September 17, 2019
Well, Guts is excellent. It joins Telgemeier’s other graphic memoirs, Smile and Sisters, in telling one story of Raina’s youth in a focused but holistic way. In Smile, Telgemeier detailed the true story of a dental mishap and how it turned into a saga, not only in terms of the series of medical events but also the way it affected her interactions with family and friends. Similarly in Guts, she tells the story of the onset of her IBS in fourth and fifth grade, and how that was linked to an onset of panic attacks. Changing physical health and mental health doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however, and Raina’s home life, her interactions at school and with friends are all shaped by her health, and shape her health in turn.
A few months ago I was discussing my excitement about Guts with a friend in publishing. She said she was excited too, but she wasn’t sure if the title implied guts like courage, or guts like digestion. I said, “Both? I think?” I can hereby confirm that this book is about both. As young Raina develops a phobia of vomit, it affects her life in various ways. Her family of five lives in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. Her classmates at school gross each other out intentionally. She starts avoiding food and situations that she thinks might lead to vomit. Her grades suffer. Her friendships suffer. Her health suffers more. Her parents bring her to a therapist, who encourages her to try doing things even if she is afraid, and she tentatively but encouragingly explores outside of her comfort zone. She develops guts to deal with her guts.
Scenes inside of Raina’s therapist’s office are interspersed with scenes that take place at home where Raina’s parents are doing their best to make room for all three of their children to have personal space, scenes at school where Raina struggles with focus and teasing, and scenes at the home of a friend, who introduces Raina to delicious new foods and has her own real worries, as it turns out she will soon be moving away. It’s clear how interconnected all these parts of Raina’s life are. There isn’t one main plot with unconnected side plots, but rather a wide, inclusive view of Raina’s life at this time.
As Claire Kirch noted in Publishers Weekly: BookExpo Show Daily, the layers of nuance in Guts are not necessary to enjoying the book. She writes that certainly some middle grade readers “will laugh at images of Raina in the bathroom. But others, [Telgemeier] says, will relate: they have had similar experiences.” I think it is true that the experience-affirming nature of the story line will not register for many younger readers, especially those who have not experienced psychosomatic health issues. Those readers will simply enjoy the book for its laugh lines and likeable characters, and perhaps become more empathetic towards people in their life who do experience what Raina goes through. Luckily, however, layering of nuance is not an either/or situation. As an adult reader with a lot of experience analyzing texts, I liked the nuance and I also really enjoyed the farting parts.
While there are some panels in which Raina is in the bathroom and others where she is visibly feeling ill, there is nothing grossly graphic about the art. I remember Garbage Pail Kids and this isn’t that.
It feels silly to bother predicting that a book by Raina Telgemeier will be incredibly successful. I also predict that if it rains, the sidewalk will get wet! But I will say that even if you have never read any of Telgemeier’s other books (how?), Guts stands alone as a coherent and satisfying whole. And for readers of Smile and Sisters, Guts is a wonderful next step. Each of Telgemeier’s memoirs increases in sophistication and nuance, and Guts simply and effectively presents the mind-body-environment connection that influences the well-being of every reader, child, and adult.