The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge, 192 pp, RL: Middle School

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr 
Review copy from Abrams Kids
As Mona, Gulledge's main character/alter-go says toward the end of The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, "I'm a writer. I can speak story." Not only is Gulledge a writer who can speak story (see below for links to my reviews of her previous graphic novels), she is an artist who can communicate abstract emotions in concrete ways. The Dark Matter of Mona Starr joins a growing shelf of superb graphic novels for young readers addressing emotional health, as well as physical, mental and emotional challenges, spearheaded by Raina Telgemeier. And, like many of these excellent works, Gulledge's book draws on her personal experiences, adding a layer of depth and authenticity. Unlike many of these, Gulledge's graphic novel is best suited toward middle grade and teen readers, not for content appropriateness, but for the reader's ability to understand and most benefit from the experience and wisdom shared herein.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr is a graphic novel and a self-care manual, starting with a note to readers where she discusses her own depression and how she came to write about it, as well as her desire to, "contribute to the bigger conversation about our collective health, happiness, purpose, and the vital role of creativity in these areas." As someone who has come up to the edge of depression and spent decades reading self-help books, in therapy and mediating (all on and off...) Gulledge's book was at once uplifting, inspirational, painful and hard to read at times, both for how it tapped into my own experience as well as tapping into the empathy I felt for Mona. In her note to readers, Gulledge shares that being asked to write a book about her own depression was intimidating ("Who am I to talk about mental health?") with the potential to pull her into depression, which is also a challenge for readers. I loved reading The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, but it was also hard to read and there were moments of connection in the story where I had to take a break from reading. But, Gulledge "speaks story," and, as she intended with both the character of Mona herself and her journey of self discovery and evolution, the story she speaks here is one of darkness, pain and struggle that ends with growth, self-care and the courage to be vulnerable and love yourself and others.

Gulledge begins Mona's story with two significant events: a best friend moving away and a session with a therapist. Gulledge has Mona refer to her depression as "the Matter," because it can make her feel like a "cloud of dark matter" or a black hole where she is collapsing in on herself. This metaphor works stunningly with both text and illustrations in this black and white graphic novel with bright yellow accents. The Matter appears across the pages most often as a dark, human like shadow or a swirling, menacing presence, sometimes with words inside to represent the negative self-talk we all engage in, in varying degrees. My therapist introduced this to me as a "negative tape loop" that plays in my head, which became a powerful tool for recognizing and, with more therapy and hard work, evolving my own self-talk "tape loop" from negative and destructive to positive, uplifting, and nurturing. I am so grateful to Gulledge for introducing this to readers at an early age! Chapter headings, like "Implode or Evolve," "Notice Your Patterns," "Break Your Cycles," and "Replace What You Can't Erase," double as positive self-talk, reminders of how to move forward skillfully.

Mona's growth, her evolution, comes as she recognizes her instinct to live in her head and self-isolate. As she leans in toward friendship, she also has moments where she implodes and pushes people away. Discovery (and removal) of a blockage in Mona's intestine is is a turning point, allowing Mona to begin unblocking herself in other ways as she makes the connection between her abstract, emotional "Matter" and the literal mass in her body that was causing her physical pain. The chapter "Turn Emotion into Action" shows Mona making positive, creative connections with her friends, taking her first steps toward combatting the negative voice in her head that emerges when she is creating, and, with her friends, orchestrating a shared experience and art installation that opens her classmates to each other, each other's experiences and "artnership." Gulledge's portmanteau, "artner," a mash-up of partner and art, coined by Mona's friend Hailey, is a word for "creative intimacy," which happens when you, "make stuff together" and "support each other's crazy ideas." Gulledge begins her book inviting readers to be inspired to "connect with Artners, and perhaps even make your own self-care plan," and she ends her book by sharing her own self-care plan, generously giving readers space on the opposite page where, using her visual tools, they can create a self-care plan of their own!

More by Laura Lee!

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