A refreshingly fun and hopeful take on the coming of age story, Jessica Walton and Aśka’s Stars in Their Eyes is a graphic novel that celebrates nerdiness and reinforces the value of representation, all while exploring first love, self-care and identity.
The story follows Maisie as her Mum takes her to her first Fancon. Maisie is a queer, disabled teenager with chronic pain and anxiety, and as excited as she is to be there and to meet her hero, amputee actor Kara Bufano, Fancon presents its own challenges. When she meets Ollie, a cute volunteer who she seems to have a lot in common with, Maisie has to hope that her embarrassing mum won’t ruin her chance.
I’ll be up front, I’m neither disabled nor queer so I can’t speak to the representation in this book. I am, however, a massive nerd, and can therefore say beyond doubt that this story perfectly illustrates (no pun intended) how books, movies, and TV speak to us as fans, how it brings us together, and helps us discover our own identities.
Maisie says at one point in the story that seeing Kara Bufano, an amputee just like her, on screen as a kick-arse superhero helped her begin to love herself. It’s a story so many of us can relate to, as we search for our own places in the world. There are plenty of easter eggs here for nerd-culture fans like “Tarah Connor” from Robot Girl, the Time Doctor, Far Fleet in Far Trek, and Sci-fi Wars… any convention goer will appreciate the portrayal of pressing crowds, the stalls full of merch, the uncomfortable seats in the panel halls, the extortionately expensive food, and of course the cosplayers. There is a sense of both excitement and exhaustion that is instantly recognisable.
There are also moments that make it clear what the boundaries are for non-disabled, cis or hetero people when interacting with someone like Maisie. In an early scene, Maisie has to deal with people staring and commenting on her leg when she goes to the motel swimming pool and is immediately made to feel uncomfortable. Likewise in a later scene, her Mum, though well-intentioned, outs her to Ollie when she realises Maisie is interested. Maisie is immediately embarrassed and tells her Mum that she’s crossed the line. As a reader, you immediately cringe for Maisie in both situations and are invited to reflect on how not to behave in similar situations.
Aside from all this though, Stars in Their Eyes is a story of first love and of family. Maisie’s mum is embarrassing but endlessly supportive, and would do anything for her daughter. The depiction of Maisie and Ollie’s interactions (and their parent’s reactions to them) throughout the day is one of the most realistic portrayals of teenage love I’ve ever seen. It’s fast, it’s intense, it’s often awkward but at that age it’s also innocent, filled with fan-fiction-like dreams and conversations about food and music. My props go to the author for Maisie’s conversation with her Mum at the end of it all.
I can’t finish without mentioning Aśka’s art style. The attention to detail is superb without taking away from the story, enhancing all the nerdy references, evoking the very sense of the Fancon, and creating a clear pathway for readers to understanding everything that was happening.
This book was a delight to read. Sweet, fun, and gentle but not without its layers of complexity and social commentary. It is perfect for young adults, especially those who may be struggling to find their own place in the world. The graphic novel format makes it accessible even to reluctant readers and the art gives it a fun and fresh feel despite some of the heavier thematic elements.