Becom­ing Brianna 

  • Review
By – November 16, 2020

Becom­ing Bri­an­na, the most recent book in the Emmie & Friends series of diverse graph­ic nov­els, explores the joys and dif­fi­cul­ties of mid­dle school through the lens of Brianna’s upcom­ing bat mitz­vah. Brianna’s ques­tions about the mean­ing of the reli­gious cer­e­mo­ny form the core of the book, but Liben­son also inte­grates con­cerns about friend­ship, fam­i­ly con­flicts, and finan­cial real­i­ties into her com­pelling com­ing-of-age sto­ry. Live­ly and humor­ous pic­tures work togeth­er with text told from Brianna’s per­spec­tive, as she strug­gles to rec­on­cile her ambiva­lence about the per­for­ma­tive aspects of this event with ques­tions of her com­mit­ment to life as part of a Jew­ish community.

Brianna’s account of her bat mitz­vah unfolds in flash­backs, begin­ning with her mother’s orig­i­nal attempt to con­vince her that the cer­e­mo­ny should be part of Brianna’s future. Always alert to adult incon­sis­ten­cies, Bri­an­na responds to her mother’s asser­tion that a bat mitz­vah is a fam­i­ly tra­di­tion” with a fac­tu­al cor­rec­tion; her mother’s bat mitz­vah had actu­al­ly been the first in their fam­i­ly. Young read­ers will appre­ci­ate Brianna’s insis­tence on the truth, whether in eval­u­at­ing her bat mitz­vah options or decid­ing if new friends are tru­ly inter­est­ed in get­ting to know her or only in receiv­ing an invi­ta­tion to a big par­ty. Faced with rumors about the lav­ish enter­tain­ment which her would-be friends expect, she is forced to come to terms with her solid­ly mid­dle-class family’s lim­its on meet­ing these expec­ta­tions. Through­out the book, Brianna’s bat mitz­vah is a chal­lenge with­in the larg­er, stress­ful jour­ney toward young adulthood.

The bat mitz­vah expe­ri­ence is not one-size-fits all; Brianna’s is specif­i­cal­ly sit­u­at­ed in a rel­a­tive­ly non-obser­vant fam­i­ly. Her father isn’t Jew­ish and she has received — by her own choice — a lim­it­ed Jew­ish edu­ca­tion. Par­ents read­ing the book will empathize with the para­dox of allow­ing chil­dren to make their own deci­sions and then liv­ing with the con­se­quences of them. When Bri­an­na reluc­tant­ly agrees to begin her bat mitz­vah prepa­ra­tion, all the demons of her inse­cu­ri­ty begin to wreak hav­oc on her emo­tions. In one pic­ture, she imag­ines a mag­ic spell which dis­pers­es the Hebrew let­ters which she has been strug­gling to mas­ter. In anoth­er, her recog­ni­tion of the need to com­part­men­tal­ize” her con­cerns appears as a cross-sec­tion of her mind shown as a crowd­ed file cab­i­net, with boys” tem­porar­i­ly closed for business…due to stress.” Brianna’s wry com­men­tary on patri­ar­chal tra­di­tions with­in Judaism con­trasts tra­di­tion­al and more lib­er­al def­i­n­i­tions of Jew­ish lin­eage. The stan­dard geneal­o­gy chart becomes a wit­ty com­par­i­son between matri­lin­eal descent and the more inclu­sive stan­dard of her own temple.

When Bri­an­na meets with her rab­bi to dis­cuss her inter­pre­ta­tion of her Torah por­tion, she is forced to rec­on­cile the most dif­fi­cult con­tra­dic­tion of her bat mitz­vah; is the cer­e­mo­ny real­ly going to be the result of her choice or a con­ces­sion to her mother’s needs? The some­times strained but always lov­ing bond between the two is entire­ly believ­able. The way in which Liben­son con­veys Brianna’s dilem­ma and grace­ful­ly asso­ciates it with bib­li­cal par­al­lels rel­e­vant to her emerg­ing iden­ti­ty, makes Becom­ing Bri­an­na a mem­o­rable addi­tion to Jew­ish-themed graph­ic fiction.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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