Gadget Girl by Suzanne Kamata is a sweet story about fifteen-year-old Aiko who has cerebral palsy and for most of her life has been her mother’s muse. The conflict begins when Aiko decides that not only does she no longer want to pose for the figures that have made her mother famous, but instead wants to work on her own dreams of being a manga artist and meeting her father. Despite the use of some cliché characters, Kamata has created a touching coming-of-age novel.
The relationship between Aiko and her mother captivated me. The two clearly have a close relationship. They talk about their lives and their art. They eat out and shop together. Her mother rejects those dates who are unable to handle Aiko’s disability. At the same time, there comes a point in every young girl’s life when she needs to pull away from her parents and find her own identity. For Aiko, this time come has come. She begins to wish that her mother was less famous. She starts wondering if her mother might have been the one in the wrong instead of her father, whom she knows nothing about except that he lives in Japan. Finally, Aiko begins to waffle between the desire to be invisible and the desire to be known as the creator of the manga superhero, Gadget Girl.
Aiko’s budding development as an artist also entranced me. She is clearly passionate about art. Every free second, when not spent with family or friends, she devotes to her comic. Although Aiko prefers to keep secret her identity as its creator, she does create a website for her work and regularly checks it for hits and email. She also likes to distribute copies of new issues in select spots and to receive donations. Interests in her life, such as a school crush, tend to get reflected in the story line of her comic. As do changes in her life, the biggest being her mom winning a trip to Paris. In fact, at times, Aiko’s identity as the creator is in danger of being recognized because of how much of herself sneaks into the pages of her comic.
Unfortunately, when it comes to minor characters, Kamata at times falls back on stereotypes. For example, Aiko’s school crush is Chad Renquist, male model and class heartthrob. He has neatly clipped hair, chocolate eyes, and well-developed biceps. Of course he already has a girlfriend. Of course the girlfriend is a cheerleader. Naturally, Aiko compares herself to the cheerleaders, whom she also refers to as the Beautiful Ones. I know they exist in every school, but do they have to exist in every young adult novel?
I’d be remiss if I ended my review without a discussion of Aiko’s disability. I admire a point that Kamata seems to make. One of the inspirations for Aiko’s Gadget Girl superhero is her desire to be the opposite of who she is. She makes Gadget Girl beyond perfect, endowed with incredible strength and extreme precision, and savior of the world. Aiko’s rationales for creating this character help me better understand why authors who write about disabled characters seem to be so keen on turning them into superheroes. As Aiko begins to find acceptance for who she is, disability included, she also begins to allow Gadget Girl to live a more ordinary life. This tells me perhaps we do need disabled superheroes, but we also need disabled characters who are realistically portrayed. At the very least, some people with disabilities would like to read about characters like themselves. And at best, perhaps if the literary world learns to accept people with disabilities as they are, readers with disabilities will as well.
Although originally from the United States, Kamata has extensively traveled, and now lives in Japan. Moreover, her own daughter has cerebral palsy. This personal background has allowed Kamata to write an insightful and honest tale about an artistic teen coming to terms with her own identity.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
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