I was shelving books in the teen section at my bookstore job, as I do almost every night at work now, and I spotted among the nonfiction books a thick book whose cover was rendered in soft pastels, with the image of two lines of young girls figure skating, and the word “Spinning” in thick, purple cursive.
“Yeeeessssss,” I whispered to myself, before grabbing the book and clutching it possessively to my chest. I flipped open a page, already knowing what I’d find: comic pages rendered with beautiful simplicity and a gorgeous limited color palette. This was the work of Tillie Walden, a comic artist I’d been following on Twitter for months, whose comics I’d been itching to finally get a chance to read.
So, yeah, I bought the book, and then I read it in a few hours several days later.
Spinning, a comic memoir by Tillie Walden, is the story of Walden’s life as a figure skater for 12 years, but it is also so much more. It’s a coming of age story, and a story about coming out as gay while competing in a sport that pressures young people to conform. It’s a story about friendship, family, the competitive spirit, mental/emotional health, and the powerlessness of girlhood. And it’s absolutely beautiful.
Walden is a fantastic storyteller who knows her medium. She flawlessly navigates the balance between written exposition and letting the art speak for itself. Walden herself is the narrator of the story, and she begins the story at the end: as her nineteen-year-old self, returning to the ice with dread as she explains that skating was her life for twelve years. She then moves the narrative backwards and describes her early years of skating.
There are a few times where Walden flashes back or skips around in a non-sequential manner, but the narrative never feels disrupted. It feels natural, in the way that talking about one’s childhood is sometimes not so simple as what happened when, but rather what the emotional rises and falls were.
Structurally, the comic is broken up into chapters, with each chapter being named after a different jump or figure skating move that Walden learned. Walden gives a brief description of these skating moves and her relationship with them, and these descriptions set the stage for the emotional journey of each chapter.
Tillie as a character is so engaging, so relatable. She struggles to make her voice heard or communicate what she actually wants in life, and staying in the closet compounds this. I cried when I read the chapter about her experience coming out, not because my own experience with coming out was similar, but because she struggled so much to make herself understood and accepted, and (tiny spoiler) when her music teacher simply embraces and accepts her—I could feel how much Tillie needed that. The comic panels just perfectly encapsulate how much that moment meant to her, without Walden elaborating on it in great detail.
In her afterword, Walden writes that “this book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling.” She absolutely succeeds at this. Words don’t really do the atmosphere of these pages justice. It is, in many ways, a quiet and fraught story that feels honest in ways that many writers struggle to achieve. Walden doesn’t romanticize or exaggerate in her story telling, though the art in her panels do evoke a sort of magic.
Spinning is a story that is singular in its perspective, and universal in its themes. It’s a story I needed to read. It’s a story that would have fed my soul when I was a lost and wandering teen. I’m so, so glad that other young people--girls and LGBT kids especially--will be able to find this book on a shelf and read it when they need it most.
Spinning was published by First Second in September, 2017. It is available in paperback for $17.99.
What’s the best comic or graphic novel you’ve ever read? Do you think comics are able to more easily create an atmosphere and feeling than prose?
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.