This incredible graphic novel is Emil Ferris’ first but not, thank goodness, her last. Volume 2 is due out next March and I’ve already pre-ordered my copy. My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a graphic novel that deals with intense issues and features stunning artwork. Set in 1960s Chicago, the novel involves contemporary events, an illness, child abandonment and abuse, a murder with possible connections to Nazi Germany, and an abiding love of fine art and monsters. The fact that it is narrated by a 10-year-old girl who thinks of herself as a werewolf/detective, and who may not understand all that she uncovers, makes the story all the more gripping and heartbreaking.
Our narrator and illustrator is 10-year-old Karen Reyes who lives with her mother and older brother Deeze in a basement apartment in uptown Chicago. Karen is an unusual little girl; she draws herself as a werewolf or wolf girl, and she is fascinated with monsters. She loves monster movies and horror magazines, and reproduces covers in her notebook. Karen, who is the oddball outsider at her Catholic grade school, feels an affinity for monsters and wishes to avoid becoming part of the “mob,” or M.O.B (i.e., those who are “mean, ordinary and boring”). With the death of her upstairs neighbor Anka on Valentines Day, 1968, Karen decides that she will also become an investigator. Anka Silverberg was a beautiful but strange woman, and while her death was ruled a suicide, Karen is convinced that it was murder.
Karen’s investigation will reveal surprising and provocative information about her neighbors and her own family. Anka’s past is truly sorrowful. Born to a single mother in interwar Berlin, Anka was raised in a brothel, was a witness to violence, and was herself abused. After the Nazis rose to power, she was forced to wear the yellow star and was shipped off to a camp before she being able to contact a powerful figure from her past who might have helped her, but at what cost? Karen has seen with her own eyes the sadness that haunted Anka before her death. She recalls troubling events such as Anka wandering the street naked and confused, and her brother Deeze’s mysterious relationship with her. Several other neighbors are potential suspects in Karen’s eyes. Where were they when she died? What secrets do they hide? And what about Deeze and her mother? Karen knows that there are secrets in her family and it makes her angry even though her love for her mother and brother is unwavering. Deeze has almost been like a father figure to Karen, taking care of her when she was small and introducing her to his favorite art works at the Art Institute. Emil Ferris’ writing about their trips to the museum and examinations of famous works of art, along with her own pen and marker reproductions, are extraordinary — an education in themselves.
Meanwhile, Karen is still a school-aged kid, and her experiences of bullying are painful to read. Her insistence on wearing a trench coat, her interest in monsters, her physical appearance (not white like most of her classmates but Mexican/Native American/Irish) all mark her as “other” and scary, an object to be tormented. Karen doesn’t let it get to her too much, but it hurts when the one friend she had suddenly dumps her. Karen finds new friendships with Sandy — a waifish, ghostlike girl— and an African American classmate named Franklin, who is an outsider, too. I’m looking forward to seeing how these relationships play out in volume 2.
In the months following Anka’s death, as Karen tries to navigate school and learn more about Anka, the world around here starts to fall apart — Martin Luther King’s assassination, an illness, and revelations about her own family will shake Karen to the core. She will be forced to face some truths about herself and her monsters. Karen has had great faith in monsters and what she thinks they can help her achieve. For example, after a horrific episode of bullying at school, she writes,
…being a human girl stinks compared to being a monster. When I’m a monster I won’t have to keep my mouth shut. No, I’ll use my rows of long sharp teeth to rip up guys like Jerry.
Monsters can be empowering, but Karen comes to see that there are good and bad monsters. In a particularly powerful passage, which I happened to read right around the time of the Charlottesville tragedy, Emil Harris provides a reproduction of the painting The Blessed Guillaume deToulouse Tormented by Demons, (Ambroise Fredeau, 1657), with this commentary from Karen:
…I knew there were good monsters and bad ones… The monsters who murdered Reverend King and the president were the worst monsters … those are the kind of monsters who want no one to be free… No, the bad monsters want the world to look the way they want it to. They need people to be afraid… They don’t live in their lair and mostly mind their own biz… I guess that’s the difference… A good monster sometimes gives somebody a fright because they’re weird looking and fangy… a fact that is beyond their control… But bad monsters are all about control… They want the whole world to be scared so that bad monsters can call the shots…
We, like Karen Reyes, are living in world full of good monsters and bad monsters. We, like Karen, have to decide if the people around us are good or bad monsters, and we have to pick a side. This is a powerful novel for its message about the choices people make and have to live with and for the breathtaking art within it. Author Emil Ferris is pretty amazing, too. You can read about her journey in writing and publishing My Favorite Thing is Monsters here.