A First Time for Everything by Dan Santat (First Second, February 2023) is a middle grade graphic novel memoir of Dan’s experiences when he was 13 years old and had the opportunity to explore Europe. Set in 1989, a different era for traveling, the novel captures the essence of that time. The story revolves around young Dan, who initially feels embarrassed and uncomfortable about not just the trip but with himself as a teenager. However, as he embarks on his journey, he discovers a world of new experiences.
Throughout the narrative, Dan tries a variety of new things, from sampling Fanta to experiencing his first kiss and getting lost in foreign cities. Dan emphasizes that our first experiences, whether making new friends or witnessing iconic landmarks like Wimbledon, are always memorable. His story is not only humorous but also insightful. The author’s words remind everyone of the amazing world waiting to be discovered. The entire journey is a great metaphor to everyone’s journey to self-awareness during the teen years.
A graphic novel was the perfect format for telling Dan’s adventure. Some pages had multiple panels of landmarks (labeled) to help emphasize how overwhelming sightseeing a city in a day must be. There is plenty of action in his story, but Dan’s feelings are also a huge part of his growth. Graphic novels are fantastic for emphasizing emotion. Zooming in, zooming out, color on cheeks, slight smiles, little glances, shoulder shrugs: these are the details in a graphic novel that tell the story just as much as the text.
If there is one aspect that bothered me, it was the lack of translation for the French and German phrases spoken by some characters. I was genuinely curious about their meaning, as Dan himself struggled with the language barrier. While this choice might have been intentional to portray 13-year-old Dan’s own confusion and frustration, I, as a reader, wished for footnote translations to understand the context fully. It likely also added a bit of humor.
While reading, I found myself nostalgically reflecting on my own travels and yearning for the same sense of adventure. Reading it made me long for a calmer time when people could explore freely without the fear that surrounds us today. I wish I could provide similar opportunities such as Dan’s for my own children.
I highly recommend A First Time for Everything to young adults and adults alike who seek a journey of self-discovery. (I’d suggest ages 12+, given the presence of smoking and drinking in Europe.) Dan’s story beautifully captures his growth in finding comfort in his own skin and gaining the confidence to try new things, during his European travels and upon returning home to start a new school year in high school.