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Roller Girl Paperback – March 10, 2015
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I think it would resonate best with kids who are 9-to-14--a time when children run into a lot of misunderstandings coupled with hormones. I remember being exactly that age as a couple long-term friends and I split apart with our differences. The main character (Astrid) has a lot of intense emotions that are experienced at that age and comes to the understanding that she was actually part of the issue when it comes to the demise of her friendship with her best friend (Nicole). She realizes she was caught up in her own world and stopped paying attention to the person Nicole grew into. They seemed to make peace they were taking different paths, but it's up in the air whether or not they will be friends. It seems like a parent could mention is that it's okay (good even) to have friends in different aspects of your life. They don't have to share all your interests. You don't have to part ways even if the main things you love are very different.
I am not completely sure about the message at the end. Astrid chooses to eat dinner with her roller derby friends instead of Nicole after the game. That is okay except Astrid leaves Nicole's gift of flowers at the bleachers. I know it's meant to be powerfully symbolic, but it seems so wasteful. Why not regift them?
But perhaps I am overthinking this. The book is still a good message for girls as we woman are too often pressured to put others' feelings in front of ours or hang onto a relationship as long as possible—which actually makes things worse. It also touches on a subject that seems to be pretty universal for tweens and young teens—even those who don't play/like roller derby.
Astrid’s passion for roller derby ignites when Ms. Vasquez takes Astrid and her best friend, Nicole, to their first derby bout. Afterward, Astrid can talk of nothing but the derby and fails to notice that Nicole doesn’t share her excitement. Come on, how could she not? Check out the theater of it all: the players’ costumes and wild hair colors, the electricity of the crowd, and the take-no-prisoners energy that drives the sport. Astrid even discovers an idol in Rainbow Bite, a star jammer for the Rose City Rollers, who exemplifies roller derby’s ferocity and skill. Astrid loves the fact that there’s nothing girlie or restrained about roller-derby culture, and when she hears about summer camp for junior players, she’s chomping at the bit to sign up. Best friends do everything together, right? This assumption crumbles when Nicole reveals that she’s planning to attend dance camp instead, along with Rachel, Astrid’s one true nemesis from their early elementary days.
With Nicole’s “desertion,” Astrid has to face the first day at derby camp alone. From there, complications abound. Ms. Vasquez is under the impression that Nicole’s mom will give Astrid a ride home at the end of each day’s session. Astrid is afraid to tell her mom that Nicole isn’t participating, as this would lead to all sorts of questions Astrid wants to avoid. As a result, the lies she must tell and the long walks home she must endure only add to the drama of those first grueling weeks at the rink. Did I mention that Astrid discovers she’s a lousy skater?
Despite aching muscles and botched skill drills, Astrid persists and finds new motivations as she enters more deeply into the world of her chosen sport. The camp coaches balance demanding practices with timely pep talks, and Astrid strikes up a friendship with Zoey, a camper her age. Another boost comes in the form of a correspondence with Rainbow Bite that starts when Astrid discovers the star jammer’s locker and begins leaving notes for her. (Rainbow proves a generous celebrity and writes back with inspiring tips.)
None of these triumphs mean that Astrid transforms into a roller derby standout; what matters are the personal victories that she achieves over the course of the summer, including earning the respect of her teammates and figuring out some important things about who she is and what sort of friend she wants to be.
Roller Girl succeeds on multiple levels. Through a lively narrative and a rich visual landscape, it draws readers into the fascinating world of roller derby, often explaining the rules and strategies of a sport unfamiliar to many through clever diagrams and dramatized scenes. Through these invitations to explore the sport, it portrays women and girls as highly capable both physically and intellectually. Readers get a clear sense that women can—and should—take on tough challenges.
In addition, Roller Girl gives us a Latina character comfortable with her ethnic identity and shows us Anglo characters who are equally accepting. Astrid’s Latina background doesn’t even emerge until page 54, and only much later do we learn that the family is Puerto Rican. This information comes across casually, as just another cool detail about the main character. At least this is how Astrid’s new friend Zoey takes the information when Astrid reveals it during a scene in which West Side Story plays in the background.
Astrid says to Zoey, “I’ve seen this movie! My mom made me watch this for an evening of Puerto Rican cultural heritage. Or something.” (At first blush, the idea that an adult puertorriqueña would push this movie as representative of her culture struck me as improbable. I associate West Side Story with racial stereotypes, discriminatory casting—white actors playing the Puerto Rican leads—and the problematic practice of filming lighter-skinned Latino actors in brown-face. But after asking around, I learned that not all Latinos recoil at the legacy of West Side Story, and many view Rita Moreno’s dynamic, Oscar-winning performance as a cause for celebration.)
In general, my sense is that ethnicity may not be central to the story, yet it gives readers additional exposure to a positively framed diverse character who faces the same challenges most 12-year-olds face. In fact, one of the biggest ways that Roller Girl succeeds is in its depiction of Astrid’s emotional journey. It delivers an honest and satisfying ride through many of the complex social and internal upheavals of middle-school life. I particularly like the author’s portrayal of mixed emotions. On one page, a central panel depicts a kindergarten poster of cartoon faces bearing unambiguous expressions. The caption reads: “The feelings were all simple ones, like ‘happy’ and ‘sad.’ They didn’t tell you about feelings that got mixed together like a smoothie.” In the next panel, Astrid contemplates exactly such “mixed together” feelings, the result of running into Nicole after weeks of separation. Astrid is happy to see her former best friend yet sad about the emotional distance that stands between them now. Out of this, she coins a new word, “shad,” a distillation of those contradictory feelings—happy and sad. This moment of acceptance that emotions are complex seems to me a marker that a character is coming of age.
As happens with the best of sports stories, Roller Girl follows a character’s trajectory through brutal training challenges, inevitable setbacks, as well as moments of triumph–and elevates these into something beyond athletic achievement. At twelve, Astrid is finding her way in the world. Some of her falls are literal and happen on the skating rink. Some are relational and emotional, and arrive without the benefit of coaches to teach her how to land injury-free. The important thing is that after each fall, Astrid is learning how to dust herself off and get back into the game.
On a side note, this graphic novel is broken up into easy-to-read chapters and has a story line that is A) ORIGINAL, and B) WELL-WRITTEN. There are moments where you have to reconsider your own ideas and you want the character to make different moves, but that is the GOOD part about it. Allowing a protagonist to make mistakes is part of realism that is necessary for a person to relate.
It is also really important that she did not instantly go from novice to expert, and that all her hard work did not culminate in her exactly dream fulfillment. She had to be committed and focused, and managed to get better. That is all for which anyone might ask.
I just wanted there to be more than one book. What happens to Astrid after these events? If the book is still called "Roller Girl" then she must stick with roller derby, but what does she do.