No Ivy League
Hazel Newlevant (writer and artist)
Roar (Lion Forge)
August 21, 2019
No Ivy League by Hazel Newlevant challenged me as a reader. At the moment of writing this, I am not sure how to feel. I have wrestled with this review for weeks trying to sort out my thoughts. Usually, after reading comics, I immediately know where that book lies in my personal rating system, but this one has eluded me thoroughly.
I read No Ivy League without any real concept of what the book would be about. I follow Newlevant’s Instagram and Twitter, and seeing them post snippets of the art they were working over the months was very exciting. Each post of a work in progress got me super amped for the story contained within those pages. But after reading it, I was adrift in a sea of emotions: confusion, sadness, a bit of disbelief, and more confusion.
No Ivy League is a memoir depicting a seventeen-year-old, homeschooled Hazel. A Portland, Oregon native, they take a summer job cleaning up the ivy from a local forest with a group that also hires at-risk teens (code for people of color) called the No Ivy League. We watch as Hazel deals with white privilege, comes into contact with different cultures, and discovers a shocking admission from their mother about segregation.
But let’s talk about art. Newlevant’s art is terrific. This is the one part of the book that didn’t leave me in flux. Their use of watercolors and the dark green Pantone shades gives No Ivy League depth and heart.
I fell in love with the look of the graphic novel before I even finished the first chapter. The character designs breathe life into each person on the page, and you can feel how dense and alive the forests of Portland, Oregon are. Hazel’s landscapes and background work are lovely. I love the spread on page 197 to 198 where we see Aisha and Hazel sitting by the water with the trees, bridge, and nature all around them. I could frame that and hang it on my wall; it’s fantastically peaceful.
But aside from my basking in the art, what I had trouble with was the story.
As a Black person, there were times while reading No Ivy League that I felt like this book wasn’t written for me. I couldn’t quite connect with Hazel in this story. They are working in the No Ivy League with all of these kids of color, and at first, it seems like Hazel can’t find their footing. Their hip-hop tastes don’t match up to what the other kids are listening to. Hazel seems to connect more with (but really just has a crush on) Tono, the counselor/adult organizing and in charge of the group. At the same time, Hazel and their boyfriend and best friend are making videos about why they like homeschooling for a contest so they can win the cash prizes and go to Washington, DC, to see the band Guster.
When reading No Ivy League, I felt pulled in two directions. I wasn’t sure if the Black characters, as depicted in the comic, felt like people or caricatures. There are moments with Hazel and the No Ivy League’s Aisha, Obasi, and Kelsey that feel awkward. At first it’s intentional, showing Hazel’s awkwardness and struggles to try to relate to the other kids. But then the depiction of the double standard between Hazel and Kelsey’s incidents at the No Ivy League project left a weird feeling in my chest. What happened to both Kelsey and Hazel was harassment, but only Hazel’s incident was taken seriously due to their white privilege. Kelsey brings up this injustice, and Hazel seems to understand, but there is no confrontation with the counselors. It all falls flat.
So when it came to Hazel’s realization of being put in homeschool as a result of integration, the same thing happened: nothing. Hazel’s mom tells her story about struggling with integration: her family not being able to afford private school, then finally moving to a more affluent area, where presumably she no longer had to deal with integrating with Black people. Hazel goes to bed justifiably horrified. But there was no actual confrontation or conversation with their parents or some coming to terms with the situation; it’s just a fact, and the story rolls along.
Hazel goes to the library and tries to educate themself on the topic of integration and Oregon’s history of white supremacy. But that is it, and as a reader, it feels like an unsatisfying conclusion to such a massive revelation. Similarly, Hazel reporting the Black kid that harassed her ended with him getting kicked out of the program. At first there was tension between Aisha (Obasi’s cousin) and Hazel, but in the end, they make up, Aisha teaches Hazel how to Jerk, and the book ends. The story isn’t confronting the issues it presents. No Ivy League states these new ideas and experiences Hazel is going through, but leaves the hard stuff for the reader to deal with.
Putting this book down, I felt unsatisfied. There is no confrontation or conversation about the systemic white supremacy that Hazel’s mom actively participates in by putting them in homeschool. Or any resolution to the fact that the counselors never gave Kelsey the same justice that Hazel received for their harassment. No Ivy League left me with more questions than answers and honestly, I’m still up in the air on how I feel about this book.