Review of the Day: Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz
Have you ever tried to write a mystery? You’ll never respect your favorite mystery writers as greatly as when you try to pen one of those puppies yourself. Kids love mysteries too. I remember when I was in sixth grade or so, I discovered my very first Agatha Christie at a Scholastic Book Fair (I believe it was Murder on the Orient Express). From there on in I was hooked. But younger kids these days can get their kicks with book series like “Cam Jansen” or “A to Z Mysteries”. One place where mysteries are almost wholly absent is in the graphic novel section of your library or bookstore. Certainly you might find a couple supernatural mysteries, and the occasional Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys adaptation but original mysteries are difficult to track down. Now that we’re seeing such an uptick in the sheer number of comics published in a given year by trade publishers, it’s strange to me that realistic mysteries aren’t abundant. But maybe it all goes back to my first sentence here. Good mysteries are shockingly difficult to write. That’s why I’m so thrilled to encounter Gillian Goerz’s new “Shirley and Jamila” series. Firmly rooted in reality, the book tips its hat low to Sherlock Holmes but maintains an originality entirely of its own. More of the same, please!!
Two girls, one problem. Jamila Waheed is facing a possible summer of dreaded science camp. Shirley Bones, a girl she met once at a garage sale, is also facing the prospect of unwanted camps, so the two strike up a deal. Convincing their mothers, they will spend the summer together instead. But being friends with Shirley means contending with the fact that she’s not your average 10-year-old girl. Shirley’s a child detective, and right now she’s working on a very serious case. Two kids have had their gecko stolen from the public pool. There are no witnesses, and it’s not the first time someone has stolen from them. Will Shirley and Jamila solve the case? Or are they truly too different to be friends at all?
Since Goerz has taken some of the trappings of a Sherlock Holmes story and worked them into her tale, once I’d actually figured out the Sherlock connection I pretty much expected to find myself reading a middle grade equivalent of The Study in Scarlet. Instead, Goerz has fashioned for herself an entirely original mystery. Yet while she hasn’t replicated Doyle’s plots, she’s put a firm finger on the pulse of what makes everyone love Sherlock Holmes books. Shirley’s ability to deduce via details is exceedingly fun. There’s this marvelous part at the beginning where she and Jamila are sitting on a stoop and she’s telling Jamila impossible facts about the people walking by. Speaking of Jamila, as I was reading the book there was something that was kind of bugging me about it. Jamila’s one of those super rare Arab-American contemporary kid protagonists we don’t see a lot of in books these days. But if Shirley is Sherlock then that would make Jamila Watson, and nobody wants to be a Watson, right? Public perception of Watson is that he’s a nice but sort of doddering buffoon. And trust me, you don’t want your strong Pakistani-Canadian female protagonist just tagging along after some white genius girl. So what Goerz does instead is head this problem off at the pass. The book is almost entirely Jamila’s p.o.v. She’s sporty and fun and genuinely interested in Shirley as a person. Shirley’s smart, sure, but she’s also entirely socially inept and has a lot to learn about being a good friend. What that means is that Jamila has as much to offer her as she has to offer to Jamila. It doesn’t hurt any when Jamila says straight to Shirley’s face “I won’t be some silent sidekick.”
I’ve taken to reading a lot of comics to my kids lately. As I write this we’re in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that means having to constantly find reading material. Thanks to the rise of e-books, that’s not as difficult as it could once have been, but there’s no guarantee of quality when you’re reading so many comics in a given year. More frequently than not, my kids and I will find that while the creators of a graphic novel might have a beautiful style and a fun premise, inevitably the story will get confusing or the layouts all tangled. If I can’t follow what’s happening from panel to panel, what chance does a kid have? The nice thing is that when something works, you feel it deep in your soul. A good comic is one where all the disparate elements (the storytelling, art, character development, action, etc.) come together in this perfect little dance. The more complicated the plot and art, the more difficult it is to keep the dance going. And Shirley & Jamila is a magnificent example of this. Nothing about this book is simple, and yet nothing about it comes off as too confusing for a kid reader. I never had a moment where I couldn’t figure out where to rest my eye or a sequence where I didn’t know what happened because of poorly laid out visual elements.
Great credit should be given to Goerz’s art. But before I get into that, can I just say how dynamic her panels are? Some comic book creators bypass the problem of being incomprehensible by dumbing down their books’ designs. Goerz, in contrast, reminded me of a less frenetic Eleanor Davis (particularly The Secret Science Alliance). If you just pick up this book and flip through it, pay attention to how Goerz lays out each page. The design is nothing short of stunning. I swear, this is the kind of thing they should be teaching to up-and-coming middle grade comic artists. In my experience kids don’t necessarily appreciate this kind of thing when they’re young on a conscious level. They do, however, notice when it’s done poorly. I read this book in black and white in an early pre-publication form and while I appreciate that it’s going to be full-color, I kind of feel bad about it. When a book’s just black and white you get this really clear appreciation for its strong black lines. Just gorgeous.
When I was a kid I loved Encyclopedia Brown. He was ten-years-old. Shirley Bones is also ten-years-old. I like to think that isn’t a coincidence. And if there were any way to convince Gillian Goerz to crank these books out at the same rate that Donald Sobol did, the world would be a better place. Is the final reveal to the mystery in this story strictly fair? Maybe not entirely. I mean, it’s satisfying, but Goerz didn’t hand you all the pieces and ask you to solve it for yourself. She pretty much has Shirley do a little side detection work and then practically throws in a new character near the end. Even so, I can’t really mind. Some kids might feel a tad cheated, but the bulk of them will leave wanting more Shirley, more Jamila, and more of these books. Better give the people want they want. Surely they’ll need more.
Of course they will. And don’t call me Shirley.
On shelves July 14th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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