The definition of bullying in many school boards follows this sort of formula: In order to qualify as bullying, there must be some sort of power dynamic – or “imbalance” – at play, and the bully is the one holding that power over the head of the bullied.
But, as many teachers and young adults can ask, what if the bullying is more of an overall feeling, a general tendency to universally dismiss or scoff at the bullied individual? How do you send the entire school to the office?
Operatic, a gorgeous and thoughtful new graphic novel from Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, explores the aftermath of this bullying, documenting the absence of the universally shunned. Meanwhile, the novel thoughtfully portrays the musical epiphany and blossoming self-awareness of the protagonist, eighth-grade Charlie, in a refreshingly authentic way.
From the start of this brief graphic novel, it is clear that the illustrations are the real strength of the piece. Later in the novel, two frames follow Charlie and the beautiful, quiet, beekeeping Emile as they walk through the city, their surroundings transforming into visual representations of city sound: music, vibration, horns, passing cars. These sounds grow into what appears to be a garden, forming and following them as they move together.
The characters are complex. There is Mr. Kerner (Mr K), for example, the inspirational teacher archetype who, while pushing the students to think beyond their immediate experiences and providing them with creative learning opportunities, is also woefully unprepared for the classroom bullying that ensues. His comments of “quit it” and “go to the office” clearly do nothing to prevent the tender, whimsical, and surprisingly bold Luka from disappearing from school. Mr K. assigns an inspirational music project, he plays songs he wrote in his youth (*cringe*), but Luka’s desk remains unoccupied. The days go on, the class becomes empowered by tales of Patti Smith, but Luka is still missing.
Sometimes, the trend-based dialogue (“OMG post it!”; “You slay”) is too specific for a graphic novel that hopes to reach a wide variety of young readers, but the instances are infrequent and not excessively distracting.
Another small disappointment was the lack of detail involved in narrating Charlie’s discovery of Maria Callas. Much of this short graphic novel delves into a Wikipedia-esque summary of the life of Callas, while what the young adult reader likely wants is to experience Callas through the eyes of Charlie. The illustrations come to the rescue here, as Eggenschwiler cleverly portrays Charlie and Callas as mirror images of each other at points throughout the novel. Charlie and Callas looking out the same window, Charlie playing Callas’s character on stage, etc.
Opera and middle school may seem worlds apart. As Operatic demonstrates, however, the melodrama, passion, and universality of both connect these two in deep ways.
Middle school libraries should display this book in plain sight.
Operatic – Written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Byron Eggenschwiler
Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press
Young adult graphic novel – Release date: April 2, 2019
Thank you to Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press and NetGalley for the advanced reader copy of this graphic novel.