Image of Guts: A Graphic Novel
Release Date: 
September 17, 2019
Reviewed by: 

“Fans of Smile and Sisters will find this an equally compelling read, full of wisdom, humor, and Telgemeier’s engaging visual storytelling.”

Like her earlier graphic novels Smile and Sisters, Raina Telgemeier’s Guts is an autobiographical tale focusing on her early years (in this case, fifth grade). With wit, compassion, and loads of visual flair, it tells of young Raina coming to grips with her fears and growing in her understanding of the world.

The story opens in the middle of the night, when both Raina and her mother experience stomachaches and end up vomiting. Thinking it’s just a bug going around, Raina eventually shrugs it off. At school, she’s already got plenty to distract her: mean girls, boys who love gross-out humor, friends entering puberty, and the usual challenges of early adolescence. Her classmates are merciless. A kid who vomits and drops his writing utensil in it is thereafter known by the nickname, Pencil Puke. As a self-described “nervous kid,” Raina desperately wants to avoid attracting that kind of attention.

In conversations with her friends, Raina happily details her family’s weird eating habits:

“My little brother, Will, eats baby carrots, taco shells, grated cheddar cheese and raw spaghetti. That’s it. My mom’s perfect meal—get this—is a glass of milk, a steamed artichoke, and mayonnaise.”

But when her queasiness and stomachaches return, she’s reluctant to share that knowledge with her classmates. Telgemeier’s visual rendering of that sick feeling is surrealistic and inventive, perfectly amplifying the scene’s emotions. As her stomach challenges continue, Raina’s mother takes her to the doctor, who pronounces her “healthy as a horse.” But the pains and queasiness don’t stop.

Soon, anything that worries Raina (speaking in front of the class, seeing someone else vomit, etc.) causes that about-to-puke sensation. She abandons her oral report, flees from the sick kids in the nurse’s office, and gags when she discovers her mom’s leftover artichoke in her lunch bag. For her, the fear of vomiting is worse than the act itself.

Raina does find some bright spots—her cartooning, her best friend, Calvin & Hobbes—but her condition worsens. Finally, her mother takes her to visit a therapist. Raina doesn’t see the point: “Why do I have to go to therapy to talk about that?” she asks. But her mom convinces her to continue.

Other stressors appear in her life. Her best friend starts getting chummy with the mean girl. Other friends entering puberty treat her like she’s excluded from some private club. Ultimately, the therapy sessions give Raina the courage to examine her fears and address them in some unexpected ways.

Throughout, Telgemeier’s simple yet sophisticated artwork leads the way, amplifying the story and making it relatable to readers, and indeed, to anyone dealing with their fears. Fans of Smile and Sisters will find this an equally compelling read, full of wisdom, humor, and Telgemeier’s engaging visual storytelling.