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At the beginning of Liz Prince’s memoir she describes the problematic situation she faced as a kid:
According to the schoolyard…boys are: “snips and snails and puppy dog tails,’” while girls are: “sugar and spice and everything nice.” It’s a decrepit old nursery rhyme, but somehow the attitude still prevails. Girls are expected to be polite and lovely and pink and frilly and dainty and reserved and…I’m outta here! BLECH! Not that there’s anything wrong with those things, they’ve just never described me.
The real problem is, there’s nothing wrong with Liz Prince either, only that as a tomboy, the rigid binary gender identification that kids adhere to wreaked havoc with her self-esteem. This memoir focuses on her youth, from birth through her high school years.
In a hilarious panel showing Prince’s birth, the doctor announces to her parents, “Congratulations! It’s a girl!”–while Prince as a newborn thinks, “That’s what you think!” Prince was lucky in that she had relaxed, liberal parents who let her avoid dresses and even let her show up to Kindergarten in pants, a jacket, and a bow-tie.
Most of the harassment and bullying Prince endured came from classmates. Using a sponge as a metaphor, she smartly points out how kids soak up strong opinions easily, from parents, school and the media and then repeat them back to the world (her illustrations shows a sponge kid barfing). “When you don’t look or act like what everyone has been told is the norm, you get proverbially barfed on a lot.” She adds, “Although we should have had each other’s backs, instead we perpetuated the laws of the playground.” Her book recounts incidents common to bullying: name calling, becoming the butt of jokes, and getting left out.
Prince also raises some of the psychological issues she faced. For example, as a tomboy, she loved playing baseball, but the boys she identifies with avoid her, because they saw girls (even a tomboy) as weak, and didn’t want her on their team. Ironically, her own view of girls was equally negative.
Prince gets into an alternative school, which makes high school somewhat better. She starts a relationship with a boy, which sadly is the one escape hatch from being constantly harangued with homophobic taunts, and she eventually meets other kids that have similar interests in punk, geekdom and non-binary dressing.
Prince’s line drawings are reminiscent of John Porcellino’s King Cat; they’re simple and accessible to young readers, and adept at conveying emotional nuance. School and libraries that serve teens should be sure to pick this book up, because it’s one of the only books out there exploring what it means to be a tomboy, and because it exposes young readers to the effects of bullying on kids with gender differences, and to kids who simply don’t fit in.
After feminist zines open her eyes to new role models, Prince explains, “I subscribed to the idea that there was only one form of femininity and that it was inferior to being a man.…Could my problem have been that I was looking for validation in the wrong places all along?” Sharing her story with young readers is a perfect way to open up doors of validation for other kids, who like Prince, feel trapped by gender stereotypes fed to them by school, media and adults.
Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir
By Liz Prince
Paperback, 9781936976553, 256 pp.