written and illustrated by dan santat
First Second Books
dan goes to europe a withdrawn young teen and comes home with experiences and the desire to climb out of his shell
given that my previous post was a bellyacher about there not being enough graphic novels, i'm nonetheless gonna gush over this new memoir from illustrator dan santat. as a member of the tail end of the free-range generation, he gets to show-and-tell young readers what they're missing out on and gives the sensitive kids some hope that all that middle school angst will one day be a thing of the past.
dan is a SoCal kid who seems to find himself petrified and humiliated by his daily life. to fill time at a class assembly he is asked to recite a poem and is mocked mercilessly. he is told that a girl likes him, like, a lot, and when he goes to make his move she shuts him down horribly. when going to a last-day-of-junior-high party he is constantly worried about whether or not he and his friends have been expressly invited (they have not) and freezes up when the police arrive to shut it down.
what young dan needs is a trip to europe where drinking beer, stealing a bike, and kissing a girl's ear with fondu cheese on his lips are prized moments.
as a sort of extended school trip, dan has two new buddies who help keep him grounded while they travel through england, france, germany, switzerland and austria. they'll see some sights, stay with a family for a week as part of an immersive experience, and as would be the case for any such coming-of-age story, there is a complicated love interest. he'll get shown around by a pair of hip French teens who introduce him to a late-night club scene and drop him a mix tape (or, kids today, you with your instant sharing of spotify playlists, you're really missing out here!) that will, no doubt, make him cooler than most of the kids back home. he will be taunted mercilessly by a trio of girls from his school who, by the end, will come around to recognize dan's growth over the three weeks and decide he's actually pretty cool. and, by sheer luck, he'll finagle his way into the semi-finals at Wembleton where he'll get to see John McEnroe play as part of a memorable last-day-in-new-love paradise.
and by admitting this here, i am not-so-secretly jealous that i didn't get to do something like this before i started high school. and if it was available, i either pretended it was stupid or ignored it out of my own total insecurities.
after some brief "before" scenes and backstory, santat jumps into the trip with little fanfare (besides a typically awkward sendoff with his parents) and backfills relevant scenes with vignettes for context in a way that is so simple and understated that they barely jostle a reader from the story at hand. dan isn't the only one changed by the end, and the changes are equally subtle as they show that he wasn't the only one who needed this emotionally-expanding experience. more importantly, i can't imagine a better way to show other young artists the potential benefits of experience gained from visiting other cultures.
one nifty thing up front is a QR code that not only takes you the santat's author page, but also contains a link to a spotifiy playlist recreating the mixtape dan was given back in 1989. i can say with some authority that, excepting the french ye-ye and german punk songs, this playlist is a good place for young readers to take an audio trip through the past as well. more than just a playlist for a book, it's the closest santat could hope to get to giving a mix tape to every reader, and is some really smart added content.
at the end, santat does some obligatory explaining about how the beer tasting in the book -- perfectly legal in germany at the time -- would not be allowed today, nor would smoking (as the girls do on the plane, back when that was still a thing), and that stealing a bike is wrong. but he starts by saying this was when he started to like himself. that's actually key right there, that the true sum of all these fragments of memories is that he learned who he was and was all the better for it.
so i'll end with this: i picked it up just before bedtime intending to read a few pages to get the feel for it, and was unable to stop until i'd finished. all 300-plus pages of it. i won't be the only one.