Book Review: Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

A drawing of the three main characters of the book Nimona

Nimona is a girl who can shapeshift into a monster. Or a monster who can shapeshift into a girl. Or something more complicated than that. In any case, she shows up unannounced at supervillain extraordinaire Ballister Blackheart’s lair and declares herself his sidekick. He is… not amused. “I can’t have a kid following me around all day,” he complains, to which she gleefully responds (and shapeshifts): “I’m a shark!”

Nimona’s persistence and her incredible powers make Blackheart accept her as an ally and together they set to work discrediting the powerful Insitute of Law Enforcement and Heroics. It’s Nimona’s dream come true – though it might take some getting used to for the both of them.

Nimona, it seems, has more of a taste for the violence of a traditional supervillain – she wants to kill the King and take over or kill Ballister’s archnemesis and be unequaled! But Ballister loathes the mess and waste of death and violence. Still, during their first evil plot together, Ballister runs into said archnemesis, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. It’s complicated. They had been friends once, back when Ballister was another hopeful hero recruit at the Institute. And then Ambrosius has shot his arm off, and Ballister was forced to become a villain (because what Champion of Law Enforcement and Heroics only has one arm?)

Nimona doesn’t know any of this though, and seeing their plan on the brink of collapse, she takes off to “contain” the situation in her own special way. Ballister is not amused.

But then the Institute decides that Nimona might be too dangerous, that she doesn’t fit into their carefully scripted role for the villain, that perhaps she is too powerful (a thought that the Director of the Institute doesn’t much like).

Meanwhile, Ballister stumbles upon a way to limit Nimona’s powers, something that terrifies Nimona. She’s never been unable to shift, never been out of control of her powers. But none of the stories she’s told Ballister about where she came from made sense, and as a man of science, Ballister is more than a little nervous about her seemingly unlimited magical abilities.

Still, the Institute is up to something terrible, and Nimona and Ballister are the only ones who can stop it. If only each could trust the other to really have their back.

A graphic novel with simple art style for first-time graphic novel readers, but plenty of details for those who are into the genre, Nimona blurs a lot of lines. Good and evil, power and corruption, monster and human, friend and enemy. Context matters here, and the twists of the story – written over a long span during its webcomic days – show that our smallest choices can affect which side we stand on.

Complicated and tense relationships between fangirl-ish and insecure (yet super powerful) Nimona; scientific, conflicted pacifist Ballister; and the melodramatic, changeable, yet good-hearted Sir Ambrosius fill in what could be a simplistic story. The almost-familiar plot gives a lot of solid pegs to hang questions on – is violence ever ok? Is revenge? Are good intentions enough?

Nimona is a quick-read, perfect for teens that are increasingly busy with homework and extracurriculars.

Pair With:

  • The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett – Both books have a bent toward the surprising, and a healthy dose of the magical to balance out the mundane. A traditional text novel, The Wee Free Men is a humorous take on a young girl’s growing up – and finding out she’s a witch. The Elf Queen has stolen Tiffany’s baby brother, and may also be plotting to overthrow the mortal realm. She teams up with the tiny, blue Scottish fairyland creatures the Wee Free Men – the only clan to cast of the Elf Queen’s influence. Another story about a young girl and her magic, this story fleshes out many of the questions that Nimona raises.
  • Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson – Can’t get enough shapeshifting? Really loved Stevenson’s artwork? Then I am happy to let you know that you can get both fixes with the Lumberjanes series. The first comic finds a group of five young women at a summer camp for “hardcore lady types,” and these girls certainly fit the bill (even Ripley’s love for adorable animals. But after they witness a woman turn into a bear, they start to search the woods for clues as to what’s really happening.

See if your library has it here.

Mixing It Up: Diversity in YA Collections

As a kid, I read voraciously. I read everything I could get my hands on. In fact, I read through the entire children’s and teen collection in my small-town public library. Twice.

But when I moved to another (all white, middle class, farm) community, I enrolled in a teen lit class. We can get into how lucky I was to have such an offering in high school, but I really wanted to focus on one thing: Walter Dean Myers.

Myers has been recognized for his novels about African American youth and their experiences, particularly in urban settings. If you haven’t read something by him, you should. My class read Slam!, amidst fantasy novels and novels about drugs and abuse and all sorts of other extremes that shocked my world. But even now, Slam! is what I remember. Slam (the main character) existed in a world full of experiences and struggles that had never even occurred to me.

Fast forward a few years, and I was working at a public library in that same (all white, middle class) small town, feeling rather proud of myself as I helped curate the teen collection in my branch to cover more racial bases. Of course, the same problem arose then as now – the dearth of minority teen literature. We were making lists and sticking “African American” interest on those titles. And they never went out.

Why not? I became convinced that it was precisely because of those stickers. Because my peers had been taught very well that they were not African American, that they would not experience life that way, and wasn’t life confusing enough without trying to understand everyone else too? I began to *sneakily* remove some of the stickers, focusing on making sure some of those titles showed up in every display, and miracle of miracles, they started to go out.

This all came back up because I recently came across a post on tumblr about LGBTQ literature in YA collections. From tumblr user MoreRobots:

So my question is, would people rather have LGBTQ books be tagged? Or in their own section? I know this would create a problem too as some patrons may not want to be seen browsing the LGBTQ shelf or reading a book that’s specifically tagged. Also, what if people pass these books up? Is there a better solution? I just feel that these books (and other diverse books) should be made more accessible /visible to patrons but what is the best way to go about it?

It’s a valid question, and a few plausible responses have been made, but they seem to focus on how to visibly mark or separate them. Check out the thread for specifics.

I’m wondering about the choice to separate them. Personally, I think that will prevent them from entering “normal” circulation, continuing the perception that LGBTQ stories are for a specialized segment of the population, and continuing to normalize straight experiences. For those who want quick access to books like these, I think the pamphlet or master list should be available for ease of access.

The same can be said for any literature that falls outside the norm. While there’s nothing wrong with books about straight white kids, there is something wrong if that is all that is available, or all that teens are encouraged to read. Part of reading, especially as a teen, is to make sure that we aren’t just reifying the normalcy of our own lives. Life is diverse, and diversity is valid, and essential.

From Sarah Ockler’s blog post “Race in YA Lit: Wake up & Smell the Coffee-Colored Skin, White Authors!

Why is diversity in fiction important? Because diversity in life is important. And when we exclude—intentionally or otherwise—characters of color from our work, we do send a billboard message to readers. We tell them that people of color aren’t there, aren’t important, aren’t worthy of our stories. That they don’t deserve to be part of the conversation of our books. That reading isn’t for them. That they don’t matter. That they don’t even register on our radar.

When we erase the experiences of race, class, sexuality, and other self-identifiers from our YA collections, we tell our teens that those things don’t matter. By separating their literature, we relegate those experiences to those who are already living them.

Once more from Ockler:

I adore teenagers. That’s why I write for them. They’re special and magical and full of life; they’re truly the best of us. As young adult authors, our words have power. The power to entertain. The power to inform. The power to inspire. And most importantly, the power to change the lives of teen readers—to really make a difference. If, as Truby believes, stories express the idea that human beings can become better versions of ourselves, then I want to show YA readers that those better versions look like them, too.

 

On Things I’ve Read: The Book Thief

This book has been on my reading list for a very long time. I started it once, but had to return it. I decided it would be my pre-semester read for this term. It was worth it.

The book got a lot of attention for its use of Death as a narrator, and rightly so. The portrayal of Death was unique and engaging. True to his form as protagonist, I even rather liked Death. I wanted him to be able to make the choices, rather than being driven to them by humans – and in this case WWII. And I trusted him as a narrator.

But the book was about a little girl named Liesel Meminger, and her life on Himmel Street in a town near Munich. It only takes about 5 years to unfold, but the narrative style, the backdrop against which her story is highlighted, and the depth and complexity of her own story make it seem like an entire lifetime was packed in there. At around 550 pages, The Book Thief was just enough. I neither wanted more nor less, which is rare in a book.

The characters that make up Liesel’s story – lemon-haired Rudy, Papa with the Silver eyes, the ghostlike Ilse Hermann – are given life precisely because of the way that Death and Liesel describe them. They are brilliant and foolish in turn, completely believable, and lovable.

*Spoiler, I suppose*
One warning though – do not expect to make it through the last few chapters of the book without crying. It ends exactly like it should, in my opinion, but wrenches the heart.