Roller Girl: Newberry-honored coming of age graphic novel about roller derby and difficult tween friendships
Victoria Jamieson's 2015 graphic novel Roller Girl won the prestigious Newberry Honor Award and it's easy to see why: Jamieson's story of a young teen's interest in roller derby is the perfect vehicle to explore the difficult and even traumatic way that girls' friendships change as they become teenagers, while never losing sight of the core story, about personal excellence, teamwork, and hard-hitting, girl-positive roller derby.
I remember clearly the day I realized that most of my girl friends had formed these tight-knit groups of three kids, unstable triangles of friendship where two girls always seemed to be on the outs with a third, with the in- and out-roles rotating around to the great sorrow of all involved. By the time my own daughter was in third grade, I could see the pattern starting to repeat in her circles, and it's only gotten more intense since.
I've talked about this a lot with my daughter -- if she's worried about her friends, chances are it's because of some variation on this theme -- and two themes keep emerging: first, the very deep, intense bond that she shares with her girl friends; and second, the bewildering nature of the fights that split them apart and bring them back together, and how these two facts seem to be related.
Roller Girl is, beyond a doubt, the best story I've ever read about this dynamic, capturing both the intense positives of these tight bonds, and the heartbreak of their discontents. It's the story of twelve-year-old Astrid and her best friend, Nicole -- Astrid is captivated by the prospect of attending an intensive roller derby camp for young girls, and she naturally assumes that Nicole will tag along as she always has.
But Nicole wants to go to dance camp, and what's more, she's going to be in the company of Astrid's lifelong nemesis, the girl who called her "Ass-Turd" on the playground, and Nicole doesn't seem to care.
As Nicole and Astrid drift apart, Astrid throws herself into roller derby, discovering that she doesn't have the easy facility for the sport that she assumed she'd have. If it wasn't for an anonymous correspondence she strikes up with Rainbow Bite -- the star of the local roller derby scene, whose locker Astrid tapes notes to -- she'd give up. But Rainbow Bite's encouragement lands for Astrid, and she throws herself into her training with a passion that is instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever watched and adolescent discover a new, totalizing obsession. She doesn't even mind that she has to hide the fact that Nicole isn't coming to roller derby camp (and that her mom isn't giving Astrid a ride home) from her mother.
Astrid makes a new, close friend at roller derby camp, and she feels like she's put her long, long friendship with Nicole behind her -- until they happen on Nicole and the class bully on a double date with two boys at the fairground where derby camp is held. In that moment, Astrid realizes that she is being asked -- by society, by her friends -- to choose between being a "girly girl" and the life she's found for herself at roller derby, and that if she chooses roller derby, she might leave Nicole behind forever.
As Astrid progresses through her roller derby training toward the big, public bout where the kids will compete during an adult game's halftime, she has to reconcile all of these factors: her relationships with her mom, with Nicole, with her new friends, along with her passion for the sport and the reality of her abilities.
I read this story to my 8 year old over five consecutive bedtimes, and it passed the ultimate test of middle-grades reading material: she refused to let me stop after just two chapters and insisted that I read until I couldn't keep my eyes open. I finished the story with tears in my eyes, and the tale has provided a framework for the two of us to discuss what's going on with her friends and her life.
Roller Girl is a masterpiece, whose outstanding characters, exciting action, and beautiful, subtle, complex emotions were able to bridge the 35 year gap between me and my kid and suck us both in.
The list of awards it has taken since 2015 is a good indicator of how many people this book has touched in just a few short years:
A Newbery Honor book
A New York Times Bestseller
A Spring 2015 Indie Next Pick
A New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Book of 2015
A New York Public Library Best Book for Reading and Sharing of 2015
A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2015
A School Library Journal Best Book of 2015
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2015
A Top 10 Latin Book of 2015
A Parents Magazine Best Children's Book of 2015
A Chicago Public Library Best Book of 2015
A Texas Bluebonnet Award 2016-2017 nominee
A 2016 YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers selection
A 2016 YALSA Popular Paperback selection
An ALA Notable Children's Book of 2016
A 2015 Nerdy Book Club Award Winner for Best Graphic Novel
Roller Girl [Victoria Jamieson/Dial Books]
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