Review: Anya’s Ghost, by Vera Brosgol

One thing that I think is a universal experience is the feeling of being bullied. I was bullied in junior high for my weight, my overeagerness to please teachers, and all the things a bookworm is generally noticed for. Looking back at that time, I realize now that there was stuff going on that I didn’t understand. Kids who had rough family lives were lashing out in the only place they could. And I put a lot of stock in the words of people that ultimately had no power over me.

Still, being labelled as “not normal” or “other” is a really painful experience, no matter where you are in your life, and that’s the world Vera Brosgol explores in Anya’s Ghost. Anya is the daughter of Russian immigrants. Her mother wants her to succeed, her little brother Sasha is obsessed with dinosaurs, and they’re a pretty normal family. But when Anya storms into the woods after a fight with her friend after school, she finds herself in a literal hole in the ground with a haunted skeleton.

Anya’s Ghost is 224 pages of grey-scale comics on glossy paper. My copy is a first edition from First Second Books, but the latest version is being published under another Macmillan division, Square Fish. Because of its immigrant’s child, fish out of water type of structure, Anya’s Ghost reminds me of another First Second book, American Born Chinese. Some of Gene Yang’s strengths are echoed in Anya’s Ghost – Vera Brosgol’s linework is clean and her cartooning is very emotive. But comparing Brosgol to Yang misses key differences between the authors and their work.

The strength of Brosgol’s work is in Anya, her main character. She’s clearly an attractive girl, but has a lot of self-confidence issues. She feels like she doesn’t fit in because of her heritage. But she has her own personality, her own worries. She’s a teenage girl that readers can relate to. Constructing this kind of character is really difficult, and I think really sets apart Anya’s Ghost from other stories in the genre.

Brosgol is great at showing instead of telling – we see how Anya’s posture changes, how her face lights up, how she boils with anger or embarrassment. Brosgol has this knack for constructing these scenarios for Anya to grow in, and it’s that strength that makes it easier for the reader to follow the material easily and empathize with Anya.

The ghost story that comes along with Anya’s self-discovery and growth is fun and spooky. I wasn’t jumping out of my skin, but there are a few pages that really stand out. I won’t spoil the fun in the last quarter of the book, but it’s a treat.

Anya’s Ghost is a strong debut that does a lot of things right; well-crafted characters, a believable setting, and a touch of the fantastic make this a book a great read for teens, and for those of us looking back at the past.

Anya’s Ghost is written by Vera Brosgol and published by firstsecondbooks/Square Fish, both Macmillan imprints. Vera tweets at @verabee. You can find out more about her work here.

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