When I read and reviewed my first graphic novel, Rapunzel's Revenge, written by Shannon and Dean Hale and illustrated by Nathan Hale, back in January of 2009 I was skeptical of the importance of the genre but fully aware of its growing popularity and presence among readers. Drawn to the often amazing artwork (Shaun Tan's The Arrival, Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet series) and vibrant characters (Barry Deustch's Mirka, sword wielding Orthodox Jewish girl and star of the Hereville series and Ben Hatke's determined Zita the Space Girl) I have slowly continued to navigate my way through this new territory and am always pleased with what I read. However, I have not been able to answer the question I often find myself asking, "Amazing artwork aside, what is this graphic novel doing that a traditional novel can not do?" Page by Paige, written and illustrated by Laura Lee Gulledge answers this question for me. Gulledge is a superb story teller who excels, through her art, at taking the reader into the mind of main character Paige and showing us exactly what she is thinking and/or feeling. This is perfect since main character Paige Turner, the artistically inclined daughter of two writers, admits that she is often living inside her head.
Moving to New York City from Virginia over the winter break, Paige decides to battle her loneliness with the purchase of a sketchbook. After she grabs the book from the display, the sign changes from "Sale Sketchbooks $10" to "New Friend $10." Inspired by her grandmother who "came up with her own rules as she taught herself to be an artist," Paige starts the book with a set of rules to help her with her artistic pursuits. These rules turn out to apply just as well to her life, helping her to adjust to her new surroundings, break out of her shell a little and grow as a person.
Paige misses her best friend Diana, with whom she feels she can be "100% undiluted Paige." Even though she has her parents, they, "like most everybody else, see this version of me: the quiet redhead who draws stuff. But when I close my eyes, I'm more like THIS under the surface: I'm laughing and screaming and scheming and daydreaming."
Gulledge has an amazing way with visual metaphors, and they just get better and better as Paige starts school, makes friends and begins to open herself up to them. When she follows her Rule #5 (figure out what scares you and DO IT!) she decides to share her sketchbook with her new friend, Gabe. Gabe, his sister Jules and their friend Longo bond over a love of graphic novels, but it still takes Paige a while let her friends know that she is an artist. When she does hand her sketchbook over to Gabe, it momentarily turns into a heart, her heart, intensifying the moment.
When Paige finds out how talented her friends are she has a crisis of confidence but rallies, telling herself, "I can't keep being this way! I need to change. But to rebuild something new, you need to first take apart the old... So what parts do I need to change? What is it that I don't like about myself?" I love how Gulledge depicts Paige as a Lego mini-figure going to pieces.
When she shares her sketchbook with Gabe and he notices a drawing that might be about him, she reveals that it is about how he is "the first person here I'm myself with. We have clickage... Like LEGOS."
Number one on the list, "I don't ask for help. I'm stubborn and get frustrated easily." This leads Paige to enlist her friends in some acts of creative expression. Paige and Jules head to Central Park with some sidewalk chalk and some great quotes. They draw happy faces on a bed of tulips and fill old plastic Easter eggs with drawings, fortunes, chocolate kisses, origami cranes and other unique things and leave them around town. Doing this gives Paige the confidence to really put her art out into the world, but she still feels insecure and alone at times.
Paige also explores her sense of self within her blossoming relationship with Gabe. She admits that her family just isn't affectionate and when Gabe touches her or hugs her she feels a little weird. She says, "This is all so new for me. It's wonderful and terrifying. Why does he like me? What if things go wrong? What if, what if, what if..."
By the end of the book Paige is able to hear Jules when she tells her they aren't hanging out enough and do something about it instead of putting herself down for not doing it right. With the help of her friends Paige has the courage to plan to a display of her artwork on the walls of a building along with other artists and, best of all, share her new found inspirations and creations with her parents, whom she had been keeping out of the loop. She even stands up to them when they question the legality of her planned showing.
The book has a great ending, with Paige and her friends all finding their creative grooves and supporting each other in their endeavors. Paige finally opens up to her mother, from whom she had felt estranged after the move, and shares her sketchbook with her. Knowing that her parents had hoped Paige would follow in their footsteps, there are some rocky moments. Paige realizes that, "all moms have an idea who they HOPE their daughters will be. Like a connect-the-dots picture where you think you know what shape it will become. But then it's the daughter who draws the lines, and she might connect the dots you didn't intend, making a whole different picture. So, I've gotta trust the dots she's given me, and she's gotta trust me to draw the picture myself." As a daughter who felt like I often disappointed my mother when I was growing into myself and as the mother of a daughter who is fledging, Gulledge's words and images mean so much to me. With twenty plus years of hindsight, I can see now that my mother is very proud of the way I connected the dots she laid out for me and it is exciting to think that there are still more dots out there, more of the picture to create. It is still scary for me to reveal myself and share my artistic endeavors with people, but it is so inspiring and rewarding to read about other people having the same experience and navigating it successfully.
Laura Lee Gulledge has done a masterful job of expressing the inner life of a burgeoning artist with pictures and words and, while art is at the center of this magnificent graphic novel, I have no doubt that it will appeal any girl, regardless of her interests, who picks it up. Even if we don't all have an artist inside us, we do all have many things in our minds and our hearts that we want to share with others and sometimes just don't know how to. Page by Paige, feels like the big sister to Amy Ignatow's endearing girls from her Popularity Papers, Lydia and Julie, and I wouldn't hesitate to give Page by Paige to any middle school age girls who are fans of these books or who are just exploring ways to connect their dots.
Here are a few more of the wonderful and charming illustrations from Page by Paige...