Review of the Day: Shiny Misfits by Maysoon Zayid and Shadia Amin
I always say that you shouldn’t give up on a book until you’ve read twenty pages of it, but I don’t really mean that. Not really. I mean OTHER PEOPLE shouldn’t give up on a book until they’ve read a chunk of it. Me? I am a person filled to the brim with her own self-importance. Surely the rules do not apply to me. And with so many children’s books getting churned out year after year after year, surely I’ve earned myself the right to disregard a book after a page or two. Except that then I go and pick up a book like Shiny Misfits and the whole stick-with-it advice that I’m so blithely handing out to others seems pretty on the nose. I was two pages into this book and thought, “Nope! Not for me. I can’t pick up what this book is laying down.” But then my doggone eyeballs couldn’t stop moving across the pages. The jokes? They started to land. Slowly at first, then in a rapid-fire succession that meant I could hardly blink while reading. By the time I was on Chapter Two I had successfully hooked into the book’s unique syncopation. I tell you truly that maybe this isn’t a book for everyone but it’s definitely a book for those folks who want to see complicated characters cracking jokes, making mistakes, and having a fantastic time. Trust me. You ain’t never seen anything like it before.
Bay Ann doesn’t think she’s a star. She knows it! All she needs to do is just convince the rest of the world to see things her way. Step One: Win the school talent show with her best friends Michelle and Davey Matt (and that means beating her crush, the woefully talented Alyee Maq). Step Two: Enjoy the fame. Step one goes off without a hitch, as it turns out, but when Alyee appears to help Bay Ann on camera, his act of “heroism” for helping a girl with cerebral palsy is the actual act that goes viral. Locked into a death spiral of needing fame and alienating her friends, Bay Ann can’t see what’s important to her until it’s almost too late. Fortunately, when it comes to fame vs. friends, there’s no competition.
Here’s what I cannot quite understand. Maysoon Zayid? She’s a Palestinian-American comedian, which is awesome. So the frightening frequency with which she is able to successfully land a joke in this book? That is no surprise. What is surprising is how well her writing has adapted to a comic book format. So far I haven’t been able to track down any interviews where she talks about whether or not she grew up with comics or reads them a lot today. She must be a fan to a certain extent or she wouldn’t have made this book. But writing a graphic novel takes a lot of work. You have to figure out a rough approximation of page turns (for the sake of drama), silent vs. wordy panels, dramatic pauses, all that stuff. A good editor can walk a first time author through the process, and maybe that happened to a certain extent here, but it also feels like Ms. Zayid kinda has a knack for this sort of thing.
Years ago, I edited a middle grade anthology called Funny Girl which collected some of the funniest women working in the field of children’s literature together, and just sort of mushed ‘em all together into one big book. That book came out in 2017, and I’m beginning to think that I may have published it a good seven years too early. Had I but known about Maysoon Zayid’s eventual inclination to write for kids, I would have had some serious reasons to put the project on pause until she came around. Humor is subjective, of course, but this woman is good. What’s more, she knows how to translate that hilarity to the page. I just spent the better part of fifteen minutes right now trying to pull out the particularly funny passages in this book to quote here, only to come to the realization that it can’t be done. Each joke is strategically tied to whatever panel comes before and after it. Much of the humor is also in HOW the book is written. Bay Ann, her friends, her family, even her teachers and classmates, talk in this rapid-fire repartee. Some kids may not hitch into the groove correctly at the start and give up, but for a generation raised on TV shows where the speed of wit is a plus and not a minus, they’re going to find a good friend in Shiny Misfits.
Now the reason I think this book might be difficult for some folks is that Bay Ann’s no saint. In fact, she’s a greedy little thing. Self-centered. Entirely focused on what she wants, her needs, and that’s it. This isn’t a book where the main character starts out flawless and has to change the world around them. This is a book where the main character is going to need to do some major learning and growing before she gets anywhere near her goal. The trouble is that when she’s mean she is MEAN, man. Particularly when it comes to her friend Davey Matt. That poor guy puts up with more crap from both of his two best friends, and you never get the feeling they ever regret it that much. So your enjoyment of this book may rest in large part on how much you relate to old Davey Matt here.
Which naturally brings us to Bay Ann’s cerebral palsy (shared by her creator). CP shows up in different ways for different people, and Zayid isn’t here to explain everything to you right at the start. So kids will see Bay Ann dancing on the one hand, but need help navigating stairs or walking long distances without support. In an interview, Zayid commented that her goal with this book was not to zero in on Bay Ann’s CP but not to ignore it either. So she strikes this tricky, but ultimately successful, balance between acknowledging what Bay Ann’s dealing with, and then also placing the focus on another aspect of her life entirely. It’s skillfully done, honestly, and a lot of that credit also has to be given to how she’s drawn.
Artist Shadia Amin isn’t new to the comics game, but I think it’s fair to say that this is her first straight up graphic novel with a traditional (and huge) children’s book publisher. I mean, Spider-Ham is great, but I doubt those stories are usually of this length and girth. Her job is to also figure out how to draw Bay Ann, and figure out how to do so with a certain level of accuracy. From what I understand, she met with the author at least once, and Maysoon Zayid’s form of CP involves shaking. I actually hadn’t noticed it at first, but to convey this, Amin does have small shake lines around Bay Ann at certain times. But just as Zayid had to walk a tightrope with her writing, so too does Amin walk a tightrope with how she portrays her main character. Body positions, the ways in which she so much as sits on a couch, all of that must have been carefully worked out alongside the book’s author. Sometimes when someone writes a book, they’re kept far away from their illustrator by their editor. In this case, it looks like the two worked in tandem to reach the best possible result.
You know, we’re finally seeing a plethora of comics for kids coming out on a regular basis. That’s awesome. The downside is that whenever a particular genre of book for kids gets popular, there’s the danger of a large swath of them looking samey samey. At first glance of this cover, Shiny Misfits seems like it would be another one of those just-be-yourself pablum delivery systems. Instead, you get jokes that land (and land hard), a vegetarian Muslim girl with cerebral palsy who gets to be weird and complicated and funny, and a storyline that I’ve certainly not encountered before in a book for kids. Bound to win over fans and a hell of a lotta hearts as well, this is one cool book. Like it or not, Bay Ann is here to stay.
On shelves April 16th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Look, don’t take my word on any of this. Author/comedian Maysoon Zayid talked about it at length at the New York Comic Con in 2023, so hear about it for yourself:
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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