Young Hazel Johnson’s new classmate, Mari McCray, is a “tall, beautiful . . . honey glazed goddess,” recently moved from California. Mari gives Hazel a glamorous new nickname: Elle. The two girls spend the afternoon together, and when Mari kisses her cheek goodbye, Hazel can’t help but imagine their wedding to each other. Since she doesn’t know whether Mari likes girls the way she does, she keeps her feelings to herself while their friendship grows.
In high school, Hazel finally gets the romantic kiss from Mari she really wants—but their embrace is seen, and Mari is sent far away. Forced to wed a young man as a way of quelling her “unnatural” urges, Hazel makes the best of the marriage she is allowed to have. She is a grandmother when Mari comes unexpectedly back into her life, and the chance to be fully herself with her one true love threatens to destroy the family Hazel has spent decades creating.
It’s easy to see why young Hazel falls in head over heels for Mari, who is smart, caring, and pretty. But the person you fall in love with as you read this book is short, plump, glasses-wearing Hazel. She suffers the same boredom and fatigue most mothers do when their world is limited to childbearing, cooking, and cleaning, and her sex life with her husband—whom she does come to love—is fraught with the constant potential for making more babies for Hazel to raise. Only in her imagination can she be Elle, Mari’s creative, playful beloved.
But in spite of all the negatives of her situation, Hazel puts tremendous effort and patience into caring for her family and feels real love for all of them. She is a heroine who truly deserves both her second chance with Mari and the love of the family she fears she might have to forsake.
This story of very different loves across a lifetime is deftly told through lively dialogue and brief exposition. Movement-filled, richly colored art channeling a classic comic vibe deliciously fleshes out the warmth and physicality of Hazel’s world. I was momentarily popped out of the narrative late in the novella when Hazel/Elle informs the audience that she uses yet-to-be-invented advanced technology—the story extends into the 2030s. Despite this, however, it does not read like a tale of the future . . . but that is what makes it such a potentially powerful book to share today.
A triumphant life story like this one deserves a wide audience, which this graphic novella’s warmth and charm should make easy to achieve. Though Hazel’s bisexual identity, Elle, has a scrumptious name reminiscent of a lick or a kiss, the physical side of her relationships with her husband and partner is only gently hinted at. Hazel and Mari are African American, and Hazel’s extended family includes members who may be Latinx and Middle Eastern. There are characters with visible and invisible disabilities. Future series installments promise to tell equally inclusive, joyful stories of love finding a way. Keep your eyes peeled for Bingo Love: Secrets, by Shawn Pryor and DJ Kirkland.