Book Review: Be That Way by Hope Larson
Seventeen-year-old Christine keeps a journal of an eventful year in her life in mid-90s, while juggling troubled friendships and looking for love.
It’s January 1, 1996, and high school junior Christine wants more than anything to be that cool girl everyone notices, like her gorgeous best friend, Landry. She usually hates New Year’s resolutions, but this year she vows to be that shiny kind of girl—and record it all in her diary through prose, illustration, and comics.
When Landry drops her, Christine is surprised to discover just how much she doesn’t miss her and her drama. But a misguided kiss with film-obsessed Paul, her only other close friend, also causes a rift, and she finds herself facing a long, lonely summer.
With nothing to lose, Christine finds a new sense of courage. She gets a job at her neighborhood video store, experiments with her art, and becomes romantically entangled with her next-door neighbor Whit, who’s either the coolest guy ever or a total jerk. In spite of all this, she doesn’t quite feel shiny—until a shocking betrayal shows her the value of the words and drawings she hides in her diary, and she finally understands that she doesn’t need to be cool to be noticed—she only needs to be herself.
Eisner-award winning author and illustrator, Hope Larson, has created a powerful coming-of-age story set in a time before the Internet that explores themes of betrayal, first love, self-expression, and the power of art.
A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection
As a huge fan of Judge John Hodgman, whenever I feel nostalgic about anything, I can hear his voice saying, “Nostalgia is a toxic impulse.” I don’t know if I fully believe that, though it certainly feels true when I find myself feeling nostalgic for anything from my teen years, years I really did not enjoy. So anyway. This book is set in the 1990s (or, as my cruel teenager would say, the 1900s), which yes, sorry to say, makes it historical fiction (even though on the day this post goes live I will have spent the prior evening and this evening with 6 friends from the 90s/high school, where, sure, we will talk about the good/bad old days but also menopause and aging parents and general exhaustion—the 90s were a LOOOONG time ago now). I had to set aside my innate love of 90s things to look at this book as just a story, one made for modern teen eyes. And even reading it through my bifocaled modern eyes and not the eyes of my teen self, I still loved it.
I always like everything Hope Larson does. So I figured I’d be into this. But I want to draw attention to what I think is the biggest thing to recommend this book: the style and format. No one can argue the enduring popularity of Diary of a Wimpy Kid (first out in 2007) and Dork Diaries (first out in 2009). No one can argue against the fact that graphic novels are probably at the height of their popularity. I mean, maybe you can try to argue these points, but also maybe you don’t actually work with kids and don’t see what they read every day. So when these readers get to YA books, where this diary or hybrid format of a novel with ample illustrations that also tell the story dies off, you’re losing readers. You just are. Some will go on to read straight up narrative books. Some will just reread the same graphic novels over and over. But this format? We need more of it. In many ways, we’ve trained readers, through the popularity of books for younger readers, to expect something like this. And then it’s just gone.
So. Okay. I’ll hop down off my soapbox. But really, the format here makes this an easy one to recommend widely especially to teens who may not necessarily think they like reading.
Now, the book. Christine is so achingly real. She wants to be shinier, more like her best friend, but shiny isn’t her natural state. She’s more the kind of girl who dyes her hair unusual colors and scribbles her every thought in her diary. High school brings lots of ups and downs. She finds her place writing for the school paper and starts to make friends other than her best friend, Landry. But she also has a massive falling out with Landry, and with her closest guy friend. She has breakups, she worries about her path after high school, she tries to figure out who she is. It’s all very typical, which is part of what makes it so great. And she includes all kinds of illustrations in her diary, to great effect. I laughed out loud when, after a fight with her boyfriend, she writes, “I don’t know how to fully express, in words, how I feel right now, so here’s a picture of Whit Godwin being disemboweled by wild dogs.” Again, nostalgia and blah blah, but this had a very My So-Called Life vibe to it, of someone yearning to feel like she fits somewhere and really feeling all the bumps and bruises of seeking out that place. At one point Christine says, “It’s weird how people are this huge part of your life and one day they’re just… not.” And it is weird. But it’s also totally typical. It’s also normal. It’s just life. All of those bumps and bruises are just life. Larson captures that so well and leaves us feeling that Christine will be okay, which, in turn, will likely make teen readers also feel that they, too, will be okay. It will work out. Things change. People change. It’s hard, but it’s okay.
A really lovely look at the many beautiful and ugly parts of growing up.
Review copy (ARC) courtesy of the publisher
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 10/03/2023
Age Range: 14 – 17 Years
Filed under: Book Reviews
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
SLJ Blog Network