Review: Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

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Skim is a graphic novel written and drawn by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, respectively. It’s a slice-of-life story following Kimberley Keiko Cameron, commonly known as “Skim,” and her experiences with religion, friendship, romance, and school. Shortly after the story begins, the ex-boyfriend of a classmate dies by suicide, sending Skim’s all-girl’s high school into a frenzy. Her classmates and the guidance counselor obsess over suicide and depression, singling out Skim as a suicide risk for not being like the other girls.

Cover for SkimSkim is not diagnosed as depressed in the book, and going by my high school experience alone, I can’t tell whether she is or isn’t depressed. I was self-aware of my depression and demanded that I get help I thought was appropriate, while Skim’s experience is far subtler. People told me that I wasn’t depressed, or that I was wrong about its root cause. The people at Skim’s school imply that they believe she’s depressed and make gestures at helping her, while Skim resists their armchair diagnoses. Her grades slip during the book, and there are times when her mood is best described as empty or downhearted. If she has depression, it’s expressed very different from mine.

While my adolescent depression impacted my judgement and made concentrating difficult, I could pinpoint other people’s sincerity. If someone tried to cheer me up, it was clear if their words were to make themselves look good, or if they actually cared.

Skim’s guidance counselor, specialists brought in to aid students, and a student-led club called Girls Celebrate Life are all reminiscent of “help” I received in high school. Girls Celebrate Life believes in treating depression with cheer, adorning a bulletin board with pictures and exclamation points, hosting movie nights, and organizing a school dance. At one point the club president hugs Skim out of the blue. Instead of focusing on Skim, the artist shows the president’s face, which shows no sign of concern or affection towards Skim. While my own classmates weren’t the hugging type, they believed exhibiting depressive symptoms was disgusting. They preferred it when I watched movies with them, covered my self-harm bruises or otherwise drew attention away from my misery—similarly to Skim’s peers.

Skim’s school runs gym classes on breathing techniques, and special lessons encouraging self-love. One class consists of students writing down what makes them happy. No purpose is given to this one-shot unit, nor do teachers explain how the class relates to depression or suicide prevention. My high school experience with mental health lessons were just as brief and superficial.

Rather than a proper unit, we were told to research a mental illness on our own time and present our findings to the class. Our teacher’s contribution was to tell us warning signs of suicide, implying it’s a condition that happens to other people, and never a thing her own students would struggle with.

I still have mixed feelings about suicide prevention initiatives. In my experience the focus is on discouraging the act rather than addressing why the person wants to die in the first place. The sad person may or may not be treated as a moral failure. The emphasis is on helping other people feel accomplished.

In “Skim,” Girls Celebrate Life hold a memorial filled with hopeful words aimed at the depressed and suicidal. The ceremony is filmed before news cameras, with club members talking to the microphones. No one in the book comments on this, but Girls Celebrate Life seem more interested in sounding good for the camera than in remembering the boy who killed himself or reaching out to classmates with more than hugs or movies.

A few pages in Skim are devoted to rumors as to why the boy took his life. Some girls speculate that he took his life over an unrequited samesex crush. The school could have devoted energy towards promoting acceptance of queer students, explaining why compassion and understanding are important. Likewise, the school could have how important it is to support those with mental illness. What actually happens is the girls make fun of the boy’s possible orientation. For all the talk of preventing death and depression, daily school life and club activities remain their priority. Skim and I didn’t have identical experiences, but I still recognized the superficial, unhelpful approach to suicide in high school.

Another thing Skim and I have in common are adolescent questions regarding our orientations. Skim’s peers are either single, or dating guys, while Skim is in love with a woman. She never comes out as any particular orientation, nor does she angst about not being heterosexual. What bothers her is romance and whether being in love is a good thing. There is more to explore in queer adolescent characters other than unhappiness with their sexuality, which Skim acknowledges.

As a protagonist, Skim sidesteps many clichés inflicted on teenage characters. While her love life constitutes a major part of the book, her world doesn’t revolve around romance. She’s not a monster, not a delinquent, not tied to the phone, and doesn’t fall into any stock school clique. Skim comes across as comfortable in her own skin, without a need to stand out from the crowd. Her introverted moments and occasional reticence may make her appear shallow or moody to other characters, but we see the inside of her head and know this isn’t the case.

Other details of note include Skim’s nickname, which comes from classmates making fun of her weight. She herself doesn’t obsess over her appearance. A few panels show Skim applying makeup or dressing for special occasions, but she’s neither looks-driven nor apathetic. I also like that Skim is biracial, and that her ancestry does not make her miserable. She’s half white, half Japanese, and portrayed as ordinary rather than a model minority.

Overall, I recommend giving Skim a read. The story is quiet, low-key, and never boring. The book is multifaceted, not just focusing on Skim’s orientation, depression, or friendships. The mixture of elements in Skim’s daily life add depth and interest. She and her classmates are credible as adolescents, rather than idealized or exaggerated.

In terms of Skim’s portrayal of depression, I think it does a good job of showing misguided attempts to help others with the condition. Undoing depression or averting a suicide through a few thought exercises and a school dance seems like a sunny, feel-good experience, but falls very short of treating mental illness. The book seems to understand this, and lets the reader see the absurdity for themselves.



About Author

Emmalia Harrington

Emmalia Harrington is a librarian and non-fiction writer hoping to publish novels. She has a deep love of speculative fiction and ever-shrinking shelf space. When she isn't reading or writing, she's making things or spending time with her husband and cats.

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4 Comments

  1. Emmalia,
    I myself am battling with depression and anxiety. I can relate how its hard to tell if you may really have it because people assume that you may just need church, or “it gets better.” Though, It may be a graphic book I believe it could work in the classroom setting to help other students become aware of the illness. Its complex and interesting, and something students could really get into. I also find it interesting how the writer incorporates the misguiding attempts to “help” other students, when really they just need love and support. I will definitely be checking out this novel.

  2. Marissa Steeves on

    You pointed out a lot of issues with depression in schools that I had not realized before. I think that your own adolescent struggles were very similar to many also seen in “Skim”. We need to better guide students who are dealing with depression in a way that focuses on individual needs. Everyone experiences different circumstances that leads up to mental illness, so I also have mixed feelings about suicide prevention initiatives. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Wonderful review, though I wonder what you thought about the relationship between Skim and her teacher. To me, it didn’t just cross the line; rather, it normalized a predatory action on the part of a person in a position of authority. It seems that because there is SO much to love about this book, that many reviewers and fans of it skip over an important and troubling aspect of it. (Granted, I may have completely misread this relationship, so feel free to offer your reading of it)

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