Middle-grade fiction is one of the trickier elements of professional reading for me. A picture book can be thumbed through quickly, a young adult novel will often tell a more gripping story than its adult counterparts, and adult books are just a matter of expanding genre choices. But middle-grade fiction is a weird, nebulous place between new-ish readers and young adult – the presence of chapters and length of story lead me to anticipate a more mature story than is often present, which ends up disappointing. Still, I keep trying new tales, and sometimes that stubbornness pays off.
Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl, a graphic novel, is one such rewarding read. It’s a perfect combination of subject matter, themes, and girl-positive storytelling. In many ways, the story itself is not a new one—protagonist Astrid discovers that she and her best friend Nicole are growing apart when she discovers roller derby, signs up for summer derby camp, and assumes Nicole will join her, only to find out that Nicole has a new friend, would rather do ballet, and maybe likes boys a little bit. Astrid has to make new friends, keep practicing her moves in spite of an often frustrating lack of progress, and learn to be part of a team, all while grappling with the bigger question of who she is.
I grabbed it initially for its roller derby presence, which I don’t see too often in fiction. The cover drew me in with its plucky protagonist Astrid in full derby gear and a posture of determination; it did not disappoint. The rules of derby itself are explained well enough to accessible to those unfamiliar with it (Astrid herself discovers it for the first time during one of her mother’s well-intended-though-sometimes-boring Evenings of Cultural Enrichment), but paced smoothly enough not to lose an audience already familiar with the sport. And it is a sport—Roller Girl does not gloss over the amount of practice and dedication and bruising Astrid has to go through to be simply competent, making her wonderfully fierce and stubborn and determined. She quite literally has to learn to fall down and get back up again, and again, and again.
That determination is certainly a significant theme of the story, but it isn’t the only one. Another strong theme is that of learning to navigate the friendship you thought would last forever but is quickly changing into something either broken or at least changing; it’s a tough but common struggle at any age, much less 12, and Jamieson depicts all those conflicting, confusing emotions beautifully, including the awkwardness of trying to navigate the waters of a new friendship when you don’t have the same amount of shared experience to draw upon, at least initially.
The treatment of friendship and growing up here is what utterly charmed me though. Friendship is at the heart of this story, and it did several things really well. It allowed friendship to be messy and confusing and strained. It highlighted girls being friends to each other—tomboys, girly-girls, and tomboys being friends with girly-girls. Neither was held over the other as better; they were simply different, and I found that powerful and refreshing. Astrid likes her derby and wearing black and being a general tomboy, finding boys still in the category of “yech,” while Nicole likes her equally intense ballet and is interested in girlier things, including a first crush on a boy—and both these things are fine. That was what ultimately won me over. Astrid is never depicted as being “not like the other girls” because the girls in this story all have their own unique interests, whether that is ballet, broadway musicals, or derby—they are fleshed-out people that better resemble the variety of interests people have.
This is a book that makes me wish I knew more middle-school girls because I would hand this out like candy if I did. Heck, I’d give it to some adults too if I thought they’d be receptive to a “kid’s book.” It’s well worth the time to read it.