Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash was a Pride Month read for me and another adventure into the land of graphic novels. Slowly but surely, I feel I am finding a connection with this genre as I look beyond the words to the artwork and what an amazing skill it to be able to tell your story in words AND images.
This is Maggie Thrash’s debut, a graphic memoir of her teenage years away at an American summer camp where she experiences love for the first time in the shape of Erin, one of the camp’s counselors. To be given the Honor Girl award of the title, the chosen girl must represent the traditional, very conservative, “female ideals” that the camp fosters. So, the scene is set for the exploration of values, identity, same sex relationships and what being a girl means in this summer camp context of the early 2000s.
Starting on a light note, the period details really appealed to me as I remember that particular time very well, so Maggie’s love of the Backstreet Boys felt very nostalgic indeed and the scene where the girls are taking it in turns to read the latest Harry Potter book brought back fond memories too. This is not to say that it would only appeal to a certain age group though, as the story itself and the themes it develops are absolutely timeless.The portrayal of Maggie’s thoughts and actions as she falls in love for the first time are so believable, so accessible and I was totally transported back in time to my experiences. I especially liked how Thrash shows how monumentally important the smallest moments felt; arms brushing against each other, a caught look, treasured conversations that were perhaps quite average on the surface but that you spent hours trying to read in between the lines of. The novel really evokes those familiar feelings of adolescence; the insecurities, the awkwardness and the sheer, exhilarating intensity of it all.The contrast between this gentle love story and the values held by the camp leaders is powerful. Though coming out is not easy for Maggie by any means, the grown ups cause far more problems than her fellow campers. Towards the end, one of the leaders tells Maggie she must stop all this nonsense as camp is a space for girls to be free and innocent and her behaviour is therefore unfair on the other girls. Maggie is made to feel that she is a bad person, that her feelings are wrong and must be suppressed. Erin is then seen as a predator, though she is only a couple of years older than Maggie, who has turned Maggie into something undesirable. I felt so angry on Maggie’s behalf and so angry that such ways of thinking still very much exist eighteen years on.In terms of the artwork, I believe Thrash has a style that matches the narrative and the characters brilliantly. It is the art of a 15-year-old Maggie with clean, sparing illustrations and a dreamy palette of colours. They are raw rather than refined, direct rather than focused on subtly.Though they may at first appear to be simple, the panels are cleverly thought out to interact with what the words don’t say. And by not over complicating the artwork I feel that Thrash allows the reader enough room to interpret what is happening for themselves – the images are starting points, guidelines.