Girl Haven is a graphic novel written by Lilah Sturges, illustrated by Meaghan Carter, lettered by Joamette Gil, and published by Oni Press/Oni-Lion Forge Publishing Group. Ash is invited by Eleanor to attend a pride club meeting after school with Chloe and Junebug. Enjoying their time together, they go home with Ash to keep hanging out. Ash’s mom Kristen disappeared a few years ago, but she left behind a shed filled with her art, clothes, and countless stories of the magical land she invented as a kid, Koretris. After Chloe reads a spell from one of Kristen’s books, the group finds themselves instantly transported to Koretris and entangled in their plight against the terrible Scourge.
Koretris is a land where only girls are allowed. This throws Ash for a loop upon arrival, seeing ash is a boy and shouldn’t be able to enter Koretris. But Ms. Bixbey, the wisest and kindest of Koretris’s rabbit people assures Ash that the old magic knows best and would not have brought the whole group there if it was not certain they all belonged. Ash, Eleanor, Chloe, and Junebug are then joined by rabbits Swift and Dart on their quest to stop the Scourge, free Queen Cassandra, and hopefully, find Ash’s mom along the way.
In a number of ways, Girl Haven is remarkable. Beneath its fantasy elements is a story of a child who is on a far more harrowing quest: Ash is not allowed in Koretris by mistake. Ash thinks she may be a girl. And she ventures through this magical land, she comes face to face with her doubts about her gender, whether she would be accepted if she came out as a girl, and whether she actually was a boy or a girl. I praise the way Girl Haven tenderly allows Ash to be uncertain, to explore her sense of self, and have the ceaseless support of Eleanor especially, even when Ash is experiencing things Eleanor can’t possibly understand for herself. Ash’s struggle is very real, even with the fairytale circumstances around her.
The actual dialogue can occasionally feel a bit overly in your face, even for its young audience, but often, that serves the book well as a whole, even if it’s a tad abrasive to read. By being really overt about how gender expression and identification are personal and important, it helps drive the message home thoroughly. The only disappointment as far as representation is that the role of an overbearing, overprotective, self-described feminist killjoy is assigned to the book’s Black character, who also happens to be the fattest of the group. This combination of stereotypes is uncomfortable, to say the least, on top of the lack of real personality outside of these key traits.
This criticism is also a piece of my greatest issue with Girl Haven. It’s simply too short. I want so much more. I want a several years-long, monthly series about this world, its themes, and its characters. While the book does an excellent job quickly immersing the reader into its worth through an abundance of exposition, issues like the lack of characterization and stereotypical portrayals would be resolved by simply having more time with them. Not to mention just how wonderful Koretris is and how beautifully illustrated Girl Haven’s themes are even in its relative brevity.
One of my favorite aspects of Girl Haven was the true nature of the Scourge. Without spoiling, the ultimate reveal about the Scourge is a poignant and very apt illustration of the harrows of toxic masculinity, the shackles of a rigid gender binary, and the complexity of fear, doubt, and uncertainty. The story’s ending was beautiful, heartwrenching, and utterly joyous all at once, leaving me in tears several times over with a bevy of emotions.
Carter’s art in Girl Haven is mostly excellent with a few moments of total blandness here and there. The general art direction matches the feeling that a place like Koretris draws in my mind. When there are backgrounds, they’re wonderful, but too many panels are simply drawn over a solid color. There are also a number of times when faces are completely blank or lacking in detail that are always jarring, especially against the usually very expressive faces.
The art, and some of the characters themselves, feel quite similar to Lumberjanes, which is quite possibly one of Girl Haven‘s direct inspirations given Sturges’s previous work on the property. This both endeared me more to the graphic novel, given my total adoration of that series, and left my expectations regarding backgrounds and facial detail higher than Girl Haven delivered. The lettering is perfect though, written in a font that matches the atmosphere perfectly and is always completely legible.
There is also a touching opening letter and closing note on gender identity and expression that frame and bookend the story perfectly. While Girl Haven is about one child’s experience with one gender identity and expression, the story’s themes of uncovering your own path through life is universal. It’s not just a story for queer or trans kids. It’s a story for everyone. And reading stories as well-told as Girl Haven, no matter your identity or expression can help expose you to thoughts you never even know you hadn’t thunk before about yourself. And for anybody who may see themselves in Ash’s story itself, that’s all the more beautiful.
Girl Haven is a remarkable story about identity and expression that’s the greatest fault is simply that it is only a graphic novel and not a full-fledged monthly series. Its world, characters, and themes are excellent and though there are a few shortcomings in some of the aspects of character and art, they are easily forgivable in the face of the touching and challenging journey Ash goes on throughout this story.
Girl Haven is available wherever books are sold on February 16th.
Girl Haven is a remarkable story about identity and expression that’s greatest fault is simply that it is only a graphic novel and not a full-fledged monthly series. Its world, characters, and themes are excellent and though there are a few shortcomings in some of the aspects of character and art, they are easily forgivable in the face of the touching and challenging journey Ash goes on throughout this story.