‘Curlfriends: New In Town’ reminds us that there can be positives of middle school

Middle school. For teens, tweens, and their parents, the two words can evoke heavy doses of anxiety, fear, even horror.

Kids are, all of sudden, really growing up. Their bodies are changing in unexpected ways; they’re shedding some of their childhood interests and styles, and trying on new ones, for better and — sometimes — for worse. Friendships form, are torn apart, recalibrate. Crushes abound. In the classroom, academic expectations amplify.

Cover of Curlfriends: New in TownBut some books — like the new graphic novel, Curlfriends: New In Town, the first volume in a debut young adult series written and drawn by author and artist Sharee Miller — remind us of the many possibilities and excitements interwoven within those challenging years.

The book follows 12-year-old Charlie Harper, beginning around her first day of middle school, which she transfers into three weeks after the year has started. Charlie has spent most of her young life abroad, moving from school to school as her family followed her father’s job in the U.S. Air Force. Now he has retired from that job, and the three are settling down in the neighborhood where her parents grew up. Her mother is returning to work full-time as a pediatrician for the first time since Charlie was born. Her father is starting a new business with his childhood friend, and he will now be the parent who is around more often.

page from Curlfriends graphic novel by Sharee Miller

In Curlfriends: New In Town, 12-year-old Charlie Harper starts middle school in a new town. (Little, Brown Ink)

These are no small changes, and in order to cope Charlie has vowed, in the summer leading up to this move, to “completely reinvent myself, starting with my look.” She is tired of letting other people label her, and ready to take control of her own story.

Enter first day of school disaster: As she is walking into her new school building for the first time, hair done up, new contact lenses in, outfit perfected, a window washer outside the building accidentally knocks his bucket of water all over Charlie, and the entire set up is ruined. In just a few minutes she is back to looking like her old self.

What follows is a series of fortuitous meetings, first with Nola, the daughter of a hair stylist who helps Charlie redo her hair before showing her around the new building. Nola, who is both sensitive and outgoing, introduces Charlie to her lunchtime crew, which includes Cara, the easy-going track star with three boisterous brothers who prefers to wear her hair natural, and Ella, the confident, opinionated, and always stylish future changemaker, who changes her upcycled outfits as often as her hair styles.

Charlie aims to create a certain look with her first-day-of-school outfit.

Charlie aims to create a certain look with her first-day-of-school outfit. (Little, Brown Ink)

Charlie is, in turns, thrilled and confused to be taken in by this group that quickly opens up to include her in their new text chain, which Ella nicknames curlfriends — “since we’re friends and we all have curly hair. Isn’t it cute?” The girls come together around some of the shared particulars of their lives — namely, homework, girlhood and fashion, and Black hair — even as their differences in tastes and dispositions propagate cracks of uncertainty, particularly in Charlie, who still lacks self-assurance. Ultimately, kindness and friendship prevail.

Curlfriends is a delightful book, packed with sunny, buoyant illustrations, even as it also cuts into the heart of the challenging tensions that pervade this intermediate stage of life. Young teens want to be known, and seen, by their friends, as well as the adults in their lives, but they are also still coming to terms with who they are — with who, and what, they actually want to be seen and known for. It can be tricky, for example, to distinguish between the passions and pastimes that your parents picked for you, or those you chose because your friends are into them and you want to spend time together, and those you actively care to pursue. It can be difficult, in other words, to figure out what you like, and what you are like.

Along with other popular middle school graphic novels, including The Baby-Sitters Club adaptations, Kayla Miller’s Click, and Jerry Craft’s New Kid, Curlfriends is a book about finding one’s passions while navigating newfound responsibilities and independence amid changing backdrops and social settings. Miller’s charming drawings, as well as her use of an ever-lively color palette, will be familiar to readers of her lively children’s picture books, including Don’t Touch My Hair and Michelle’s Garden. Like those other works, Curlfriends is as much about expressions of self-pride and self-respect as it is about showing compassion, empathy, and care for others.

The one constant in Charlie’s life is her love of drawing and art, and it’s through art that she finally figures out how to mark her place in this new world that is middle school. It’s not all exactly under her control but, as with good art, sometimes mistakes along the way end up making for the most exquisite details.

Tahneer Oksman is a writer, teacher, and scholar specializing in memoir as well as graphic novels and comics. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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