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The Answer (Steven Universe) Hardcover – September 6, 2016
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About the Author
Rebecca Sugar is a New York Times best-selling author and the creator of the show Steven Universe on Cartoon Network. She previously worked as a writer and storyboard artist on Cartoon Network’s animated series Adventure Time. She’s an artist, composer, and director.
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This is Ruby and Sapphire's story of love and freedom. I think we all know that a children's storybook that's about a "she" falling in love with a "she" is bound to get some raised eyebrows in a world that thinks relationships like theirs can never be innocent, but I would prefer not to focus on that much at all. I just want to say that it's so vital that children see these relationships in the same context that they see cross-sex relationships--and it's not JUST so kids who have same-sex crushes and attractions can see themselves and know they can get fairy tale endings too. It's also for the rest of you--and if those of you who aren't queer can imagine growing up with no books about people like you, you might start to get the idea.
But you might not be able to really understand, because you probably CAN'T imagine how devastating it is--when there don't seem to be nice words that describe you, or when futures for people like you don't seem to exist, or when you want to know where you are in the literature people get upset, or when people talk to you like it either doesn't matter that you're invisible or that you're disgusting for wanting that. We want to be in stories because stories are how humanity talks to itself. If we aren't in them, we also learn very young that we don't truly get to participate in human life.
So I want to say thank you to everyone who made it possible for something like this to exist. I'm so happy, but also relieved--and a little exasperated that something this sweet and pure took this long to get here because some people look at it and don't see it for what it it is.
So what is it?
Yes, this story features the beginning of the love between Ruby and Sapphire, though it still doesn't really delve into that. We see very little of their time together. We see them both being sort of in awe of each other--Ruby being amazed that Sapphire would want to be around someone like her when she's an aristocrat and has amazing powers to see beyond time, and Sapphire being amazed that Ruby's courage upended what she thought was inevitable--and we get a peek at the way they look at each other.
What we do see more of is their decision to become a Fusion together--the ability the Gem characters have to meld into each other and become another person who represents their relationship. (But also the new Gem will have her own thoughts and feelings, her own new appearance, and her own attitude built from what her component Gems inspire in each other.) In Sapphire and Ruby's story, I think the Fusion relationship is a unique one--not just because she was the first of her kind in her society, but because the relationship between Ruby and Sapphire is now forever changed by how they feel about becoming another entity together. They will eventually fully love each other, but that love will always be influenced by what they've experienced as a Fusion.
And everything about their relationship is about possibility, opportunity, novelty, freshness, and power. Rubies in Gem society are supposed to be simple soldiers who do what they're told and fight with their comrades. Sapphires in Gem society are supposed to be wise seers who don't let their emotions affect what happens next. When Ruby made a choice that Rubies aren't supposed to make, Sapphire helplessly watched a future develop that wasn't in the plan. And both of them found what they'd rather be instead. I really appreciate that there was such a strong "supposed to" that the characters challenged without quite meaning to, and that leaving what they were accustomed to did cause them some distress. They had to find something new to be now that Ruby couldn't do what Rubies do and Sapphire couldn't do what Sapphires do. They realized there are multiple "supposed to's" for Gems like them, and fusing together into someone who had no "supposed to's" (because she wasn't supposed to exist) must have made it so much more joyous to explore what lay ahead.
The art is pretty special--lots of unsettling images (though nothing too scary), lots of beautiful images, and a different style from the cartoon--it's simplified and stylized, but it still gets plenty of emotion onto those little faces. The backgrounds are lovely as they generally are in the show, and the characters commenting on the text in a meta fashion and talking to each other from little alcoves (Sapphire above, Ruby below) was really powerful. There's narration, but there's also Sapphire and Ruby saying how they felt about what was happening, and expressing opinions about each other's statements and caring about each other's distress. Eventually, they go into each other's chambers, comment on how they feel, and share their perspectives. It seems simple but it's quite a nuanced metaphor and I think a lot of children will understand it despite the complexity.
Speaking of complexity, there are some concepts here that I think render this book most appropriate for people who have context from watching the TV show. The fusion concept isn't presented all that accessibly to new fans, and if you haven't seen the show before you don't know that when Gems' physical form is destroyed, they reform later (if their Gem isn't smashed). You don't get introduced to Pearl even though she's there, and you have no context for the illustration of Blue Diamond (and her Pearl), and even though Garnet is mentioned in the online description of the book, she's not called by name in the story itself (just like in the episode). It's also a little unclear in the book (but not the cartoon) why the other Gems were furious at them for fusing, but I guess the story had to be kept simple. There's also some complex language in the book--vocabulary words children in the target group probably won't see in school for a few more years--but the presentation makes me think they will have context to pick it up. I remember doing that a lot as a kid with children's books that slipped in an advanced word here and there.
I was hoping for a couple things I didn't get, but I don't blame books for not fulfilling expectations they didn't promise to fulfill. I was really hoping to hear a little more about the moment of Sapphire and Ruby's first fusion, because in the show fusion is supposed to be about being on the same wavelength, and it seemed almost incongruous that they could have fused at that moment amidst all that confusion. If they did, they must have temporarily wanted the same thing. I know what Ruby wanted--to save Sapphire--but I would have loved to see a glimpse of Sapphire wanting to be saved rather than just being sort of blindsided by the rescue. I would have been really interested to see more of that moment of escape into their unheard-of spontaneous relationship--the action that changed who they were figuratively and literally (not to mention saving the planet).
The overall package is really precious and looks the way it should--like an age-appropriate, fairy-tale-esque storybook that doesn't have anything strange or inappropriate at all. I can't even imagine reading this to a child and having them stop me to ask "wait, ARE THEY TWO GIRLS??" because it's just so smooth and well told, and the characters' casually presented embraces and nonchalant closeness uses the same cues we'd expect to see on a Disney princess dancing with her prince. It's just Not. An. Issue. Not in the book. Outside of the book, I imagine it will be. I hope the hubbub it creates is primarily positive.
And now, of course, it's made even more clear in this book that Garnet doesn't ask questions in the show because Rose told her not to and she took it quite literally. (She seems to get around asking questions with tricky wording, though, like instead of "What did you see?" she'll say "Tell me what you saw.") If you already ARE the answer, what questions could you need to ask?
And I've got to say Rebecca Sugar dedicating the book to Ian Jones-Quartey is really sweet.
I'm very glad that this world exists and is so welcoming to anyone who happens upon it.
Some people may say it's a bit too close to the actual episode, "The Answer", but I felt it added just enough of a different voice and really drove home the answer you look for in the story in a different way. I hope there are more books like this on the way.