I just love First Second (:01), Macmillan's graphic novel imprint. Not only are the stories and art almost always good, the books themselves always look pretty. The binding is high quality, most are available as hardcovers, and the pages are thick and will hold up for many readings.
Anya's Ghost, Vera Brosgol's first graphic novel, is no exception. Teenaged Anya considers herself to be something of an outcast at school. Her family is Russian, and her mother understands nothing of what it's like to be a teenager in America. She insists that Anya eat fatty foods when Anya is trying to go on a diet, and she tries to get Anya to be friends with "fobby" Dima, a short Russian boy at her school who just doesn't understand why it's important to assimilate into the majority culture. What's more, Anya is crushing majorly on the school's star athlete, who will never notice her.
When teenaged Anya is out walking after a particularly bad day at school, she has the misfortune to fall down a well. Even more unfortunately, it looks as if someone else fell down the well, too, and her fate wasn't terribly rosy - she's now a skeleton. After a good freakout, Anya discovers that her companion is a ghost named Emily who died around the time of World War I. Emily's a bit irritating at first, but she starts to grow on Anya, and ultimately helps rescue Anya from the well by waking up Anya so she can call for help from a passerby above.
Anya is happy to leave the well and Emily, but she soon discovers that she has accidentally taken a piece of Emily's skeleton with her, allowing Emily to follow Anya home. The two start to develop a real friendship, something Anya desperately needs since she feels like such an outcast at school. Emily helps Anya cheat at tests, choose the right clothes for a party, and impress the boy she's been crushing on for years. Along the way, Emily shares the tragic story of her death, and Anya decides to keep Emily around for awhile.
Then things take a turn, and Emily's concern for Anya's life starts to morph into something a little closer to infatuation. Anya discovers that Emily may not be who she says she is - she may be something very dangerous indeed.
Neil Gaiman's blurb on the front cover calling this book a masterpiece is high praise indeed, and while I think Anya's Ghost is good, it's perhaps not that good. It's got a lot that any teen could relate to: issues of not fitting in at school, a weird family, an unrequited crush. The artwork is nicely done - it's got a generic cartoony feel to it, but Brosgol infuses real emotion into her facial expressions, so we always know when Anya is feeling scornful, anxious, excited, or ashamed. The muted blacks/whites/grays are perfect for a ghost story. I also really love the cover.
Despite all these positives, Brosgol spells out the lesson the reader is supposed to have learned at the end of the book, making it a bit didactic for my taste. The twist with Emily near the end adds some nice excitement to the story, but once it's revealed, the plot is fairly predictable from then on out.
I see some similarities with Deutsch's How Mirka Got Her Sword in that both involve the exploration of a culture very different from the average reader's - Jewish Orthodox for Mirka and Russian Orthodox for Anya. Both female leads are also highly spirited with a lot of personality and a good amount of intelligence. It's also got some parallels with Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese - both explore what it's like for a teen to feel divided between her parents' culture and the "American" culture, how it feels to not be accepted by your peers despite desperate attempts, and a twist at the end that makes the reader view the story in an entirely different light. I think Anya's Ghost would be a good readalike for both books. It's also got enough widespread appeal to please almost any audience.
Anya's Ghost will be on shelves June 7. Copy obtained from my local library who somehow got it early. Score.