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roller girl

17 may 2016

Roller Girl, Victoria Jamieson's 2016 Newbery Honor book, continues a recent lineage of serious children's sport fiction that goes back at least as far as Sherman Alexie's 2007 Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and descends through Kwame Alexander's 2014 Crossover. Sport fiction has never gotten away from the eternal themes of a team coming together to win the Big Game, but the teams and sports are changing, and the way sport matters across shifting social alignments and the decline of old certainties continues to be renegotiated.

The sport here is roller derby, the participants are girls, the Big Game is a Big Bout, and the medium is graphic novel – aside from all that, we're in the territory of children's pulp sport stories from William Heyliger through Matt Christopher. Except that Roller Girl isn't pulp, either. It has pulpy, comic-book energies and pre-teen chick-lit themes, but as I said, it's serious fiction. It's a coming-of-age story set among a diverse group of girls in an America not overdetermined by old cultural clichés and not yet settled into new ones. It's readable, colorful, varied, exciting, and affecting.

And Roller Girl absolutely passes the Bechdel Test. Narrator Astrid, her old best friend Nicole, her new friend Zoey, and her many roller-derby mentors and teammates waste almost none of Roller Girl talking about boys. (Early on, a boy named "Adam Bishop" appears in a single panel to attract the girls' attention, but he's more part of the scenery than a realized character.) Jamieson owes a debt to the visual style of Bechdel's Fun Home, and to Bechdel's insistence on having women tell their own stories. Bechdel, of course, tells adult, lesbian stories. Writing for children, Jamieson avoids sex but also elides romance. Astrid has jealousies, crushes of sorts, friendships that evolve through cycles of trust and pre-teen betrayal, but she doesn't fall in puppy love with a child of any gender. Adult sexuality, gay and straight, surely lies just beyond Astrid's horizon, but it's nobody's business. The sexual insulation of children's literature serves all the more to highlight a story of girls working (and competing) together in a milieu where they are personalities (underscored by vivid roller-derby names) rather than sexual roles.

Astrid's single mother introduces her daughter to a range of "cultural heritage" activities, from opera and art museums to West Side Story (part of her Puerto Rican heritage, which is briefly mentioned and then dropped; it's part of a mixed heritage, and whatever her heritage, Astrid has other problems to worry about than representing ethnic identity). One of the cultural events that Astrid attends with her mom is roller derby, making an unpredictable appearance in the midst of more highbrow stuff, speaking to the eclectic way each of us builds a personal profile of interests out of the offerings of American culture. Opera and art didn't captivate Astrid, but roller derby does, immediately, though she can barely skate when she starts summer roller-derby camp.

The new kid has to make the team, and at the same time to negotiate exchanges between the world she's used to, the new one that's opening up via this new community, and her private pre-teen loneliness. She experiences abject incompetence, dogged determination, unwarranted hubris (though I guess nobody experiences warranted hubris, do they?); she lives through rejection, super-mild hazing of sorts, unlooked-for support, and eventual acceptance. Will her team win the Big Bout? Will she be a factor in their victory? C'mon, read the book.

Jamieson, Victoria. Roller Girl. New York: Dial [Penguin Random House], 2015. Kindle Edition. PZ 7.7 .J36RO