I grew up in a household where time for activities like watching television or playing videogames was a privilege reserved for only when I no longer had the energy to complete actually productive pursuits. “They rot your brain,” my parents offered as reasonable rationale. With a young, developing mind, books were obviously encouraged. Thankfully, even playing with toys was permissible since my parents supported any activity that effectively engaged the mind. The imagination is a powerful tool and a fantastically useful thing to have. Since childhood innocence is so fleeting, imagination should be emboldened before it organically subsides to the wild emotions of puberty and the pragmatism of adulthood. Nowhere is this view more expertly espoused than in Erica Austin’s Against the Grain.
I’ve read enough stories and watched enough shows where the cheekiness of a child protagonist paints them as a bit of a nuisance that “needs to grow up.” But the main character here, Leslie, practically exudes charm. I don’t shake my head at her antics or the mistakes she makes. Rather, I smile at and adore her unique perspective. Think about how you approached puberty- I’d wager it was probably with some mixture of embarrassment, confusion, and fear. Leslie imagines tackling the oncoming threat head-on with a katana. Her personality (and taste in pop culture memorabilia) is so effortlessly likeable that I find it a bit melancholic to think that this series might end with Leslie growing out of her imaginative habits and changing into what society deems acceptable.
That said, I love the commentary on how society dictates what either gender is "supposed" to enjoy so early on in life (blue is for boys, pink is for girls, etc). It tends to shape how individuals grow and what their perception of others might be. Our female lead is often judged for her interests in activities and items that are “meant for boys” and her mother does her best to instill in her daughter a more feminine side. It’s a strikingly accurate and sad reflection of how some norms of archaic social standards continue along unaltered.
Viewed as a bit of an outcast in her formative years, Leslie finds solace and comfort within her own resourceful mind. And in there, the audience is invited to traverse through inventive and adventurous worlds, watching Leslie view and overcome the emotional struggles that real life throws her way. Now even though it's consistently stellar, it's during these imaginative escapades that the sublime art shines the most. The designs are creative, the scenes are dynamic, each panel is full of crisp detail, and the coloring is always spot-on in reflecting the mood of the scene; the art is absolutely fantastic.
The sheer range of styles is so elegantly executed – from the manga-inspired, bombastic duel against a samurai soldier wielding a weapon that launches a certain part of the anatomy (I don’t want to spoil it since it’s surprisingly humorous in its innocence) to the folksy, Aesop’s Fable-like presentation of a man’s life-altering discovery on a mountaintop – that it’s like viewing several different comics in one.
This diversity keeps the narrative moving at such a stimulating pace, jumping from scenario to scenario with some self reflection thrown in for good measure, that the book ends much too quickly for my tastes. That’s not particularly a bad thing. It’s actually a testament to how wonderfully written and illustrated this story is; there’s absolutely no filler to be had here.
Perhaps it’s due to my age and inability to again view the world in the way that she does, but I eagerly await the opportunity to rejoin Leslie and escape with her in her endlessly creative, adventure-filled, coming-of-age tale.
TL;DR: Beautiful art accompanies a wonderful lead character in this imaginative tale of growing up. Read this book!
A review copy of Against the Grain was graciously provided to Spandexless by the creator.