“Being 16 is officially the worst thing I’ve ever been.” That’s Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka Skim) speaking.

Groundwood Books - House of Anansi, 2008

“Why do the students call you Skim?” her English teacher, Ms Archer asks.

“Because I’m not,” Skim answers.

Adolescence is such a horrid time: you’re called what you’re not, you want to be what you’re not, you simply don’t want to be what you are.

Ugh. Too familiar, right?

And Mariko and Jillian Tamaki capture this perfectly in this graphic novel.

Skim embodies the discomfort. Her stomach “feels like it’s popping”, her mouth “tastes like ice-cream from a paper cup” and she feels like she “was rubber”, her “eyes felt like bathtub plugs”.

Physically it’s a lot to take in, but emotionally it’s almost overwhelming, and after a boy at her school kills himself, her guidance counsellor questions Skim, concerned that she seems depressed.

“Truthfully I am always a little depressed but that is just because I am sixteen and everyone is stupid (ha-ha-ha). I doubt it has anything to do with being a goth.”

(Eventually John’s suicide raises still more questions about popularity, love, and sexuality; this doesn’t directly impact Skim’s story, but she is affected by his death and the school’s response to it.)

When she has to make a list of the things that make her happy, she lists trees (then crosses it out), her cat (which she also crosses out) and, finally, art (which remains). But there is something missing from her list or, more accurately, someone.

It is a relationship that raises for questions for Skim, though. And one which requires a certain kind of secrecy.

There, in the ravines (yup, those trees on the list of things that make her happy), she finds herself talking more than she ever has, and there she feels a kind of connection that she has not yet felt with another person, but it’s complicated, even more complicated than adolescent love usually is.

The object of her affections tells Skim that she has the eyes of a fortune teller, and this echoes throughout the story. The book ends with an image of a cootie-catcher, in the middle of it Skim consults her Magic 8 Ball and, at the beginning, readers see her deck of Tarot cards on her altar (she is learning about Wicca).

That sense of being desperate to know “what’s next”: you remember it, right? Right up there with being desperate to make sense of relationships, particularly romantic relationships.

Skim registers all the details and advice given by the people around her on the subject, but they are not very helpful. She registers every tidbit about who has cold sores from herpes, about Lisa’s love charm that she keeps in her bra, Lisa’s mother’s warning that love always leaves a scar, and she writes a spell from one of her Wicca books on a little slip of paper that she carries with her. But, still, nothing is resolved.

What truly makes Skim a stand-out read, however, is the realistic approach to grappling with these mysteries; the adults are no closer to understanding than the adolescents.

Skim’s English teacher has some insight into “Romeo and Juliet” but beyond Shakespeare she, too, obviously has more questions than answers. Skim’s mom is concerned enough to ask Skim about the suicide of her school-mate, but she’s got her own problems to cry about. And the members of the coven that Skim and Lisa visit (a circle that Lisa’s sister is part of) are searching for meaning and understanding as well.

It’s honest and raw. It pierces the pretense of red-ribboned endings. Skim is essential reading for readers of all ages.

Companion Reads:
Mariko Tamaki’s (You) Set Me on Fire (2012) Her relationship with her girlfriend was angsty and shortlived and first-year college is harder than it looks.

Suzette Mayr’s Monoceros (2011) Kaleidoscopic consideration of a high school student’s suicide, complete with just the right number of unicorns.

Susan Swan’s The Wives of Bath (1993) Another all-girl school and another misfit, but Paulie brings another layer of dysfunction to the tale.

Project Notes:
Day 6 of 45. Picture books, middle-grade stories, YA, non-fiction, photography, short stories, works-in-translation, stories of myths and legends, graphic novels, literary criticism, Massey Lectures, and, my favourite, novels: can you imagine the happy-House-of-Anansi-chaos on every flat surface in this place these days? Some of these, like Skim, which is a Groundwood Book, have been on my TBR for years, but others are new additions and acquisitions. All good stuff.