Review: The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg. DC Comics, 2007. Currently available.

Genre: YA Graphic Novel

Face Value: Bold and incredibly cool, this cover is hard to miss. There is a mix of graphic and photographic. We have a bit of disembodied female going on with the legs of the Janes at the top, but in this case I find it tastefully handled. The feet and legs of these girls give us a taste of the vastly different personalities of our four leading ladies – and each is set in a strong stance that broadcasts assertive confidence. I also like the typewriter style font for the title. It adds that nice geeky touch.

Does it break the slate? Definitely. The Janes choose to subvert social expectations to challenge those living in their community. Although Castellucci and Rugg introduce us to four girls slotted into narrow stereotypes (athlete, science geek, drama nerd, and new girl), we get to see each girl grow out of that mold and showcase other interests and abilities.

And it’s not just the story and characters that break the slate, but the book itself. Comics and graphic novels are a historically “boy” genre. When DC Comics launched MINX (an imprint devoted to comics for teen girls) with The Plain Janes, it was a slatebreaking endeavor. Unfortunately, MINX folded in 2008.

Who would we give it to? Girls who don’t have a place to sit in the cafeteria. Reluctant readers who feel that they have limited age-appropriate YA choices. Teens who feel marginalized because of their extracurricular, academic, or personal interests.

Review: When I pick up a graphic novel, I am not only looking for the engaging plot and striking characters that I seek in a typical novel, but I also want a unified aesthetic. The Plain Janes definitely pleases the eye. I love the detailed black and white drawings by Jim Rugg. I also appreciate that the girls in this book are drawn looking like teen girls. They have normal, developing bodies just like real girls do, with a variety of body types are represented. The girls aren’t overly-busty in the way that they are drawn in some other graphic novels.

Jane lives in Metro City and is injured during a bombing. Worried for her safety, Jane’s parents uproot the whole family and land somewhere in suburbia. Jane is so shaken by the attack and the subsequent move that she isn’t quite sure of anything, even herself. She changes her look and her philosophy on life. When she arrives at her new school, she faces the typical new student challenge: finding a place to sit in the cafeteria. Rather than sitting with the popular girls, Jane is attracted to a table of misfits – who also all happen to be named some variation of Jane.

This is where the story really won me over. Rather than having the misfits welcome Jane with open arms as they would in any teen movie and lots of other YA novels, the misfits are suspicious. Why would the new girl want to sit with them? Jane has to work to win over Jane, Jayne, and Polly Jane. She proves to them that she means well and is worthy of friendship. Then she proposes her big idea: forming a super-secret girl gang that creates guerrilla public art displays. The girls form P.L.A.I.N.: People Loving Art In Neighborhoods.

P.L.A.I.N. causes varying reactions. The Janes’ peers tend to appreciate the art, while the adults in the community see the pop-up art exhibits as attacks on the community. With the dialogue and artwork, Castellucci and Rugg do an excellent job of probing the nature of our post-9/11 culture. While the girls see their work as beautiful and necessary, they have to grapple with the idea that some people consider them terrorists. This aspect of the book really connected with me. I think that this book is aimed at a younger reader group that experienced September 11th but perhaps was not old enough to understand its implications at the time. Since the 9/11 attacks, our culture has become increasingly fearful and suspicious, and that’s difficult for teens, who already have to encounter a great deal of suspicion in everything they do. The Plain Janes thoughtfully explores this through sparse but direct dialogue and evocative images.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that it felt abrupt. What happens with Jane and Damon? I need to know if and how P.L.A.I.N. continues! There is a sequel, so hopefully that will answer some of my questions.

The Plain Janes is a unique little book because it is a quick and easy read, but it keeps the reader engaged and gets you thinking about the issues of ageism, sexism, and fear-mongering. I became fired up while reading because it had me thinking about how I would react in those situations – for example, if a police officer had said to me that “the attacks were too labor intensive to be a girl.” Arrrgh! Ultimately, the Janes are amazing girls who band together to impact their community – whether the impact is positive or negative is up to the reader to decide.

Reviewed from a copy given to me for my birthday by Sarah. Thanks Sarah!

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3 Responses to Review: The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg

  1. Lee says:

    Hi Sarah and Brianna! Lee here. Lisa pointed me toward your blog, and I think it is wonderful. I have a 13 year old sister who is in love with Sarah Dessen. I haven’t had a chance to read any myself, and I would be really interested to hear your thoughts!

    • Brianna says:

      Hi Lee! Welcome to Slatebreakers! Thanks for visiting. Sarah and I are both Sarah Dessen fans and we will definitely put her in the lineup for an upcoming review. We love suggestions, and this is really helpful as we plan upcoming content.

  2. Sarah says:

    Lee! Thanks for the support & comment. Mostly this post will just agree with Brianna – we love Sarah Dessen’s books, hate the covers, and will definitely be talking about her in the future. If you want to read one to get a sense of her work, I recommend The Truth About Forever (my personal fave) as a good starting point. But if your sister loves them, she has great taste. If she’s finished Dessen’s body of work & is looking for similar titles, can I suggest Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson or Speak or Prom by Laurie Halse Anderson?

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