Toronto cartoonist Rosena Fung is well known on the zine and comics festival circuit, and while for many readers her first full-length graphic novel will showcase a new talent, for others Living with Viola is a long-anticipated triumph.
Fung’s own experiences as a child of immigrants and with an anxiety disorder are at the root of her fictional story. Protagonist Livy, short for Olivia, starts at a new school and making friends is going … fine? As she gets closer to a small group of girls, she worries that she’ll never really fit in. Her lunches are “smelly” and “weird,” after all. And her new friend Charlotte Zhang – whose parents don’t speak Chinese or even eat rice – is rich, while Olivia’s dad struggles with two jobs. Even Olivia’s extended family is disappointed by her middling grades and artistic ambitions.
To make matters worse, she’s constantly told that being different isn’t okay. Her anxiety, in the form of a periwinkle-coloured ghostly version of herself (named Viola), appears to feed her self-doubt at every turn. Even Olivia’s love of delicious dumplings or her favourite fantasy novels can’t ward off Viola any longer. Viola’s incessant negativity begins to spill out into Olivia’s daily interactions with her friends, family, and teachers.
Fung makes excellent use of a restricted, bold palette that complements the fluid lines of her intricate and lively pages. As the blues of Viola increase, the slippery word balloons expressing Olivia’s anxiety slosh together into an ocean of hurt that threatens to engulf her. Living with Viola makes exemplary use of the graphic novel medium to visualize the narrative’s emotional content. This is a rich, moving, multimodal reading experience.
The lettering in the book is its only persistent weakness; some of the digitally lettered word balloons sit awkwardly amid Fung’s sinuous lines. Despite this, readers will appreciate some of Fung’s other lettering choices, such as the decision to render conversations in Cantonese in red (any untranslated Cantonese words appear in a glossary at the back) and her frequent switches to warmer hand-lettering for many of the book’s most expressive moments. And to be clear, the hiccups with the lettering do not diminish the impact of the work as a whole.
Living with Viola is a major middle-grade graphic novel debut that explores Fung’s weighty themes deftly and with nuance. This is a wonderful book that young readers and grown-up graphic novel aficionados will both appreciate and love.