When I think about my time in high school more often than I care to admit, I remember the different extracurriculars I did and the friends I made there. My time doing choir and theater were some of my best memories, and I don’t know how I would have gotten through some truly arduous, seemingly endless rehearsals were it not for my comrades in arms…er…character shoes, in this case. Aside from being a wonderful way I occupied my time, the connections I made with people were more memorable than any script. Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms reminded me of those connections, while also providing crucial lessons about how to be a truly good friend.
Story and Characters
Written by Crystal Frasier (Venus Envy, Pathfinder), the story follows Annie, a feisty lesbian senior in high school who is very book smart, but green when it comes to making friends. To help boost her college applications, she reluctantly joins the school’s cheerleading squad, home to her old friend Bebe, a trans girl juggling several commitments who has a hard time saying no to people and being open with her feelings. Through cheer practices, study sessions, and late-night visits over cake, Annie and Bebe pick up where their relationship left off, and perhaps kindle the flames of a deeper one.
When I first cracked open the book, I was a bit worried that Annie would be a typical “not like other girls” protagonist, someone who casts tons of aspersions on the cheerleaders simply because they are cheerleaders. While she had prejudices, Annie – and by extension the reader – are told to give the group a chance, to see that they’re all complex individuals with wants and needs. Wholly independent, Annie is whip-smart, snarky and actually written like how a teenager would talk, instead of an adult cosplaying as a kid. Annie is one of the most open-minded people in the book, teaching Bebe to be more assertive and urging her to recognize and express her needs. There are many times in the book where she’ll ask Bebe why she said yes to something she wasn’t comfortable with and encourages her to stand up to the other members of the squad. I honestly would have loved to have a friend like Annie, I would have learned to be more assertive at a younger age if I had someone like her around.
In contrast, Bebe is shy, prone to anxiety, and tries to be the picture of organization to those around her, often to her detriment. Bebe is under immense pressure daily, not just from her squad and extracurriculars, but also from her parents who, we find out later in the book, are conditionally supportive of her transition so long as she maintains good grades and a positive social life. Bebe is afraid of being the center of attention, often getting worked up when too many people stare or talk over her. Learning that part of the reason for her anxiety is due to the fact that she is walking a tightrope between having the support of her parents or losing it broke my heart.
As someone who is working on being more assertive and open with her feelings, I related to Bebe; early in the book, after hearing a microaggression from her father, she runs upstairs, sheds a few tears, collects herself, and smiles in the mirror saying, “okay, big smile. Everyone likes you when you’re happy.”
That hit home.
Art and Visuals
The illustrations are a real treat to look at in this book. Val Wise (Wayward Kindred, Tabula Idem) fills the pages with smooth lines, dynamic expressions, and bright colors. This book gets pretty emotional, and every emotion is drawn as being felt with a character’s whole body, not just the face. There was great care put into showing overwhelming happiness, crushing anxiety, profound hurt, and everything in between, making every character feel as complex and human as possible. The contrasts between Bebe and Annie don’t stop at their personalities; their designs are very distinct from each other as well — Annie is short, chubby, and has a butch, rebellious fashion sense, while Bebe is tall, lanky, and loves a long skirt or dress every now and then. One of the things that really sticks out to me in this art style is how hair is drawn. There are curls, waves, and twists abound in the book and no matter the texture it all looks alive and like it’s in constant animation, like someone is constantly playing with it or nervously twirling it, once again making the characters feel more lifelike.
Another thing I love is the designs of the other members of the cheer squad. Often, in media, cheerleaders are depicted as clones of one another with the same body type and appearance; Cheer Up takes that trope and throws it in the trash. I was shocked at how diverse the squad was, not just from skin tone and hair but to body type as well; one of the members is tall and lean where someone else is short and sturdy. The personalities are different throughout the group as well. All of these things together make for an engrossing graphic novel that’s as enjoyable to look at as well as to read.
“One of the Bad Ones”
Content warning: transphobia
Cheer Up is an Own Voices work, so there is a deep, personal nuance to the story of Bebe and Annie that is both gentle and refreshing. This book was more emotionally impactful on me than I thought it would be. I knew that it would be a queer love story, but I was not prepared for the topics of transphobia, performative allyship, and the idea of the model minority. While I would have appreciated a mild content warning in the beginning for some of the dialogue in the book, there is not anything in the graphic novel that inhibited my ability or enjoyment of it.
This book chose a very interesting point for an ally: the early stages. The stage where, while they respect their marginalized friend, they might still slide in a “joke” about the way her voice sounds. The stage where there is shaky, rocky ground where they make mistakes and say the wrong thing and apologize and promise to be better. I cringed at the way Bebe’s squad defended her against a transphobic coach by saying that “she’s a better girl than they were” or that she’s “like a real girl,” things just as hurtful and not affirming as what the coach said; I grit my teeth when one of the members of the squad said that having a trans girl for Homecoming Queen would be “counter-culture” or that a trans cheerleading captain would great on a college essay. While well-intentioned, these are really very dehumanizing things to say to a trans girl and the book says as such, but there was also a sense of reality to the words than if this book was not Own Voices.
It’s not doom and gloom through the whole book, though. There is a real sense of euphoria, a hopefulness that runs through the whole thing; you root for Bebe and Annie and their relationship, you root for Bebe becoming more assertive and confident in herself, you root for the squad to become better people. I won’t spoil the end of the book but there is a feeling of accomplishment, a sense that everyone learned something important about themselves that will make their friendships longer lasting.
It would be interesting to see a follow up to Cheer Up; I’d love to know how everyone’s friendship progressed and what future plans they have. If that does come down the pike, I would be incredibly eager to read it, especially if it is as affirming and sweet as this one.
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