Tegan and Sara: Junior High | Review
Tegan and Sara: Junior High
Writers: Tegan Quin and Sara Quin
Artist: Tillie Walden
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Tegan and Sara are a Canadian indie-pop duo that’s sold over a million records from a 10-album deep discography since their 1999 debut. Long before they were rock stars, however, they were kids just like any other. Well, almost like any other. They were identical twins, they obviously had an innate talent for song-writing and music that piano lessons alone can’t account for, and they had the misfortune of starting junior high, one of the most confusing and tumultuous times in anyone’s life, at a brand-new school, thanks to a recent move. That’s the subject of their new graphic memoir, drawn by the talented and prolific cartoonist Tillie Walden, Tegan and Sara: Junior High.
In Junior High, Tegan and Sara Quin, who released an adult prose memoir on their formative years entitled High School in 2019 (it was quickly adapted into a 2022 TV series), recount their seventh grade year, from the first day of school to the year-end dance, with an epilogue set on their 13th birthday.
This includes puberty-driven rites of passage (buying their first bras with their mom, getting their periods), to adjusting to changes in their family dynamics (their parents are divorced, and their father gets a new girlfriend), and plenty of tweenage drama, like navigating friendship politics, first crushes, dealing with the school mean girl and balancing schoolwork with their hobbies and relationships.
Particular to the twins, this is also a time that they find themselves drifting apart for the first time in their young lives, as they go from a single, shared best friend at their old school to making new friends independently of one another, and keeping secrets from one another—some of their own, some for the sake of their new friends— leading to disagreements and fights.
There is also the beginning signs of the twins’ burgeoning sexual orientation, with Sara, home sick from school, watching a scene of a TV show where two girls kiss over and over again and finding herself overwhelmed by weird feelings (“I feel so warm…is this my fever? Am I hungry? I’m hungry.”) She eventually kinda sorta comes out to Tegan and another friend when she admits her “friend crush” on a new friend is actually just a crush-crush. This too though is a secret between the twins for a time.
What brings them back together is the chance discovery of a guitar among the things belonging to Bruce, their mom’s boyfriend who lives with them, in the garage one day. They secretly begin experimenting with it, and eventually making songs, leading to their very first gig at a friend’s birthday party as “Gunk” (“grunge” + “punk”; one can see why as adults they’d settle on Tegan and Sara as a band name).
For a pair of creators from outside the medium, the Quins betray none of the weaknesses one generally sees in new comics writers, like an overreliance on narration or wordiness in general. Indeed, they’re such accomplished comics writers it’s almost hard to believe this isn’t their home medium. Part of this might be because they’re long-time comics readers–going back to at least junior high, according to Junior High–and part of it may be that their artist collaborator is herself such an accomplished storyteller.
Walden, whose five graphic novels include the 2018 Eisner-winning Spinning, draws the book with a delicate line, punctuated by slightly cartoony but highly expressive designs. True to life, or at least how so many other characters seem to see them, the twins are impossible to tell apart in Walden’s portrayal of them, except for the various points in the book where they speak directly to the reader about their feelings; in these scenes, Tegan is rendered in blue and speaks in blue dialogue, while Sara and her words are red. The rest of the book is, naturally enough, purple.
The book is, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, set in the modern day, rather than the year Tegan and Sara really went through seventh grade (1991, according to the afterword; “You probably weren’t even born yet!” they write, indicating how young the intended audience for the book is). This is part of the fictionalization of the book–other deviations from reality, according to the afterword, include their first band name and the year they found the guitar—and leads to a series of timely cultural signifiers (Nintendo Switch, Stranger Things, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift) and the ubiquitous presence of cellphones in the story, a driving narrative device in several important scenes.
This change is understandable, as it opens the book up to readers who themselves are in junior high and who, one assumes, most need to hear the message that no one really knows who they are or what they are doing when they’re in seventh grade, and to learn from the good and bad behavior modeled in the book by various characters. The way the Quins introduce themselves, their real selves, at the end of the book makes it fairly clear that the book is aimed more at young comics readers who are meeting them for the first time, rather than long-time fans.
The change in eras may, however, be somewhat disappointing to those who are already Tegan and Sara fans, and thus might be interested in how the story really went in real life, who their earlier musical influences were and so on.
Fairly unique among comics for young readers in its mining of reality for high drama, eschewing the elements of fantasy so common in books for readers of a certain age, Junior High is alternately fun, funny, and heartbreaking, an all-around powerful book and a must-read for anyone currently trying to keep their head above water in the whirlpool of junior high–as well as those who have successfully made it through.
Filed under: Reviews
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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