In the middle grade graphic novel Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (Dial Books, March 2019), Astrid finds her interests differing from that of her best friend Nicole for the first time. Although Astrid wants to try an exciting new hobby the summer before sixth grade, Nicole wants to keep it safe by going to ballet camp. Now Astrid needs to find the confidence to keep up with the others in the challenging new world of roller derby while also making new friends and trying to make right decisions. Astrid’s strength is admirable, and the lessons she learns about friendship are well illustrated in both word and image, creating a memorable and emotional novel well worth the Newbery Honor in 2016, her tween rebellions not withstanding.
Roller Girl is not just about the violent (and previously unknown to me) sport of roller derby. It is overall a story about a lonely girl striving to make friends. She must question what makes a friend, how is she a friend, and what does friendship mean overall. Friendship is the most universal concept in middle grade novels, so Roller Girl is no exception. But something feels fresh about Jamieson’s take on this familiarity. Maybe it is because the girls at roller derby seem so different (hair styles, experience, etc.). Or maybe it is just because of the sincerity in which the novel is written. At any rate, Astrid’s realizations about friendship don’t feel cliché.
Her new hobby is also all encompassing in terms of physical demands. Astrid wonders from the beginning if she is strong enough to do roller derby, and even as she gets stronger, she wonders if she can succeed when it gets more difficult. While most tween girls are not trying roller derby, the feelings of inadequacy are written and illustrated in such a compelling and universal way that all can relate. By the end, the reader is certainly cheering for her success, even if it comes about in way she wasn’t expecting. She gets guidance and directions from her roller derby hero, Rainbow Bite, whom she sends secret notes asking for advice. Rainbow Bite shares what really matters when striving for success in roller derby, tips that can be easily applied to life in general.
Another aspect of Astrid’s summer is her growing freedom from her mom. I’ll admit, as a parent of a soon-to-be sixth grader, I strongly disliked Astrid’s disobedience, lying, and secrets. She lied about Nicole’s mom bringing her home from practice (since Nicole wasn’t in roller derby camp at all), so she roller skated home across town each day. She went to a friend’s house (not the one her mom thought she was with) and died her hair blue. She invited a friend home even though her mom had a strict rule about friends coming over. In short, her choices are ones that have prompted me to not let me 11-year-old daughter be unsupervised at her age!
In many ways, Astrid’s story feels painful. It’s so hard to navigate friendships, both new ones and old ones. It physically seemed painful as she learned roller derby. It was painful to get stronger. It was painful for her to learn the hard way of consequences for bad decisions (yes, she did get in trouble when her mother found out about her lying). It is always painful to try and hope for success and not attain it, even when you’ve given your all.
Astrid’s hero helps her, her friends help her, and even before that, she helps others too. Time and the process of learning help her succeed, although helping her team score a point was not quite what she had in mind since she was knocked out in the process! She and her old friends are nicely reconciled, although, of course, things will always be different between them now. Astrid has new friends and interests now as she grows into her unique teenage self.
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