Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Skim (Groundwood Books, 2008), written by Mariko Tamaki and drawn by her cousin Jillian Tamaki, is a gentle and unparalleled exploration of one fictional teenager’s inner life.
The splash page for Part I of Skim introduces us to the story’s protagonist, Kimberly Keiko Cameron (aka “Skim”), a half-Japanese student attending an all-girls’ private high school in Ontario. Why the nickname Skim? In her own words, ”Because I’m not.” Though the story does not concentrate on Kimberly’s weight issues, in a world of highly self-conscious teenage girls, we can only guess that this is one of many reasons that Skim is perceived as an outcast.
As readers, we are provided access to Skim’s diary, which indicates her favourite colour as “black red.” The uncertainty communicated through this initial journal entry is a poignant and provocative indication that all may not be as it seems with Skim. To introduce corrections throughout Skim’s diary is also to realistically portray how a teenage diary, or for that matter any diary, might look—unless its author were to erase or white out any errors. The jazz pianist Thelonius Monk insisted on never re-recording tracks when he was in recording sessions, believing that if musicians made errors during these events, they ought to be duly noted as such for all to hear. In Skim, we can assume that Kimberley’s errors are an intentional vehicle used to portray the diarist’s doubleness, her doubts and insecurities. But their inclusion at all is testament to the author’s depth and perceptiveness into teen neurosis.
Skim is the child of divorced parents. Her mother is a cynical workaholic, while her father (in her mother’s estimation) is a hopeless romantic who has recently begun dating a woman who makes a new ceramic mug for Skim every month.
Skim has recently broken her arm tripping while climbing out of bed (she tells her best friend Lisa that she fell off her bike). Skim is drawn to Wiccan religion and teen Goth culture, and has a Wiccan altar in her bedroom; Lisa’s sister, Kyla, is part of a Wiccan coven. Skim and Lisa attend a circle ceremony in nearby Scarborough, run by a group of adults who also happen to be members of the local AA chapter.
Katie Matthew’s ex-boyfriend, John Reddear has just committed suicide. Skim’s school is on high alert. Ms. Hornet, the school counsellor, is actively engaging in intervention techniques to ensure that students are able to cope with the shock and grief accompanying John’s death. Skim is targeted as especially susceptible to suicide, given her largely sullen attitude towards others.
Skim and Lisa conduct a ceremony in the woods to summon the spirit of John Reddear. In Skim’s journal, she writes “but he didn’t appear.” However, in an exquisitely layered two page spread of Lisa and Skim walking in the forest, an evocative line drawing of John drawn in white suggests otherwise. This artful treatment is one of the marks of subtle storytelling in comics, in which text may communicate one concept, while that idea is simultaneously juxtaposed with the total opposite through visual representation.
Skim meets Ms. Archer, the English teacher, while she is taking a smoke break in the woods. They discuss Romeo and Juliet; Ms. Archer suggests,
Maybe it’s a story about two people who fall in love, when falling in love, with the enemy, is the one thing you’re not supposed to do. I’m sorry you don’t like it (37).
Lisa senses that something is awry with her best friend, and observes that Ms. Archer acts strange around Skim. Skim responds that there is nothing going on between them.
In a masterful contrast between word and image, Skim states, “Technically that is not a lie. Technically nothing has happened” (38). The next spread in the book shows Ms. Archer and Skim once more in the woods, this time locked in full embrace.
Immediately prior to the spread, an excerpt is included from a book on Wicca that Skim quotes in her journal:
The “Charge” comes to each of us in a different manner. It is that moment in our lives when we feel the Magick of the Universe coursing through us, for the very first time, and we know beyond all real and imagined shadows that this calling to the mysteries is indeed there.
—Silver Ravenwolf, To Ride a Silver Broomstick
Ms. Archer acknowledges the mystery transpiring between her and Skim, stating, “Well, this is what it is, isn’t it?” At least for Skim, it can only be love. She visits Ms. Archer’s home until her teacher suggests that it’s better if Skim takes a break. Shortly thereafter, a lovesick Skim learns that Ms. Archer is not even finishing her school year, but is joining an “art thing” in New Mexico.
Both Skim and Lisa regularly express contempt and disdain for the prevailing school culture, especially the recently established G(irls) C(elebrate) L(ife) club—GLC. Shortly after John Reddear’s death, Skim’s class is told that Katie Matthews “accidentally” fell off a roof and broke both her arms. When she returns to school, Katie is tailed constantly by a paraparazzi of GLC girls, much to her disdain.
The grade ten girls attend a farewell ceremony for John Reddear, with Katie conspicuously absent from the event. Rumours have been circulating that John may actually have been gay, and that he was in love with a volleyball player on another team. It is also rumoured that he Reddear didn’t actually shoot himself, but overdosed on his mother’s heart medication.
Skim finds herself wondering why she is distancing herself from Lisa. At about the same time, Katie and Skim begin to develop a friendship, since both are exempt from participating in physical education because of their injuries.
Much of the rest of Skim is spent exploring in greater depth the development of Katie and Skim’s companionship. Once Lisa starts seeing her boyfriend, proclaiming her love to him, she is less present in the storyline.
Although Skim is ostensibly the story of a young woman falling in love with another woman who is much her senior, it the work has not been ghettoized by its critics as a gay romance. There is far too much complexity in this story for it to be simply classified as gay fiction. Gender relations and sexual identity comprise only one part of the puzzle of late adolescence, through which Skim has no choice but to navigate. This graphic novel bears witness to the ebb and flow of high school friendships, and the challenges that teens experience with other peers, parents and teachers—Skim’s introversion and sensitivity will resonate strongly with many of us.
This is not a “coming out” story, and Skim does not agonize over the possibility of her being lesbian. She is desperately in love, and it is clear that, against the author’s initial wishes for Skim to be written as a gothic lesbian Lolita, her desire to remain close to Ms. Archer is doomed to failure. That said, one provocative panel on page 44 of Skim alludes to Édouard Manet’s “Olympia,” a painting that challenged audiences when it was first unveiled in 1863. For those interested, I strongly recommend reading “About the Olympia by Édouard Manet.”
Nor is Skim necessarily a “coming of age” tale. This is a snapshot into the life of Kimberley Keiko Cameron, as told through her eyes, communicated to the reader through a series of poignant journal entries. It captures the devastation of dropping a papier-maché head and being laughed at, and the embarassment of being hugged by the school guidance counsellor who is convinced that Skim is suicidal. My first teaching job was in an all-girls’ Catholic high school, and much of this book feels frighteningly familiar. Mariko Tamaki has captured with great precision the cattiness that can be the behavioural staple of the school culture. The writer has mentioned in interviews that she wrote the script for Skim in the format of a play, with a very loose set of directions included for Jillian Tamaki, the artist of Skim (and Mariko’s cousin), to work from.
This looseness has been rendered in an equally fluid artistic style, in which heavy inks are generously combined with grey washes and spacious whites to convey tremendously emotion-laden panels. This is not formulaic artwork, but a generous treatment of the subject matter, which, in combination with the text, brings the story to life.
It is most unfortunate, and yet perhaps unsurprising, that only Skim’s writer Mariko Tamaki—and not the illustrator Jillian Tamaki—was nominated for the best English-language children’s literature category of the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Skim is the first graphic novel to have ever been nominated for the award. As for the categorization of this work as “children’s literature,” perhaps this speaks to the maturity of the reviewers more than anything else.
In a letter to the nomination committee penned by Chester Brown and Seth, these two well respected Canadian comics creators state, “We’re guessing that the jury who read Skim saw it as an illustrated novel. It’s not; it’s a graphic novel.” As with so many others, it will take time to educate non-readers of “graphic novels” about the elusive nature of the form, tenuously balanced as it is between word and image.