No Ivy League is a childhood memoir documenting one pivotal summer in Hazel Newlevant‘s life, something that she says transformed how she looked at the world. It’s a beautifully illustrated piece and it’s very sweetly told. But despite being a lovely book, it never really manages to deliver the narrative punch that the author appears to think it does.
Here in No Ivy League, we follow the summer of young Hazel, 17-year-old, vegan, homeschooled kid, into a bit of old-school rap, and dating fellow homeschooler Anson, 15. Together with a friend, they’re working on films for a contest, wanting the $1,000 for a trip to DC.
She sees a flyer for a summer job, No Ivy League – a youth crew conservation job for 14-18-year-olds, removing English ivy and other invasive plants from Forest Park. It’s going to be hard work, but she goes for it and gets it.
Hazel stands out straight away in the group of teens on the project, never really fitting in, maybe trying just that little too hard. But, she’s not all that bothered, not at first. She just wants to try and make a few friends, do the work, enjoy the summer.
And that’s when it started to take a deeper turn, as she finds herself lusting over leader ‘Tonio, 32…
And then the trouble starts with the other teens on the project. One of the kids, an immature 15-year-old, here mostly cause his older sister’s on the project and it gets him out the house, starts cracking jokes and when things turn nasty, Hazel goes to ‘Tonio to report it. It ends up being treated as sexual harassment and the kid gets kicked off the project.
Her popularity was never the best, but this just makes it way worse, she’s seen as the little princess, making sweet with the team leaders. Was she over-reacting? Should she have just been more thick-skinned, as some of the kids tell her?
And then things get worse, not only does she find out she’s not meant to be on the program, as it’s for ‘at-risk’ kids, she also finds out that her Mom’s reason for homeschooling her isn’t anywhere near as wholesome as she thought.
All this is played out in a delightful style, watercolour blacks over pencils, given a pantone green hue in the final production. And it looks absolutely lovely, full of depth, full of nicely done character portraits, a great deal of expression playing out across all the diverse faces in the project.
Her storytelling is nicely done, with open and easy to read pages, occasionally broken up with full-page pieces such as the one below, something that truly looks gorgeous…
So, the story is sweet, the art looks gorgeous, but I told you right at the top that it doesn’t deliver the narrative punch it needed to. Let me explain what I mean…
Newlevent talks in her afterword of telling the tale being intimidating, talking of her younger self ‘doing and saying so many profoundly embarrassing and regrettable things‘ and hoping that it ‘helps those who see their own shame reflected in mine resolve to move forward with compassion‘.
But, when things need to address the issues that Newlevant has done such good work setting up, the divisions in the teens, the distrust of Hazel being ‘Miss Princess’, the prejudice of her parents, the questions raised by Hazel’s attraction to the older man, her reaction to the sexual harassment, it all seems somewhat fumbled.
Yes, despite everything being set up really well, all of the things that seem to have that potential depth, every story strand that starts to take a dark turn either ends up as unresolved, such as her Mom’s homeschooling decision or the attraction to ‘Tonio, or neatly resolved and tied off, such as those problems with the kids, especially the sister of the kid she had booted off the project.
No Ivy League is a great little book, telling a lovely tale, and it’s beautifully illustrated by Newlevant. It just feels, for me, that there’s so much more that could have been done here. Newlevant prepares a wonderful foundation of the story to be told, but just doesn’t follow it through, and it always felt like a story that really wanted to pack more of a punch than it does.
No Ivy League – by Hazel Newlevant, published by Roar/ Lion Forge.