By Hope Larson
176 pages, black and white
Published by Atheneum Books

What I think I like the most about the announcement of a new Hope Larson book is that you never really know what to expect. The only real constant between her first two graphic novels, Salamander Dream and Gray Horses, was a quiet, graceful sort of quality in how she told the story. So while it’s no surprise that her new book Chiggers has that in spades, my one real surprise was how while it’s the most grounded in the real world of her books to date, she’s still able to bring bits of the fantastical into the story—and how well they fit.

Abby’s back at summer camp, with friends from last year returning as well as a chance to make new ones. When her bunkmate leaves early on, she’s replaced by Shasta, a new and slightly mysterious girl. She and Abby seem to have a lot in common, but Abby’s other friends don’t trust Shasta. Are they picking up on something that Abby isn’t? And is Shasta really telling the truth about being struck by lightning, or is something else going on?

Larson’s basic story—teens at summer camp and the friendships and struggles they have—is a pretty familiar one. What made it stand out for me, though, was the particular methods that she used to tell it. She’s got a great gift for character voices, making Abby, Shasta, and the rest all really sound like teenagers. Little moments, like Abby’s glee about chicken burgers and eating things at are breaded just sounds perfect. I also really appreciated that she’s not afraid to make her characters a little geeky, something atypical in books about teenage girls. The fact that Abby’s into fantasy and role-playing games, or that Shasta has a boyfriend that she knows through instant-messaging, really stands out as something different and interesting. Best of all, though, is the bits of the magical and unexplained that Larson weaves throughout Chiggers. I love that Larson never explains the stranger moments of the book, from the sparks of electricity flowing out of Shasta’s hair one night, to the dramatic conclusion of the book and its unreal happenings. A dream, a natural phenomenon, or something entirely different? It’s not entirely clear, and Larson wisely doesn’t delve too deeply into it. All you really need to know is that it happened, and move onwards.

The way Larson draws the book is great as well. There’s something about the way her characters have deep eyes and heavy locks of hair that makes it unmistakably Larson’s creation. She’s got such a handle on expressions that her characters can bring so much to the story without actually needing their dialogue. From Abby’s awe-filled smile as she finds out that Shasta knows her boyfriend through IMs, to Shasta’s almost tranquil expression as her hair floats up into the air, it’s a beautiful creation. The art sells the story 100%, and it’s this grace and careful construction of each page that makes it such a beautiful thing to own.

Chiggers in the end shares the one most important thing with Larson’s other books, and that’s her sense of style in telling a story. Summer camp stories may be a dime a dozen, but the way that Larson brings Chiggers to life is what makes it stand out from the rest of the pack. Hitting stores in June, it’s a perfectly timed release to for readers of all ages heading into their own summer.

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