The Breakaways by Cathy G. Johnson, colors by Kevin Czap, 224 pp, RL Middle Grade
The Breakaways by Cathy G. Johnson
Review Copy from FirstSecond Books
I am compelled to begin my review of The Breakaways with the final words of this review, "Groundbreaking - and as complicated as middle school." Johnson's graphic novel is packed with characters, each one having her/his own complexities and challenges that overlap, interfere and intercede with the others, making it challening to unravel this story for review. But, it is Faith, a black fifth grader being raised by her dad, who is at the center of this scrum and a good place to being talking about this unforgettable book. On her first day at a new school, Faith is recruited (tricked, really) into joining the school soccer team by an eighth grader, and in this she inherits a new, albeit prickly, group of friends who comprise the C team, the Bloodhounds, a mix of girls from all grades. Johnson does a superb, subtle job bringing diversity to this group, from Nadia, who wears a hijab, to Marie, who lives in a trailer and another who lives in a small apartment with her large family, and beyond.
Faith spends her evenings drawing in a notebook where she has created the character of Sir Mathilda, a genderfluid character who is a messenger knight, traveling between kingdoms. Through her travels with and trust of Sir Mathilda, she works out the challenges of her day at school and on the field. There is so much going on and I don't want to simplify any character or her/his experiences, but . . . Sodacan is vegan who drags Faith along with her on a midnight quest to liberate one of the chickens that Marie's mother raises to eat. Marie's best friend and teammate Sammy shares that she is a trans boy during a sleepover, a moment that Johnson presents with thoughtfulness and heart. And again in another moment in the story, with straightforwardness and sensitivity, when, Sodacan overhears Sammy talking about being trans and says, "What does that mean?" I especially love this scene because I feel like it shows young readers that it is o.k. both to not know what something means and also to ask this question. Johnson also models for readers how to ask and respond with acceptance and kindness. Vietnamese-American Huong's busy parents don't have time for her sport and she has to cope with this disappointment. Latinx Yarelis is painfully hard on herself on the field and fifth grader Zoe, a loner who draws fake tattoos on herself while dreaming of the day she can get her own. Zoe and Faith share another one of the book's wonderful moments while hiding out in the girl's bathroom and talking about quitting soccer. After confiding in Faith that she is the only friend Zoe has at school, the only person who talks to her, Zoe asks Faith if she likes boys. Faith, shrugging, says, "Um. I don't know who I like. Maybe boys. Maybe girls," to which Zoe responds, "Really? That's not gross?" Faith assures her it is not gross, telling her she has an aunt in New York who lives with her wife. This gives Zoe the security and courage to tell Faith that she likes girls. Faith's overwhelmingly supportive response is rewarded by Zoe, who says, "You're so quiet and thoughtful. I knew you were the right person to tell."
The Breakaways will resonate with young readers living through the years when so much of existence revolves around finding friends, making friends and learning who you can and can't tell your truths to, usually with a lot of embarrassment and pain along the way. I am especially glad I have The Breakaways as, for the first time in my five years as an elementary school librarian, I have a fifth grade student who confided in me that she is gay and struggling to talk about it with her friends. I am grateful that I have this stellar book to put in her hands and, later, into the hands of students who will find their compassion and understanding of the world will deepening when they read The Breakaways, no matter what their cultural, gender or sexual identity.