ALL’S FAIRE IN MIDDLE SCHOOL
Written and illustrated by Victoria Jamieson
248 pp. Dial Books. $12.99.
(Graphic novel; ages 9-12)
Victoria Jamieson’s Newbery-Honor-winning debut graphic novel, “Roller Girl,” was terrific; her “All’s Faire in Middle School” is even better. It’s the epic of Impy, a.k.a. Imogene, an 11-year-old homeschooled girl who’s grown up in the world of Renaissance faires. Dad is one of the principal actors, and mom runs the shoppe. This season’s looking great: Impy’s finally old enough to be a squire, helping to create atmosphere (pointing a Fairegoer toward an A.T.M., she confides, “It is a box that prints out paper money! They say Merlin himself did make it!”) and pitching in with the human chess match and the joust. And just as exciting, she’s starting public school for the first time.
Alas, as it turns out, the rules of middle school are even more complex than the rules of swordplay. Impy has her first encounter with a queen bee and has to navigate the confusing power plays of popularity. She discovers the terror of figuring out where to sit in the cafeteria (“this was worse than being trapped in a deep pit, being clawed at by trolls and earthworms”). For the first time, she realizes that she has the wrong brands of shoes and jeans, and that her family has less money than other kids’ families. She also has to contend with a power-trippy science teacher. (He introduces himself to the class with, “My name is DOCTOR MacGregor. Not MISTER MacGregor. I did not go to school for eight years to be called MISTER MacGregor.”)
Impy struggles to juggle (figuratively and literally) and makes mistakes. Sometimes she behaves execrably. “All’s Faire” features the most nuanced portrayal of bullying I’ve seen in a middle-school book, showing how even good kids can be bullies. At one point, Impy says, “All along I thought I was the knight in the story, doing good and fighting evil. But really, I was the dragon.” The fact that we all have a dragon inside us, and must choose kindness and bravery, is a hugely valuable lesson that Jamieson delivers without any didacticism.
Like any Ren Faire, the book has a huge cast of characters and a ton of action, but Jamieson keeps all the balls in the air without breaking a sweat. She addresses racism (Impy’s dad is dark-skinned, and a customer at the pool-supply store where he works when not playing a medieval villain calls him “amigo” in an unfriendly way), class differences, mean-girl doings, and how to apologize effectively — and none of it feels belabored.
The art seems equally effortless. Each chapter starts with a full-page panel that looks like an illuminated manuscript, with borders full of scrollwork, bunnies, dragons, jousters and heraldic crests, but the chapters themselves unfold in straightforward, artistically uncluttered, easy-to-follow style. And though there’s a lot of talking, the art feels kinetic; when Impy’s little brother Felix throws a remote at her (Jamieson draws it spinning midair, with motion lines shooting out behind it clear out of the frame), Impy flees, arms goofily outstretched and mouth agape. The art matches the text in humor: Jamieson draws Felix’s ancient, ratty stuffed squirrel Tiffany as a squashed, dark scribble. Impy’s nemesis Mika lives in a multiturreted princess castle with a rainbow arching behind it.
The story has shades of “Harriet the Spy,” Monty Python, and Peanuts (though Charlie Brown says AAUGH! and Impy prefers AAAAAGH!), and the ending is tremendously satisfying without feeling false or unearned. “All’s Faire in Middle School,” I dub thee brilliant.
Continue reading the main story