Sunday, October 15, 2023


Sometimes seemingly simple things are super complicated. Take hair, for instance. I don't think much about hair. I have long, straight hair now, and all I know about it was that long ago when I tried to get it feathered and wavy, it never responded. So, I just went with a short, pretty standard haircut for most of my life. That is certainly a position of privilege and convenience I have learned. Claribel, the star of Frizzy, does not enjoy such privilege. This young, Dominican girl has long, curly hair. It has flair and presence, and she learns from her mom that what she needs to do with it is tame that hair through regular visits to the salon. It constantly needs to be straightened and treated so that it is more manageable and she can fit in.

Bound up in all this thinking are all sorts of cultural assumptions of what people should look like, especially if they want to gain cultural capital and respect. Also, racial and ethnic identities come into play here, as some peoples' hair are seen as acceptable while others need work. Claribel and her mother clash over hair, and how it contributes to her being a "good girl," "presentable," and a maturing person. Claribel's Tia Ruby adds a different voice to this conversation, and over the course of the book all of the characters get the chance to interact, learn, emote, and engage in a debate over what people should look like and how it contributes to how they feel and what they can do in life. 

What I love about this book is how it engages in all sorts of complex issues without being didactic or prescriptive. The characters all feel real and relatable to me, and none of them present "straw man" arguments. They have their stances and feel justified in them, and they each have their strong points. Also, none of them is perfect, so the debate about what it takes to grow up as a realized person is palpable. Unless you are made of stone, this book will provoke your thoughts and move you.

This book is a collaboration between writer Claribel A. Ortega and artist Rose Bousamra, and Frizzy was the debut graphic novel from both. Ortega is a best-selling YA novelist whose books Ghost Squad and Witchlings have been very popular. Bousamra is currently working on her follow-up graphic novel, the self-authored Gutless. You can see both creators discuss this book in length in this video interview.

This book has won the 2023 Pura Belpré Award for Children's Text as well as the 2023 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Kids, and it has received many extremely positive reviews. In their starred entry, Kirkus Reviews summed it up, "An exquisite excavation of hair politics, family dynamics, and self-love." In another starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, "Ortega expertly examines themes of colorism, generational trauma, and toxic beauty standards via authentic, heartstring-tugging dialogue and Marlene’s pitch-perfect narration." Esther Keller concluded, "This is a wonderful addition to the middle-grade repertoire of coming-of-age graphic novels. It will give young girls a great sense of self and help them be happy with the features they were born with."

Frizzy was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and more here.

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