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‘Esther’s Notebooks’ (Pantheon Graphic Library, review)

Written and Illustrated by by Riad Sattouf
Published by Pantheon Graphic Library
Release Date: January 24, 2023

 

French cartoonist Riad Sattouf is new to me but the format of his new collection, Esther’s Notebooks is not.

It’s a variation on the theme perhaps most memorably utilized in the late Jack Mendelsohn’s comic strip, Jackys Diary (no apostrophe).

I worked behind-the-scenes on the Yoe Books collection of that strip a few years back. It’s essentially the musings of a little boy on how he interprets the language and events of the world around him.

Esther’s Notebooks are the supposedly true musings of a little girl on the language and events in the world around her.

The difference is that in Mendelsohn’s case, Jacky was meant to be him when he was little. In Esther’s case, Esther’s sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes pithy, and sometimes clueless, ruminations come second hand.

We are told that Sattouf spent three years meeting with a friend’s chatty daughter, from ages 9-12, with the artist apparently taking extensive notes and then translating everything she told him into Esther’s Notebooks.

This book is a delightful compilation of the three original volumes, now translated into English. While some of the episodes of little Esther’s life are sad, others are quite delightful and silly, and all of them strike universal chords. Just like real childhood—which we adults often forget—Esther’s life gets pretty scary at times, and is often NSFW, mostly language-wise, but with some gore and other things as well. As a semi-realistic book about children, this book is not meant FOR children.

She’s a good kid, though—neither an angel nor a brat. We meet her father, her mother, her brothers, her friends, her frenemies, her idols, her teachers, her imaginary boyfriends, etc. The strips deal mainly with her school life and her home life during those formative tween years.

Sattouf, too, seems a “good kid.” While at first, the whole idea of Esther’s Notebooks felt intrusive to me—literally having this little girl provide 100% of the material for your comic strip for years—his execution quickly won me over.

Sattouf is one of those cartoonists who makes it all look simple and effortless. There’s no separate listing for a colorist so I assume the author gets credit for that as well, and the spare use of mostly muted colors adds immeasurably to the book’s overall feel.

Presuming that much of the dialogue was patterned after the real girl’s and not word for word transcription, Sattouf shows a real ear for being able to write LIKE a little girl, too! Similarly, translator Sam Taylor has done an excellent job here as it all sounds realistic, even in English.

There was actually a French animated version of Esther’s Notebooks, too, and subtitled episodes can be found online on YouTube. It’s good! And so is this collection. I think Jack Mendelsohn would have enjoyed it!

Booksteve recommends.

 

 

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