Written and Drawn by Tracy White
Published by Roaring Brook Press

Reviewed by Marc Mason

“Stacy Black” is a confused young woman of 17. She’s in an unhealthy relationship, she is taking a lot of drugs, and her level of unhappiness is growing at a rate that threatens to eclipse her life if she’s not careful. So after she engages in a nasty bit of self-harm, she does the only thing she can think of: check herself into a mental hospital for a short stay to try and get her life back on track. But as she begins what is supposed to be the healing process, she digs deeper and deeper into other issues that are scratching and clawing at the edges of her existence. And suddenly that short stay begins to stretch out into a much longer therapeutic adventure.

HOW I MADE TO EIGHTEEN is the debut graphic novel from Tracy White, and it’s certainly a powerful piece of work. As the author describes it, the book is “mostly true because I skipped over things, moved events around, embellished, and occasionally just plain made things up.” But even if the book doesn’t hold up as 100% factual, the truth of White’s experience as a teen definitely does. Drugs, the search for personal identity, eating disorders, abandonment issues… White fills “Black’s” world with enough reality that whatever enhancements appear here, they aren’t significant enough to derail the work.

As I read the book, I struggled a bit with the cartooning aspect. White’s work is almost deceptively simple; devoid of detail, she presents the Stacy’s world as one of nearly pure black and white with very little gray. At times, I wondered why she hadn’t just gone ahead and done her story as a straight-out prose project. Yet as I went through the book a second time, I began to get a better sense of what she was trying to do with the storytelling and panels, and I got more out of it. Would a more complex approach perhaps better served the story? Maybe. But what White does here is ultimately quite effective in helping us get to know her and develop a rooting interest in her.

And that’s important. If you aren’t onboard with wanting Stacy to get her life back together, then the book is moot. White doesn’t shy away from highlighting her own bad behavior, and at times, it is difficult to feel for Stacy. But once you’re fully immersed in her experience of trying to find her own truth and find a way to be happy again, the book comes together and really works. This is a brave piece of work, and one that will wind up on more than a few class reading lists in high school and college.