Friday, November 14, 2008

The Plain Janes--Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg (book review)

After her parents move to a small town to protect their family from the fear of terrorist attacks in the big city, Jane starts the P.L.A.I.N. club: People Loving Art In Neighborhoods. It's guerilla art: bubbles in the fountain, gnomes on the lawn of the police station, parking meters and fire hydrants gift-wrapped for the holidays. The town doesn't react in the way Jane expects.

It's been interesting, introducing myself to graphic novels over the past four months. I'm gradually figuring out what works for me in this genre. So let's look at one that does, The Plain Janes, and see what makes this mainstream fiction reader give 5 stars to a graphic novel.

1. The voice and the characters
I don't care what the genre, books are all about character to me. Show me a cookbook where the author's personality shines through, and I'll read through 18 recipes for mud. So it shouldn't be surprising that in a graphic novel I'm looking for characters who grab me.

Here's Jane, on her first day of school, after a girl she's never met invites her to sit at the "popular" table:
I know this girl. I bet her name is Kim or Zoe or Cindy. I used to be this girl.
It would be so easy to sit with her. I'd be made.
My whole career here at Buzz Aldrin High hangs in the balance.
Like I care.

Jane blows off the popular girl and instead decides to make friends with three rather socially awkward girls, all named some variation of Jane, who have no interest in her sparkling efforts at conversation. The relationships between the Janes evolve, heartwarming and real at the same time. Cindy, too, has more to her than just the stereotypical Popular Girl, but it takes Jane a while to figure that out.

2. The art work
I'm not very good at describing art, or what distinguishes one style from another. I took just enough Art History in college to know I don't know what I'm talking about. But I do know facial expressions and body language, and when the artist portrays them clearly, it makes a world of difference in the depth of the novel.

In Plain Janes, there's a panel at the bottom of one of the pages with no dialogue, just a couple of guys sitting behind Jane in the cafeteria, one of them slouching, reading a book. He doesn't show up again ("Who was that guy?") for about twenty pages. By the time he got some dialogue, I was at least as primed to get to know him as Jane was.

You can't do that in a regular novel. It's not possible. Artist Jim Rugg does it masterfully.

3. The storyline

Is it too obvious to say that the storyline has to appeal? But, for a long time I had this idea that graphic novels were all superheroes and Manga. I like to read about true-to-life people with regular-sized eyes and hair that isn't blue or purple. People I can relate to, doing things that make sense to me. Girls banding together to sneak "art attacks" on a little town? Definitely. (This book would make a great gift for a girl who loved The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, of which I know several.)

Soundtrack: As soon as I heard author Cecil Castellucci's voice singing "My Chores" on her Myspace page I couldn't think of any other song that fits this book as well. I'd love to put it on my playlist but I can't, so go listen to hers! You can also find Cecil at, and artist Jim Rugg (who co-authored Street Angel with Brian Maruca) at

The sequel to Plain Janes, Janes in Love, just came out. I can't wait to read it.

Have you reviewed books by these authors? Post in the comments and I'll add your link here.


  1. I've been reading a lot of graphic novels/comic books lately, but like you they have to have a certain something else for me to like them. I've never heard of this series, but it sounds really great!


  2. I have yet to read a graphic novel and the one time I attempted to search for one at Borders they ALL seemed geared to 14 yrold boys. Where do you find ones like this? They didn't even have Persepolis. MAYBE I was in the wrong section but the one guy I asked had never even heard of it so I gave up.

  3. Care, Honest answer? As soon as I see a review that seems like my kind of graphic novel, I pounce on my library's online card catalog and place a hold.

    I think bookstores don't know where to shelve these. Powells has Persepolis categorized as a memoir as well as graphic novel, I'm not sure where it's shelved in the actual store. But how a bookstore employee could be bewildered by Persepolis--I just came across the DVD of the movie at a chain video rental place, for pete's sake!--is beyond me. My Borders (and my cute tiny bookstore and Barnes & Noble) will look things up on the computer and either find it or order it for me, maybe try that?