Review: Tomboy by Liz Prince

tomboy princeLiz Prince‘s graphic memoir Tomboy (Zest Books, September 2014) chronicles her 31-year journey to define who she is in a world bent on doing it for her, and her evolution from rejecting all that is “girl” to someone who embraces who she is as an individual.

Beginning with her early childhood aversion to dresses and love of traditionally “boy” games, clothes, and ways, and continuing through school-age bullying, Prince shows the early formation of her identity as a self-proclaimed tomboy, with humor and ease, while not shrinking away from the difficult reality that her conflict with “girl” gender norms led young Prince to reject being a girl and to see girls as less in almost all possible ways. The memoir then explores the prevalence of middle school bullying, with a focus on Prince’s gender nonconformity, but touching on the reality that in middle school “anything” can get you bullied. And Prince explores how puberty can hit the gender nonconforming kid like a punch to the gut, in her case making her more girl at the time when she actively rejected anything girl. Careful readers will see the many ways in which Prince herself bought into the gender norms around her, also catalogued and rejected her peers based on what she perceived of them, and even inflicted some of her own pain, though not as a bully and more through the self-absorption of adolescence.

Perhaps most satisfying and layered, Prince explores her teen years with humor and wit, while not shying away from the anxiety, loneliness and pain adolescence can bring, especially for someone who feels she doesn’t fit anywhere. Prince provides interesting and poignant insights into the particular pitfalls involved in teen dating for a heterosexual girl who is often mistaken for a lesbian, and sometimes even a boy, chronicling the hopeless crushes, third-wheel outings, and friends with their own agendas.  And yet, Prince doesn’t solely focus on identity, exploring friendship, family, art, and those adolescent pitfalls, choices and experimentation beyond questions of identity and sexuality. And perhaps most importantly, Tomboy shows Prince’s evolution from rejecting all that is female in herself and others, to embracing and re-examinig what it means to be a girl, to defining who she is on her terms.

Tomboy is told from the point of view of the adult Prince looking back on her own development and self-actualization, but it artfully captures the sharpness and immediacy of the adolescent experience in a way many memoirs by adults about their teen years fail to do. Adult Prince makes appearances in the graphic memoir from time to time, to enlighten her younger self, make a point to the reader, or add humor. And Prince’s simple but expressive illustrations also help keep the focus on Prince’s adolescent self and to increase the immediacy of the events.  Tomboy uses humor and gentle barbs at the younger Prince to temper some of the serious or even sad moments, keeping the mood of the memoir light, rather than tortured. As much as the memoir focuses on Prince’s gender identity, and how it impacts her relationships with others, this is also the memoir of an artist, and her developing interest in art and comics is also chronicled in the story.

While younger adolescent readers would find comfort, familiarity and even humor in Prince’s pre-high school years, the memoir does include references to sexual experiences and experimentation with drugs and alcohol in later years, and more mature adolescent readers will have a richer reading experience.

Adolescent readers struggling to fit in, whether due to their gender identity or otherwise, will especially find a kindred spirit in Prince’s younger self, and comfort and affirmation from the positive and hopeful conclusion of the memoir. Overall, Tomboy is a memoir that deftly and skillfully explores a gender nonconforming kid’s comes of age, and how her refusal to conform helped her to become a stronger and more interesting person, despite the sometimes painful journey.


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