I learned years ago that it’s okay to do this. To seek out small spaces for myself, to stop and imagine myself alone. People are too much sometimes. Friends, acquaintances, enemies, strangers. It doesn’t matter; they all crowd. Even if they’re all the way across the room, they crowd. I take a moment of silence and think: I am here. I am okay.
Eliza and Her Monsters, by Francesca Zappia

It’s less than a year until Eliza Mirk graduates from high school, and she’s okay with that:

My parents wonder why I don’t have more friends, and this is why: because I don’t want to be friends with these people. Even the nice ones think I’m weird; I can see it in their faces when they get paired with me for projects. I’m the person you pray the teacher doesn’t call for your group. Not because I’m a terrible student, or because I make you do all the work, but because I dress like a homeless person and I never talk. When I was really little, it was endearing. Now it’s strange.

The thing is, she does have friends. They’re just online. They’ve never met in person, but she’s been friends with Max and Emmy for years—they’re so close that they talk every day, send each other care packages, and work together on the website that hosts Eliza’s webcomic, Monstrous Sea.

Her family knows that she loves to draw, they know that she spends a lot of time online, and they even know about the existence of Monstrous Sea…but they don’t know how huge it is. They don’t know that online, she’s famous. Pseudonymously, but famous nonetheless. They don’t know that her creation has so many fans that the merch store has earned her enough money to pay for college, and then some.

I loved this book. Granted, I tend to love books that deal with online relationships and online fandom and online culture and fanfiction and creators and so on—see Fangirl and Gena/Finn and The Truth Commission, for a few examples—but this one is a standout even so.

Appropriately, while it’s primarily written in straightforward prose, there are also excerpts from Monstrous Sea (comic panels and prose), and text threads and IM chats, etc. And Zappia does a beautiful job of making those online interactions feel warmer, more dynamic, and more immediate than Eliza’s IRL experiences, especially at first. This moment—in which a conversation with her friends is cut off by a question by her father—highlights that nicely:

I snicker. Dad looks over his shoulder at me. “What’s so funny, Eggs?”I turn off the phone and press it to my sketchbook again. Annoyance pings over my humor, little dark spots in the lightness. “Nothing.”

The text threads are not only laugh-out-loud funny, they FEEL REAL. And even without the handles, all of the voices are distinct—they’d be recognizable WITHOUT the handles.

As for characterization, her parents are decent people, and they honestly don’t understand her. But they’re not perfect, and while it’s clear that they’ve reached out to her again and again, they don’t seem to be trying to understand her, either. They’re quite dismissive of her online life, and to a degree, they’re dismissive of her art, as well. But—and this is a ‘but’ that is crucial—the lack of understanding, and the lack of trying to understand, the dismissiveness, goes both ways. (Note: I’m not talking fault here, I’m talking about what the dynamics are.) In other words, Zappia clearly understands them as real people, and readers will, too, if they read around and past Eliza’s lens.

While this book made me laugh out loud again and again, it made me cry, too. Not because of the love story. Not because of the grace and empathy and realism with which it dealt with and discussed anxiety. Not because of the respect it has for the Power of Story or for online friendships. It does all of those things and more, but none of that was what made me cry.

What made me cry were the moments in which the three siblings—Eliza has two younger brothers who are close with each other, but not with her—stand united against their parents. Not because the parents are being Mean Jerks or anything like that, but because sometimes Getting It is partly a generational thing, and because sometimes the only other people who truly Get It, at a core level, are your siblings.

Lovely, lovely, love.

And now I’m off to get caught up on Zappia’s backlist!

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom and The Backlist, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.