Review of the Day: Frizzy by Claribel A. Ortega, ill. Rose Bousamra
Children’s books in which authority figures perpetuate hurtful beauty standards are becoming increasingly common these days. From the colorism of Genesis Begins Again to the fatphobia of Starfish, it’s not just that parents don’t understand. It’s that a kid can’t take comfort in a parental figure since it’s that very figure that’s making them feel miserable all the time. And in this respect Frizzy may outshine them all. It’s a collaboration of Claribel Ortega and Rose Bousamra and somehow manages to be deeply realistic and magical all at once. You don’t just identify with Marlene, the main character of this book. You are her. Balancing its messaging with great storytelling, character development, and the magic trick of making a mother character both the antagonist and loving, Frizzy is a roller coaster ride of emotions in a single, simple, quick to read little package. I like my moralizing not to feel like moralizing. As such, this is my new favorite book.
Torture. Sheer unmitigated torture. That’s how Marlene feels about going to the salon with her mother every Sunday to have her naturally curly hair straightened and styled. It’s a battle she can never win, no matter how much she begs. After her cousin’s quinceanera, this rebellion is matched only by her mother’s determination to control her daughter’s hair. An incident at school where Marlene releases her hair from braids and kids start sticking things in her frizz causes the girl to reach her boiling point. Fortunately, her Tia Ruby is there to help. With hair as curly as Marlene’s she explains why their family have always equated straight hair with “good hair” and teaches her niece how to take care of her own. But will they be able to convince Marlene’s mom? Can curly hair truly be beautiful?
I love books about process and they don’t get much process-ier than Frizzy. There aren’t all that many children’s books about attitudes about how “good hair” means white hair, though there are a few. As I read Frizzy I was reminded of the remarkable picture book by Cozbi A. Cabrera, My Hair is a Garden, which at the time took a incredibly deep dive into hair love and hair recovery. In Cabrera’s case is focuses on precisely what it takes to heal and grow beautiful Black hair. In Frizzy there’s a similar sequence of self-care but with the extra added advantage of panels that really show you the step-by-step process. In a way, Ortega and Bousamra have taken all the best aspects of a Tiktok How To video on hair care and formatted it into a highly readable book. A warning though: This book is about to make a bunch of straight-haired kids very very jealous.
My husband’s an author of books that explain how to engage audiences with your writing. When it comes to creating compelling characters, there are a number of tips and tricks he offers. For example, when we meet Marlene, Ms. Ortega does a number of things to get you on her side right from the start. She’s insulted by the hair stylist, who continually tsks and puts her down, while praising her mother’s hair. She’s in pain. She’s hungry. And then, when she goes to her cousin’s quince, she’s continually picked on by her relatives. This all happens within the first 42 pages and the combination is hugely successful. You aren’t just in Marlene’s court now. You would fight for her. You wanna grab that snotty blond cousin of hers and give her a good strong shake. You want someone to snap some sense into Marlene’s mom. Of course, the book runs the danger of heaping too much misery on poor Marlene. Readers have a limit at which they’ll be able to take all this depressing information and at times Ms. Ortega comes dangerously close to overtipping the balance. Fortunately for all parties involved, there’s a good ebb and flow of feelings. You’re never overwhelmed by her misery. Just pumped up to see her situation change.
Identification in Frizzy isn’t reserved for the main character alone, though. Sometimes I’ll read a comic with my daughter and she’ll start decrying how “evil” one person or another is. We haven’t read Frizzy together yet, but if I know her she’ll point a finger at the mom early on and pin that same label to her. But what separates a book of this sort from other, more simple, comics is how it treats its baddies. Now admittedly Marlene’s cousin Diana is without so much as a hint of human feeling or empathy. She’s fairly one-dimensional. Marlene’s mother, the arbitrator of her woes, is a different story. While she’s the one primarily responsible for her daughter’s misery, we see through Tia Ruby how, in a way, she’s also a victim of bad attitudes towards curly hair, passed down through generations. Ortega cleverly front-ends that right at the beginning of the book when Marlene is expected to simply take the mean things her relatives say about her. Tia Ruby is the saving grace here, and is able to humanize her own sister so that while I’m sure there will be plenty of kids that have hardened their hearts to the woman for her sins, others will see the part of her that simply chalks up salon visits to being a good mom.
I guess if we can credit Smile by Raina Telgemeier with anything at all, it may be that it popularized the idea that serious realistic fiction stories about real life problems can not only be successful in a graphic novel form, but alluring to kids in a whole different way than a novel or memoir might be. Let us now raise a glass to the art of Rose Bousamra then. Creating sequential art is a rough gig. In recent years (in part thanks to the aforementioned Telgemeier) we’ve seen the publisher’s comic book output for kids finally beginning to meet the demand. At the same time, though, that means that there’s a lot of schlock getting produced. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more frustrating than reading a graphic novel, only to find that you simply cannot follow the action. The artist has to be able to lead the eye of the reader from panel to panel so seamlessly than you never stop and think, “Wait. I think I missed something. I need to go back.” That reaction never once came up with Bousamra’s art. On top of that, these characters come alive under their pen. They take up space in the world. They sweat and breathe and move and clunk about. They have weight and balance. More please.
Is it all perfect? Nothing in life in perfect. When pressed I can say that there may be a bit of a deux ex auntina element to this story. I mean, it’s very lucky indeed that Marlene not only has a sympathetic aunt but also one that shares her kind of hair AND is willing to share hair care tips and tricks. Still and all, without Tia Ruby this would be an incredibly depressing story OR the hero of the day would be some social media influencer and that doesn’t make for good storytelling. Good storytelling engages and wraps you up in the life of someone else. And this year (2022) I’ve seen loads of comics where the protagonist struggles with something. OCD, ADHD, sexuality, drugs, etc. They don’t all stand out like Frizzy does. Without moralizing or preaching, Ortega has given us a glimpse into a different kind of generational trauma and shows how it is our children that can break the cycle at last. Necessary storytelling in a format we can all enjoy.
On shelves October 18th
Source: Galley received 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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