Sunday, January 3, 2016

Roller Girl, by Victoria Jamieson -- the bumpy road of adolescent friendships (ages 9-13)

It's no secret that my students love graphic novels, but many parents and teachers are still reluctant to see these as stories worth reading. Yet I would argue that Roller Girl presents a compelling story with interesting, well-developed characters who struggle with friendship issues -- and does so better than many of the more traditional novels I've read this year.
Astrid and her best friend Nicole have been best friends since 1st grade, but things begin to change as they head toward middle school. When Astrid's mom takes them to see a roller derby match, Astrid thinks it's the coolest thing ever--the players looked really tough, with weird hair, crazy names and creepy makeup. When she sees a flyer announcing a summer camp, Astrid knows she just has to go -- she is totally determined to become a roller girl.
Life isn't so neat and simple. Even though they've always done everything together, Nicole decides to go to ballet camp instead of roller derby camp. Astrid doesn't let this sway her, and heads off to roller derby camp on her own. The summer is full of ups and downs, twists and turns as Astrid navigates friendship issues and learns how to play roller derby.

Jamieson creates characters who are likable but flawed in a way that rang true with me. Astrid is strong and determined, but she jumps to conclusions at times -- and ends up coming close to ruining friendships as a result. When she grows apart from Nicole, she assumes that mean-girl Rachel is going to take her place. I especially liked the way that Jamieson shows the complexities of friendship and avoids a sugar-sweet ending. 

Learning how to play roller derby takes grit and determination. Astrid falls down time and time again. But she's inspired by her hero Rainbow Bite, who encourages her to practice and practice if she wants to get playing time. Throughout, Jamieson weaves themes of determination, honesty and friendship without overpowering the plot or making it feel didactic.

Today we discussed Roller Girl and 8 other books in the Heavy Medal Mock Newbery discussion. The rules for the Newbery Award instruct committee members to focus on the words and not the pictures--and so for many years I had considered graphic novels difficult to consider in the same way as other books. But today I had the realization that I want to look at the whole book that the author has created. 

The Newbery rules (see the Newbery terms and criteria online) instruct committee members to consider the following criteria: theme, information, plot, characters, setting and style. And so I want to start encouraging my students to think about graphic novels in terms of these criteria as well. In my view, Roller Girl is distinguished in the way it presents themes for children as they transition from childhood to adolescence. The roller derby setting is exciting, thoroughly developed and compelling. The characters are fully developed in nuanced, authentic ways. I want to focus on the overall story, as I read and talk about books with children, instead of just trying to focus on the words.

As I reflect on this story, I am reminded of the power of talking about books. We grow through our chance to share and reflect together. I entered today's discussion liking Roller Girl, but unsure how to compare it to other books. Today's discussion helps me see why my students return again and again to books like Raina Telgemeier's Smile and Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet series. It isn't just their visual appeal, it's their overall literary appeal as stories that speak to children in powerful ways.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Dial / Penguin. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. Really appreciated this. I'm so visual that Ian finding it hard to wrap my head around story without being able to celebrate the way it is done specifically with art

    1. Thanks, Monica -- it was a real "ah-ha" moment for me, realizing that these criteria can also help me think of graphic novels. I also think that the term "text" can also refer to the whole book, not just the words. Because it's the whole book that establishes themes, plot, characters.

  2. You called it before the Award announcements, Mary Ann! I am so delighted that Roller Girl has been given a Newbery Honor!!