Anya’s Ghost

By Vera Brosgol
224 pages, two-color
Published by First Second Books

With a lot of young-adult oriented books and graphic novels, you know exactly how they’re going to turn out as soon as you start reading. Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost deliberately flouts that predictability, thankfully; it’s a book that not only doesn’t treat its readers as stupid, but delights in providing logical yet surprising turns of events from start to finish, resulting in a graphic novel that entertains on a continual basis.

What struck me early on about Anya’s Ghost is that Brosgol seems to have almost drawn out an initial plot in a straight line, then created the narrative for Anya’s Ghost by zooming off in as many other directions as possible. As the story builds—meeting Anya and learning about her outsider status, her falling into a well and discovering a ghost inside, her eventual return to school with said ghost—there are numerous moments where it would be easy to go with a "safe" story. The ghost could become her best friend. Anya could spend the entire book inside the well. Anya at the end of the book could be the new most popular girl in school. Instead, though, Brosgol gives us something far more interesting, by showing us what really lies beneath the facade of each character inside Anya’s Ghost.

To me, that’s part of what can make a young adult graphic novel effective; rather than bash us over the head with a message, Brosgol shows but doesn’t tell. She leaves it to her readers with each revelation to put the mounting evidence together, that those whom Anya originally disses might not be so bad, while those that initially seem to be great are hiding something else. The best part in that realm is when Brosgol pulls the curtain off from the character of Elizabeth. It would be easy to bring her down by showing her to be a horrible person, but Brosgol doesn’t go for something so simplistic. Instead we get a much worse secret that she’s hiding, and it ultimately makes her a sympathetic (if slightly pathetic) character. In many ways Elizabeth is a warning for the route that Anya’s been encouraged to go down, and it’s a great way to make Anya’s Ghost interesting for all ages of readers. I suspect the older you are, the more of Brosgol’s subtleties you’ll notice.

As for the rest of Anya’s Ghost, I like how it manages to juggle multiple genres and moods. It’s a little bit of a horror, a little bit high school drama, a little bit family drama. None of the pieces ever overwhelm the book, but instead they all work together into a strong, unified whole. Even the weakest part of the book—the slightly stereotypical mother—has so much heart that it’s hard to stay annoyed with the character. And when the horror part of the story takes center stage, Brosgol makes it quite compelling. Anya’s plunge down the well is terrifying, and the big showdown at the end of the book has a great deal of tension. It helps that Brosgol’s art is so appealing; it’s a smooth, clean line and reminds of creators like Kean Soo. She’s able to bring so much to every panel—terror, excitement, attraction, rage—with a single expression. The motion in this book is great, too. Anya falling down the well is an obvious choice, but even little moments like Anya flipping the food into the air and onto the ground is perfect; you can see the arc of every single piece of food’s travel through the air, and it’s perfectly paced.

Anya’s Ghost may have come out a year ago, but it’s just as good now as it was then. My only regret is that it took me this long to finally read it. Brosgol’s an amazing talent, and I’m already more than ready for whatever follow-up we get next. Highly recommended.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

3 comments to Anya’s Ghost

  • Maya Matunis

    I just finished reading Anya’s Ghost, ( which I tore through in one train ride), and I found it to be beyond spectacular. I read a lot of graphic novels as a youngster, but as I grew up to become a teen, my interest in “picture books” weaned. The other day, though, my friend loaned me a copy of Anya’s Ghost, because, as Anya refers to it, I’m a “fobb” from Lithuania, and I was quickly drawn to the images and story line of the first few pages. I identified with Anya in many ways, the typical teenage angst along with the struggle of outgrowing your Eastern European baby fat as your mother pushes the greasy food of your homeland at you and your best friend turns out to not be a friend at all. On top of that, Anya must deal with her lack of charm when it comes to getting the boy she wants, and what’s worse, the pretty girl that everybody loves to hate is in her gym class. Oh, the woes of every immigrant teenager in America! Any way, as the story progressed, I was also drawn to the character of Emily, the friend that every girl wished that she could have. Emily, the kind, helpful, and delightfully naive little ghost who you can fit in your pocket and use in desperate boy situations, seemed to me like the ultimate companion. However, after reading the back of the book and reading the reviews that claimed that “Anya’s Ghost” was “scary” and “spooky”, I couldn’t help but wonder, “where is the horror in all of this”? A friendly, helpful little ghost with a sad story and dandelion shaped hair did not seem like the typical villain in the blood and guts type horror flick that I’m so used to seeing in the cinema. However, once the frightening things did begin to happen, I found myself irked by the events in the story rather than cowering and hiding the book in the freezer. Emily’s story was almost too relatable, boy calls girl ugly, girl kills boy and his lover. I couldn’t help thinking about the haunting question that Emily asked Anya after she realized the truth, “If you had held the match in your hands…” This question haunted me for the rest of the trip home. Would I have done it? Would I, if I had had the chance to, burnt down the house of the boy that rejected me and the boy along with it? As a, as my mother calls it, “unconventionally beautiful girl” rather than an all American beauty like Elizabeth, would I light a match to the house of the boy who broke my heart? Like Anya, the answer is no. After reading Anya’s Ghost and seeing myself so much reflected in Anya, I grew along with her as a person. Anya realized that hating herself would not make her any more beautiful, hating her brother would not make him go away, hating her mother would not stop her from being Russian, hating Siobhan would not make her a better friend, and hating Sean and Elizabeth would never make her more popular. All that we can do in this life is take care of ourselves and others, and Anya learns this not only through the evil that Emily does, but also through her own courage to stand up for her family and herself. For these reasons, I thoroughly enjoyed Anya’s Ghost, and I shall forever avoid wells with ghosts within them!

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