story not unlike Raina Telgemeier's Smile or Guts, in which Jay relates a specific course of therapy over time for his severe acne and the ways in which it affected other parts of his life. It's a queer story about adolescent relationships, only Jay winds up as an inadvertent antagonist to the romantic feelings of close male and female friends before he understands that he's asexual. Finally, it's about finding your place with your own skills and dreams and finding the right set of people who will support you. 

The book is over 200 pages, so there's plenty of room to cover all of this group. What sets A-Okay apart is that it never feels like Greene is feeding the reader medicine. Indeed, it's so well-paced that it flies by, yet the pacing never feels rushed. If anything, it feels like a languid hang-out book, where getting to know everyone is more important than an overarching plot. In part, that's because the book barely has a plot, and what there is of it is episodic, divided into seasons of the year. 

Other than a bully whom Jay gets a small measure of revenge on late in the book, there aren't really antagonists in the book. Instead, there are lesser or greater levels of confusion and resentment that characters feel toward each other. His best friend Brace is a musician who forms a band and then drifts away from Jay, deliberately pushing him out of his burgeoning new group of friends. Jay's identity centers around art, and he angers a girl named Amy who has feelings for him by not wearing a gift she gave him because of his medication. He also baffles a gay boy named Mark who has a crush on him, until he realizes that he's asexual. This is a book about communication and avoiding isolation above all else, and Jay really needed Brace to work through some of his issues, and Brace wasn't there for him. There was no huge plot development that brought them back together other than a particular project for Brace's band; it was simply through taking the bold step of reaching out and telling the truth that relationships were repaired and misunderstandings smoothed over. 

I found the low stakes of the book to be refreshing. At the same time, I've never read a YA/MG book that delved into a topic like asexuality, nor a graphic medicine book that focused on severe acne. While these were unexplored ideas, they're ones that young people face all the time. Trying to figure out one's sexuality is brutal when you don't understand it yourself and feel freakish for experiencing it. The severe side effects of acne and the brutal treatments for it are something that so many teens experience yet rarely talk about. I also liked that this was a boy who was struggling with body image, something rarely discussed in YA lit but is also extremely common. 

From the first mini I saw of his, it was obvious that Greene's chops were perfect for this market. He simply knows how to draw teens, from clothing to body language to gestures. There's a simple ease to Greene's line that has a direct effect on his storytelling ability. It's smooth without being slick, and every character is distinctively drawn but all within the structure of his style. His page composition varies, going from grids to dutch angles to open-page layouts, depending on what was called for by the story. The fluidity of Greene's work is what makes it so affable; even if you don't have much in common with Jay Violet, you still want to hang out with him and his friends. While a number of kids will identify with this character, many kids won't, and that won't matter because they'll find someone to relate to in this book. By not focusing on any one thing in particular, Greene makes everything seem important without making that importance seem forced or didactic. Greene wrote a book where very little happens, and I enjoyed every moment of these non-events. 

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