Spinning

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Spinning Book Poster Image
Frank, sensitive coming-of-age tale of young lesbian skater.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Chapters open with names and detailed descriptions of ice skating moves and jumps. Explanation of "synchro," competitions and rules, "worlds," tiered age categories, etc. Girls mention books they're reading, such as Twilight. Teacher reads extended passage from Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree.

Positive Messages

If you feel lost and adrift, you can find your way. "Do what you love and the money will come." Helpful adults can step in and be supportive. Strong interests and a passion can anchor and guide you. Even if your sexuality isn't supported, you can have the courage to explore it and be true to yourself.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though Tillie is lonely and adrift, she finds her way. She dedicates herself to skating and finds pleasure and meaning. Though an outcast, she finds friends. Though she has to "sit with the dumb kids" in school, she eventually triumphs via art. She's true to her inner lesbian identity even when she knows family, friends, and society at large may disapprove.

Violence

Male SAT tutor pushes himself on Tillie sexually, but she fights him off. Bullying girl makes other girls take off clothes and kiss while she watches. Mom is cruel verbally when she discovers Tillie's a lesbian. A mom at the rink grabs her roughly and yells at her for not paying for ice sessions. Two cars crash near her, but she's spared.

Sex

Tillie and her friend Rae kiss and experiment sexually during sleepovers, details not explicit. Mention of make-out sessions at sleepovers with other girls. Tillie and Rae watch a heterosexual "How to Kiss a Girl" video. Male SAT tutor shows her pictures of naked women. Reference to periods, tampons, crotch.

Language

Infrequent language includes one use of "d--khead" and a cluster of "f--k" that appears over four pages in an emotionally heightened passage toward the end of the book.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Spinning is a coming-of-age memoir by Tillie Walden, a talented young graphic novelist newly in her 20s, still close to the teen years she writes about. The book is set very specifically in the competitive ice skating world in which she was immersed, and the intensity of the coaching and competition will be familiar to others who are deeply involved in a sport or in ballet, musical instrument study, or another consuming extracurricular. Tillie is a lesbian who knew she was attracted to girls from age 5, and one particular crush results in an eighth grade romance with sexual exploration. She also fights off a male SAT tutor who tries to push himself on her sexually. There's rare use of profanity, including "d--khead" one time and several uses of "f--k" over four pages toward the end of the book. Spinning is especially helpful for teens who feel adrift or disaffected. There's hope and inspiration in the fact that Walden went on to excel at visual art and produce this thoughtfully observed book.

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What's the story?

SPINNING is a graphic novel memoir that spans the author's youth from age 11 through high school. At first Tillie lives in New Jersey, waking up early every morning to take ice skating lessons before school, but after fifth grade, her family moves to Austin, Texas, and her emotionally absent parents drop her abruptly at her new rink. She has to adjust to new skating friends, a new style of coaching, and new cliques at school. While fending off a bully, she becomes close to a girl named Rae, and they have an eighth grade romance, though they move on to different high schools. Tillie continues to practice and compete in "mid-level competitive figure skating," and though her heart's not always in skating, she works hard to earn the rank she's aiming for. 

Is it any good?

This poignant coming-of-age memoir set in the all-consuming world of ice skating competition rings with emotional honesty as it deals frankly with feelings of alienation and lesbian attraction. Graphic novelist Tillie Walden tinges Spinning with a sweet sadness. While the moms of the other skaters micromanage from a "mom table," Tillie's mom is remote and cold, and her parents never come to practice, much less competitions. She's left to find her own way emotionally, a bit like a latchkey kid, if the key was to a skating rink. She craves connection -- with friends, with girls she has crushes on, and with her female coaches and teachers, whom she resourcefully turns to for simple affection. Though the setting's specific to ice skating, the rigor and discipline will be familiar to many tightly scheduled kids, and the emotional content feels intensely real and relatable. The plot hits many standard YA notes -- a family move, adjusting to new schools, cliques, girl bullying, sexual advances by a male adult in an authority position -- and her first love is both tender and fraught.

The deep purple and yolk-yellow palette is particularly effective at evoking the violet light of early, predawn practices. Walden has an observant eye for visual detail and a keen ear for conversation, and while the memoir has the fragmented feel of real life and doesn't always tie neat bows, it movingly chronicles the hopeful story of a girl lost and ultimately found.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the family relationships in Spinning. What do we learn about Tillie's mom and dad? Does Tillie feel warmth from them? How or how not?

  • How do you envision or did you experience your first kiss? Tinged with "fear," like Tillie's?

  • How is telling a memoir in graphic novel form different? What sorts of details does Walden choose to illustrate in the art and not state in the text? What emotional moments does she highlight in art only?

Book details

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