Author Christina Soontornvat wasn’t sure whether anyone would care about her experiences with middle school, but was eventually persuaded to write about one of the most cringe episodes of her own pre-teen career in this wryly moving graphic novel. I’m so glad she did.
It’s not easy being one of the few Thai people in Christina’s small Texas town, and especially not when you’re a huge sff nerd like she is. Her parents moved to Grangeview from Dallas in order to open an Asian restaurant in her mom’s hometown. The move was difficult for Christina until she met Megan, who quickly became her best friend. Now the inseparable pair are heading into middle school together, with all the changes and turmoil that entails.
The new kids are greeted on their first day by a squad of cheerleaders who are clearly the prettiest, most popular and most poised girls in school. When cheerleading tryouts are announced, Christina and Megan both decide to go for it. Christina fantasizes about being so popular that she can banish her bully into social limbo, and is thrilled when both she and Megan make it through the first round of cuts. Next, however, they must face the most terrifying prospect of all: auditioning in front of a whole-school assembly, before the entire student body votes for whom should be on the squad.
Which is absolutely nuts! Can you imagine having an athletic team chosen by popularity contest instead of by a coaching team with expertise on what their squad actually needs? My God, if some of those armchair blowhards who are my fellow Gooners were allowed to pick Arsenal teams, we’d be facing disaster so quickly if their Twitter ravings are anything to go by. Times have definitely changed for Grangeview since the events depicted here took place, but the experience was still extremely formative, if not outright traumatic, for Christina and her friends.
And this book isn’t just about cheerleading tryouts, tho that does form the core around which it revolves. The Tryout is really about belonging and trying to find your footing in shifting social terrain. There are a lot of really awesome scenes to do with Christina’s Thai background and heritage, as well as wise and loving advice from her white mom. I think the most endearing part of this novel, for me, was how openly Ms Soontornvat discusses her middle-school self’s worst behavior. Young Christina made a lot of extremely relatable mistakes in her quest to fit in, and ultimately became a better person after learning from them. Books like these help kids learn the same things without accidentally inflicting harm in the first place. I know a lot of people don’t like to discuss the not great things they’ve done, but it’s important for readers to see others mess up, acknowledge hurtful behavior and make amends, so that they can learn how to deal with similar events with greater grace than they might have originally had when caught wrong-footed themselves. Stories like these are also good for making kids feel less alone when confronting new and confusing situations.
One thing I did wonder tho while reading this book: were Christina and her friends at a disadvantage because they were freshman? Like, I know it’s absurd that the whole thing is a popularity contest anyway, but I felt that there wasn’t enough info as to how good their competition was, or why they felt like they couldn’t try again the next year. Granted, Christina wasn’t exactly auditioning due to love of the sport, so I can see why one tough experience was enough for her middle school career.
Joanna Cacao’s illustrations, with colors by Amanda Lafrenais, are absolutely delightful, really bringing the story to life. I was also fascinated by the diagram she included of how to make baby chopsticks, one of Christina’s tasks while pitching in at her family’s restaurant, and want to go try it myself!
The Tryout: A Graphic Novel by Christina Soontornvat & Joanna Cacao was published September 6 2022 by Graphix and is available from all good booksellers, including