Review of the Day: The Plain Janes
The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Jim Rugg. Minx (the new DC Comics imprint). $9.99
Back up, back up. I’ve a whole roll of justifications for reviewing this, so let’s not assume I’m breaking any rules here quite yet. Now I know that I only review children’s books on this site. YA is such a vast ungodly stretch of landscape that I feel better limiting myself to books where the most shocking word you run across on a given day is “scrotum” (and not even a guy’s scrotum at that). Heck, if I really wanted to give myself an age group that would allow me some down time I could limit myself ever further and just do picture books or something. Whee. Fortunately I’m not that far gone yet. Now as you may or may not know, I’ve a weakness for good children’s graphic novels. They’re… uh… well they’re a bit rare these days. So sometimes a girl’s just gotta go with her instincts. Now having read “The Plain Janes” to myself, I’ve determined that there’s nothing in this book that would make me uncomfortable if I handed it to a ten-year-old. In fact, you may find me wrasslin’ up a pack of ten-year-olds fairly soon just so I can pop this book into their hands and watch them grow into little anarchists. So as it stands, this is a YA graphic novel, but there’s no reason in the world not to welcome it into your children’s rooms as well. If, that is, you don’t mind a little terrorism and the occasional Bertolt Brecht quote here and there.
Meet the Minx imprint. Described as providing, “Smart, original stories,” and, “Strong female protagonists,” to say nothing of their, “Different creators for each book,” DC Comics is making a backwards lunge for the elusive teen girl graphic novel market. Cool, huh? Ready for the irony now? Of the seven books Minx is putting out in 2007, how many women do you guess are either authors or illustrators of any of the books? Yeah, out of the fourteen people only TWO are female. Cause, y’know, it’s not like there aren’t roughly one billion female YA authors out there who might like to try their hand at writing a graphic novel. You’ll forgive me, then, if I decided to check out the Minx book that actually had a, y’know, living breathing female involved in it in some manner before I go slumming it with the gents. Cecil Castellucci is, at this point in time, carefully positioning herself as a sort of YA Higher Power. She’s the person you would’ve yearned to hang out with in high school, only to somehow end up relegated to the Meg Cabot table instead. She’s hip and alternative and apparently knows from whence she writes. In her first graphic novel, “The Plain Janes,” the divine Ms. C takes on the Big Brother atmosphere of your average suburban high school with a nice bit of pomp and flair. The girl's got bite.
Jane doesn’t remember the accident very well. One minute you’re walking along the street, and the next you’re flat on your face with people running and screaming all around you. Unpleasant. Still, all things considered, she could have it a lot worse. Terrorist attacks tend to kill people, and this one just left a perfectly nice guy unconscious. That thought isn’t enough to comfort Jane's now paranoid parents, though. Before she knows it the family has left the big city and entered Suburbia proper. Talk about landing in a place perfectly designed to stifle any and all artistic expression. Maybe the worst part about moving to a new high school is locating a new group of friends, but Jane’s pretty sure she’s got that one covered. She’s discovered a group of girls at a table in the cafeteria and they all have names that are some kind of derivation of Jane. Cool, right? Well maybe, but it seems like these girls don’t want anything to do with her. Plus there’s this guy she’s been writing who was knocked unconscious after the blast, a fellow at school who’s all kinds of cute, and a popular girl who just can’t seem to take a hint. It isn’t until Jane establishes P.L.A.I.N. (People Loving Art In Neighborhoods) and doing undercover public art displays with her fellow Janes that the group really begins to gel. Only now the city’s in a uproar over the art, the boy is acting weird, and Jane’s parents are supremely paranoid. Nothing’s easy for a girl who wants to be different. Especially if she wants to be different alongside her friends.
I cannot stress enough how good it feels to have a book where the ultra-cool heroine keeps turning down the Queen Bee’s advances in the hope that maybe the girls at the “uncool” table will let her into their private circle. It’s like a breath of fresh air. Equally breathable? Castellucci’s writing. This was the first book of hers I’d taken the time to sit down and read, and it hits all the right buttons. She’s wry. Wry’s hard too. Wry doesn’t walk down the street everyday allowing you a glimpse of it. Once you find something wry you need to grab onto it with both hands and never let it go. “The Plain Janes” is a good example of that. For example, when you have a heroine who thinks something like, “Who needs a stupid grampa-loving, book-reading, good-smelling boy who I like talk to? I had real friends,” you know you’re in good hands.
She relies on stereotypes, of course. You know. All the Janes are cut-and-dried characters. The tall girl-jock with the unibrow. The chunky theater geek who keeps inserting quotations into her speech. The quiet brilliant gal who you can tell is smart because she wears glasses (duh). The overly enthusiastic gay guy ("James" rather than "Jane"). They’re all there. So I was going to go into this long convoluted speech that lamented this simplification of people during their teenage years… and then I remembered my own. Oooooh, right. Yeah, see, there’s a reason many of us try to block out the memory of high school. These people? They exist. They exist and they often grow up to be the most interesting folks you could run into on the street. So maybe Castellucci’s telling us something here with her characters.
Of course, the inner Liberal in me was just pleased as punch when it came to the book’s message. Think about it. This is a fine and upstanding example of harmless civil disobedience. Then suddenly the city starts making a big deal of it and the more it tries to tighten its hold on P.L.A.I.N., the more the girls feel obligated to do more and more art. The idea that a victim of an attack would, in turn, create a series of “art attacks” (as her critics call it) brings up all kinds of interesting points. If you agree that they are, in a sense, attacks then what does that say about post-traumatic stress? Is art ever an attack, though? What if it treads into graffiti territory?
Now in this Manga-infused day and age it’s a relief to read something where the character’s eyeballs don’t appear to have eaten half their heads. Though apparently artist Jim Rugg’s “Street Angel,” has a bit o’ grime here and there, the world of “The Plain Janes,” is slick and smooth. Not in a designy way, mind you. Just a strikingly delineated fashion. I was a little perturbed from time to time to find faces or body parts alternating in size from one panel to another. It’s a stylistic choice and by-and-large it doesn’t distract, but it’s not really my thing either. Still, he’s done a good job of conveying the characters, even when the words don’t. He probably wouldn’t have been my first choice as an artist, but for what he’s done he’s given the book his all.
If Minx chose, “The Plain Janes” as their debut, they chose well. It’s sweet and sneaky and just a little bit subversive, just as your average graphic YA novel should aspire to be. A tip of the hat then to a great l’il ole book. I look forward to watching its accolades roll in.
Note: For an extra bit o' fun, check out the mix CD compilation Ms. Castellucci recently posted as an accompaniment to her book. I, personally, would have included The Magnetic Fields song Parades Go By. That's just me, though.
Other reviews of this book include: Newsarama
On shelves May 1, 2007.