Lora Xi’s twelfth birthday is a bit quieter than she hoped. Her friends are becoming more interested in things Lora doesn’t care about, like dating, fashion, and going to parties. Lora loves all things witchy and spooky, and still wants to play and be a kid. When her best friend Bobby is completely absent on the day of her birthday, she decides to hold a séance tea party with her stuffed animals. To her surprise, a real ghost attends – Alexa, another tween-aged girl who appears to have died in the seventies. Alexa reveals that she was once Lora’s childhood imaginary friend, and the two immediately rekindle their friendship, and eventually become supports for each other’s growth.
Séance Tea Party
Reimena Yee (artist and writer)
Random House Graphic
September 15, 2020
Growth, however, is problematic for Alexa – she literally cannot grow older. Lora can, but she’s afraid to grow up like her friends, because she worries that she’ll lose her love of the occult and her rich imagination. The pair have an immediate connection because of their passion for magic and need for companionship, and they swiftly develop a sweet, supportive friendship. Alexa encourages Lora be herself in social situations, and share her passions with others to build relationships. As a child in transition, Lora gives Alexa the opportunity to still play – playing and being an imaginary friend has been Alexa’s main activity as a ghost – and feel safe while confronting the nature of her afterlife.
Lora’s journey is not really about changing so much as it is about finding a community where she fits. Many middle grade and young adult novels are about kids and teens who are confused about who they are, or discovering new aspects of their identity. Séance Tea Party presents the transitionary time between tween and teen-hood as an opportunity to try new, possibly scary things, and learn more about what you love. Despite being nervous at parties, Lora befriends a crew of older girls who also love the occult, and accept her wholeheartedly. They introduce her to podcasts and dark lipstick, which she discovers she loves to wear. When she opens herself up to the idea that new experiences can be new passions, she grows and changes naturally, and learns to confront fear in a positive way.
Yee uses montages and other visual cues to show the casual, gentle way Lora changes. Instax photos, social media posts, text messages, and illustrations of tea parties and mall trips make up a montage that shows Lora growing more and more comfortable with her new friend group. This sweet, fun series of images culminates in a panel mirroring Lora’s first bike trip to school. Instead of being alone, she’s with Bobby, who earlier apologized for missing her birthday and neglecting their friendship. When she takes off her bike helmet, we see that her style has become more spooky chic – she’s got a fantastic skull necklace paired with a very stylish, mostly black outfit – and seems to be wearing dark lipstick and eyeliner regularly. I gasped audibly at this panel, because Lora’s growth felt so natural and gradual that her confidence stunned me. It almost felt like being a parent looking a their kid and suddenly realizing they were really, truly growing up.
As a ghost slowly remembering her life, Alexa’s character growth is quite different. Lora begins to try new things and change, but Alexa starts to face that she will never grow older. In a heartbreaking panel, Alexa makes herself corporeal so she can pick up Lora’s dark purple lipstick – and uses it to draw wrinkles over her face in the mirror, imagining herself as the elderly woman she will never be.
While Alexa is a child who wants to run and play with other children, she’s also a girl grieving her own death. As Lora makes more friends, Alexa begins to learn about the lives of the people she knew when she was still alive. She becomes the imaginary friend of Manny Rodriguez, a young boy whose grandmother feels strangely familiar. Slowly, she builds a connection to his grandmother, a woman who values the beauty of growth, change, and aging – natural parts of life that Lora can celebrate, but Alexa must mourn.
This grappling with death may sound dark, and aspects of Alexa’s story are heart wrenching, but ultimately her story is joyful. She finds a complicated happiness through her connections with living beings, including Lora, whose love and care for Alexa are never marred by her ghostly nature. Their relationship is powerful and genuine, and the story heavily suggests that Alexa is Lora’s first crush. Alexa’s ghostly afterlife allows her to create and rekindle bonds with others that help her remember her life without pain.
Yee uses a mix of warm fall colors – reds, yellows and browns – with a cool purple and blue to create an aesthetic that feels like a perfect mix of Lora and Alexa’s personalities. Lora was born in fall and loves the season. In contrast, the cool purples, blues and greys – Alexa herself is a ghostly grey – remind the reader that she is connecting from another plane of existence, and also that she is her own person with an important story. The purples reinforce how their stories are intertwined; dark purple is, after all, the shade of lipstick that makes Lora realize she doesn’t hate makeup.
The structure of the comic employs a clever tactic reminiscent of the frames in Jan Brett’s picture books. Yee often draws panels atop natural backgrounds or, especially in the montages, sprinkles in stuffed animals, faerie creatures and other adorable objects that enhance the scene. The more detailed, lush backgrounds especially emphasize Lora’s powerful imagination as well as the presence of real magic. The first third of the comic – when Lora is youngest and most naturally, closely connected to imagination and magic – uses this tactic frequently. The first image readers see is the top of Lora’s imagined pirate ship, and the illustration has no panels or gutters. When the scene clears to reveal that the pirate ship was fake and Lora is actually just biking down the hill, lush greenery full of mushrooms and animals rest behind the panels. Later, Yee breaks away from using panels entirely for a stunning two-page spread in which Alexa makes Lora see a magical ballroom all around them.
This tactic makes both imagined moments and magical ones feel explosive and special. Both Lora and Alexa have abilities that let them connect to the natural magic of the world, and those moments of connection make them stronger, and help them grow. Experiencing Alexa’s magic helps Lora realize she doesn’t have to stop believing even as she grows up. Playing with magic helps Alexa connect to the living, and come to terms with her life, death, and afterlife. All of these connections between nature, imagination, magic and growth are woven visually through the story with such beauty that they’ll take your breath away. (Unless you’re also a ghost, like Alexa.)
Give this gorgeous story to all the young, self-assured kids you know facing down middle school, the kids who love ghosts and witches and Halloween, and to anyone ready for a beautiful, emotional story about magic, growth and change.