There’s no denying that art has power. A work of art in any form can stop you dead in your tracks, take your breath away, send chills down your spine. It can elicit a bold, dramatic response–an experience so vivid that it’s as memorable as the work of art itself.
Sometimes, though, art exudes a quiet power–less shockwave and more a resonance that grows deeper and richer with time, drawing you in over and over, changing you in the process.
Hazel Newlevant’s graphic novel No Ivy League has that quiet power, wrapping it in an unassuming package. While the book appears to be a slow-moving memoir of a summer job washed in monochromatic watercolor (don’t let the full-color cover fool you), it is an exquisite glimpse at the lives of contemporary teens.
Author and illustrator Newlevant describes her first job, a summer stint with the local parks department during high school. Hazel is a seemingly average teen in Portland, Oregon, who happens to enjoy reading, video games, hanging out with her friends, and making art. She’s trying to save enough money to see her favorite band in concert in the fall, so at her parents’ suggestion she applies for a spot on one of the city’s youth conservation crews; she gets a job cleaning out invasive ivy at a park. She spends the summer learning about herself and the diverse group of people she works with, discovering that the world around her is a far bigger and more intricate place than she ever imagined.
There’s little plot description because there’s not much plot to describe. Hazel’s story is a meditative character study examining self-discovery, particularly that time when teens first realize that there is life outside their own bubble. Newlevant depicts adolescence in all its naive, cringeworthy, optimistic, angry, despairing gloriousness. In doing so, she opens Hazel’s eyes (and ours) to the shades of grey present in a previously black-and-white world. Words and actions that may seem like jokes to some may be far from it for others. Perspectives on justice and “doing the right thing” may vary widely depending on experience–experiences determined by skin color and economic opportunity. Hazel begins to see and acknowledge the differences between herself and other teens on her team, discovering that her secure, stable life isn’t universal.
Newlevant deftly weaves nuance throughout the book. The realistic dialogue (including Hazel’s interior dialogue) sounds immediate and lifelike without being over the top or trying too hard. Same goes for the art. As you read, the chapter title spreads progress from fully covered in ivy to a space almost cleared. When another teen taunts her, the laughter written on the page chases Hazel away. Invasive ivy creeps toward Hazel threatening to entangle her after being shaken to her core by a family secret. Newlevant’s work shows just enough detail to serve the story–these aren’t overly busy panels–and has a slightly misty quality (as memories do) thanks to a hazy watercolor wash.
Newlevant’s nuance is evident as she thoughtfully relates discovering the role privilege played in her upbringing, “This book is about a pivotal summer in my life. It poked a hole in my familiar bubbles and complicated my understanding of the world. It was a multi-car pileup of race, class, gender, and teen hormones…It’s incredible, believing over and over again that you’ve figured things out–only to stumble on new ways your place in society shields you from the truth. I really didn’t know anything. Maybe I still don’t.”
No Ivy League offers up its insights in quiet, thoughtful ways and leaves a quiet, thoughtful power in its wake. It’s a realistic slice of adolescent life in all of its raw, complicated messiness. This isn’t a book for readers wanting heavy, plot-driven action or a sanitized depiction of teenagers. It is a title for adults and mature teens who are patient readers interested in character development, realism, or examining society. A variety of teen lives are depicted; strong language and some sexual references are included. No Ivy League and many other amazing memoirs in graphic novel format are available at the library. Stop by and see what we have to offer!