Out in paperback, the graphic novel The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom by Katherine Arnoldi tells a straight forward story of a young mother struggling to survive, raise her child and fulfill her dream of going to college. A genre usually reserved for superheroes and space aliens, Arnoldi boldly tells her biography a lot like a Dickens character asking if she will be the hero of her own life.
This is a book full of life’s plot twists and turns, disappointments and loss, and in the end the heroine triumphs over overwhelming odds and the negativity that says that she will fail and that her dreams are useless. The narrator’s voice is that of an innocent adolescent forced quickly into adulthood, a child with a child who must grow up fast. And, yet, the trajectory of Katherine’s life goes from victimhood, realization to empowerment.
On her journey from factory worker and waitress, teenage Katherine meets Jackie who would eventually help her matriculate into college. But before higher education, there’s a slew of back breaking, monotonous, possibly life threatening work, and leers and jeers from predatory men.
It is not until Katherine finally finds the courage to run away that she finds her true self. In getting lost, she is found. If she were a superhero, this would be an origin story of a heroine who battles evil systems and evil people to finally find the strength within to then push forward and persevere. She needs no invisible plane or lasso of truth, all she needs is guts and a sense of self-worth, which the character here exhibits in abundance.
To be sure, Arnoldi wrote and drew this book in part as a celebration and a guide book for other young single mothers who want to go to college and make something of their lives. In fact, the Katherine of the book keeps wondering about what she wants to do and what she wants to become. She knows that college would eventually give her options and freedom.
Drawn in a deceptively simple style of dark and white lines, Arnoldi fills her panels and pages with straightforward visual ideas and intricately detailed illustrations. For a book about single motherhood and survival struggles, this book is filled with teenage joy and humorous excitement. For example, after not having gone out on a date after a long time, a new beau touches Katherine’s hand at the movies and kisses her good night as told in four panels then the next page is a big “Wow” as a reminder that young love can be filled with so much excitement.
While there is little use of color in the book, except for black drawings on white space, the story and the drawings convey a range of emotions. This is the story of someone who wants to make good and do right by the world, herself and her child, which she knows starts with herself. For years, this young woman is told she is nothing but it takes her own hard work and hard won bravery to find that something — her self-worth and value. And because of this, she then grows, moves and achieves thus creating a template and a GPS roadmap for fellow travelers.
The heroine of The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom is a superhero of a different kind. Just as with Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” Arnoldi proves that important family drama can be told poignantly and with distinction through the graphic novel; Arnoldi has achieved the same level of sophisticated story telling clothed in deceptively simple garments. At a pivotal and cathartic juncture, the teenage single mom looks up at the stars of a dark night sky and realizes that she is connected to all that light from above then she begins to appreciate her own self-worth: this is a powerfully small book.
Now, as the country embarks on the challenges in the uncertain age of Trump, part of Arnoldi’s message is that young women need a proper understanding of contraception and the vital role Planned Parenthood can play in a young person’s life; here, Arnoldi is a vital voice in the fight for women’s reproductive rights. (In her seminal work A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf wrote that a woman needs two things – control of her own money and a place all her own. In the 21st century, I would add reproductive rights and control of her own body’s destiny.)
However, even if you’re not a teenager or a teen mother or a woman for that matter, The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom is a smart read, visually appealing with a fragile, big and resilient heart at the center of it all, a new friend waiting to say hello.
Katherine Arnoldi and Robert Waddell are colleagues at Bronx Community College.