by Maggie Thrash
2015 • 272 pages • Candlewick Press
I’m always fascinated by stories about the messy process of becoming a person, whether that’s by developing one’s own identity outside of one’s parent, developing a sense of morality, or developing a sense of one’s desires. Chalk it up to a sheltered childhood or a belated coming out, but that process is fresh enough in my own narrative that I’m always hungry to see someone else’s just to compare notes.
Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl, a graphic memoir about Thrash’s experiences at Camp Bellflower and her first crush on a girl, falls perfectly into that category. Every summer, Maggie (as I’ll call the Thrash in the memoir to avoid confusion with the Maggie who wrote it) has attended the all girls camp as one of the few out-of-towners for years. She loves it, but, one summer, when she’s fifteen, she develops a crush on Erin, a nineteen year old counselor. Confused by both her first all encompassing crush and the fact that it’s on a girl, Maggie tries to make it through the summer like normal—but, of course, she can’t.
Maggie spends the bulk of Honor Girl puzzling out what’s happening to her, in a space that’s meant to be a safe haven for girls. But there are edges and limitations to even that, since it’s not a truly liberated context. Girls excitedly police each other’s gender presentation; Erin fights constantly with a girl named Libby over the ultimate safe space of the firing range; girls ritually tease and humiliate each other about crushes on the male members of staff. Once her crush on Erin becomes known to the main counselor, the counselor tells her that not only is being gay distasteful to talk about, but it’s an active threat to the innocence of the other girls around her. Because, I guess, queer kids aren’t entitled to innocence and safe spaces. Vomit.
For Maggie and Erin, there is no pat conclusion or fairy tale ending, and I really love that. Maggie’s relationship with Erin is all yearning and no consummation; moments stolen (sometimes, it seems, Maggie feels like she’s stealing from Erin, lost in the selfishness and self-consciousness of first love) and moments lost. Is that’s not necessarily a bad thing? As Maggie tells a friend, “not every moment has to happen,” a panel that made me look up and blink in wonder. When Maggie hears a rumor about her being a lesbian at camp, she wonders if that’s good; if you could build a web of lies surrounding yourself, you could protect your true self from everyone else. When a friend asks if being yourself wouldn’t be easier, Maggie replies no. Honor Girl is about Maggie learning to ask the questions; that she doesn’t have the answers is not her fault, but life’s. There are no answers for the questions she’s asking except the ones we make ourselves.
To be perfectly honest, I struggled with the art style. It’s at once absolutely perfect and absolutely frustrating. Thrash is a hair older than I am, a Gen X’er to my snake person Millennial, but homemade preteen manga will never not scream “MY YOUTH!” to me. It gives Honor Girl a tactility I have never experienced with another graphic novel. I know that style! I drew like that, when I, too, was a teenage girl full of strange, unutterable emotions and unaware of her queerness. And, for those of us who did not buy a copy of How to Draw Manga at your fifth grade Scholastic Book Fair and lord it over their friends (I was the worst kid), I imagine it lends the air of a handmade, DIY zine, suffused with Thrash’s spirit.
But it’s also not a terrifically expressive art style. Panels, necessarily, become more about composition of a shot rather than a subtlety of expression, but there are plenty of close-ups on inexpressive faces. Against Thrash’s searing text, it can’t help but feel a little pale. I think it’s wonderful that Thrash illustrated Honor Girl the way she did; I think it makes the memoir unspeakably personal and will speak volumes to young queer girls in years to come at the moment when they need it most. just can’t help wondering what it would look like with another illustrator, and I feel weird about that.
I rented this book from the public library.