Living With Viola
Every form of art or genre of literature has its benefits, its way of conveying something that perhaps could not be done so well through another medium. Rosena Fung's middle grade graphic novel Living With Viola is a prime example of the kind of story that has found its just-right mode of expression. Livy is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and at the start of the book, she is beginning at a new school. Enter all of the typical anxieties about being the new girl, in addition to feeling like outsider having grown up in a household with parents who speak Cantonese and pack Chinese meals that Livy's lunchmates tell her smell like "gym shoes." On top of these struggles, Livy doesn't exactly feel... alone. She's living with Viola, after all, an alter ego of sorts who frequently rears up in her mind and tells her what a horrible failure she is. Fung masterfully reflects Livy's overwhelming feelings through often chaotic panels that convey the realities of anxiety and panic in a way that words simply cannot.
We find ourselves inside Livy's mind, and the experience is, quite frankly, overwhelming. Word bubbles slanting in all directions, almost dizzying splashes of color... reading a spread can feel at times like a rollercoaster. If Living With Viola feels overwhelming and chaotic, though, it's tempered with humor, populated by laugh-out-loud moments that young readers will find enjoyable. It's also a story about more than mental health, immigration, and racism, which might be relatable for specific populations but not all; at times, the story is simply about being a middle schooler. The fellow students with whom Livy develops friendships also have their own growing pains, because hey, it's not an easy age. (What age really is?) As desperately sad as Livy feels most of the time, she also has an endearing enthusiasm for books, unicorns, dumplings, and art. There's got to be hope for someone who can get over-the-top excited about new markers... and hope is there indeed. Fung doesn't neatly solve all of Livy's problems but rather offers steps toward healing that may feel like actual next steps for some readers. She also allows her young protagonist to enjoy many parts of her Chinese heritage and shares a glossary of Cantonese words at the end of the book. As Livy comes to see, for every sot jor ("kind of like saying 'crazy'"), there's a delicious lau sah bao (a dessert filled with "hot and melting custard").
Fung has shared that Living With Viola has its roots in her own struggles with anxiety and panic disorder that began when she was a child. She writes in her Author's Note that she felt like a bad person, sad all the time, and "didn't understand why I was always so scared." The experience of feeling like she had a voice in her head calling her awful is manifested in the book through Livy's relationship with the inner Viola. Fung was able to get help when her concerned parents reached out, and she found that some of the therapies in which she engaged were truly useful, even if they couldn't solve all of her problems. Every experience of mental health is different, but there are two messages that Fung conveys to readers both through the story itself and in her Author's Note: talk to someone when you are struggling with your feelings but also discover how your own inner resources—unique to you—can become strengths and coping mechanisms to haul you out of the hardest times. While Livy develops new habits and practices, like breathing exercises and focusing on her surroundings, she also works on calming her anxiety by channeling her emotions and distracting herself through things she enjoys, like drawing.
During these pandemic times, this graphic novel may especially speak to young readers who experience all manner of anxiety from their changing world, which of course includes the already-challenging social landscape of the middle grades. Fung has brilliantly offered a work of art that can provide reflection and hope for those who feel isolated in their struggles with panic and anxiety—and perhaps even make them laugh. But does Viola ever really go away? Pick up a copy of Living With Viola to find out, and check out the video below to hear Rosena Fung share a bit about creating the book.