The Girl From The Sea – Book Review

This endearing graphic novel from Molly Knox Ostertag follows Morgan Kwon, a 15-year-old girl living on a small island in Canada, who one day meets a mysterious girl named Keltie. At first, Morgan is annoyed by Keltie, but as they spend more time together she realizes her feelings may be stronger than she anticipated.

The Girl from the Sea is a charming Sapphic coming-of-age story that is sure to pull at some heartstrings. Here’s the summary…

Fifteen-year-old Morgan has a secret: She can’t wait to escape the perfect little island where she lives. She’s desperate to finish high school and escape her sad divorced mom, her volatile little brother, and worst of all, her great group of friends…who don’t understand Morgan at all. Because really, Morgan’s biggest secret is that she has a lot of secrets, including the one about wanting to kiss another girl.

Then one night, Morgan is saved from drowning by a mysterious girl named Keltie. The two become friends and suddenly life on the island doesn’t seem so stifling anymore.

But Keltie has some secrets of her own. And as the girls start to fall in love, everything they’re each trying to hide will find its way to the surface…whether Morgan is ready or not.

I have no doubt you’re going to see a lot of “cute” adjacent adjectives when folks are describing this new graphic novel from Molly, and they’re not wrong. Adorable, sweet, endearing, lovable, it is indeed all those things, but The Girl from the Sea does go a little deeper (sorry) than that. But, if you’re in need of just “cute”, which can happen from time to time, then you certainly won’t be disappointed here.

You’d think spending your carefree summers on a beautiful Canadian island surrounded by friends, nature, and sunshine would be a teenage dream, but Morgan Kwon is struggling these days. Between her parent’s divorce, annoying brother, and carrying around a huge secret (she’s pretty sure she’s gay), Morgan isn’t as stoked as society tells her she should be.

Keeping a secret that big from your family and closest friends must be impossibly hard, and I have a great empathy for those that have to keep their sexual orientation from their loved ones out of fear. Unsurprisingly then, it takes its toll on Morgan who is choosing flight as a response mechanism, with designs on running away to college as soon as she can where she can start a whole new life for herself, where she can finally breath. She just has to survive one…last…summer.

“It comes in like a storm from the sea, all sudden and powerful and impossible to predict.”

This is a coming-of-age story first and foremost and Morgan’s struggle to be open about her burgeoning sexual orientation. What’s the best way to complicate that and run rickshaw over her plans of escape? Falling in love of course!

This comes in the form of a girl named Keltie who saves Morgan from drowning during one of her seaside contemplations one stormy night. Call it fate, call it providence, call it kismet, call it whatever you want, but this chance encounter awakens in Morgan a feral attraction that affirmed everything she thought (hoped) about herself. But Morgan reverts to old habits as she tries to balance both spending time with an overbearing Keltie and meeting the demands of her family and friends. Will she be able to keep Keltie and her feelings a secret for much longer?

Not the only drama in town, Molly’s examination of a family gone through a divorce seemed particularly thoughtful and well presented. The relationship between a mother and their teenage daughter is an important one, I think we can all agree on that, and this one is no exception. Morgan’s mother has been placed in the precarious position of not only trying to be an overzealous single parent to kids struggling, but also, while still heartbroken, trying to maintain her own dignity. Morgan’s brother especially is having a rough time with the split and is the main reason for his impetuous and bratty behavior, understandably so for any young person. Tough situation for any single parent I’d imagine and Molly’s portrayal of Morgan’s family, certainly when she creates more distance between them, is good stuff.

Molly infuses the story with a little heightened awareness as well with a not so insignificant climate change message. For the sake of this story, that involves one of Morgan’s friends whose family is wealthy and plans on launching a rather large yacht in the small harbor to be used for tours, parties, etc. This environmental aspect of the story was a nice kicker and actually hit a little close to home.

You see, I live on a lake, and next to that lake, is another lake. It’s a touristy type of place and there is a concern about the number of large tourist boats dumping their petrol chemicals in the water. The locals have petitioned and it’s ongoing, but whether it’s cruise ships pissing oil/diesel into the water, or any number of the eco-issues facing our planet, man-made climate change is a thing. It’s nice to see some folks haven’t forgotten about it or our friends who call the ocean their home.

“What we want and love and hate as children is a very pure expression of the self, a truth that we distance ourselves from as we get older and shape ourselves around others. So, this is a story speaking to my younger self.”

Turns out not only is Wilneff Island a real place in Nova Scotia, Canada, but was a big inspiration for Molly, who spent many summers there when she was younger. She recently wrote a guest blog for OOM Scholastic where she talks about her time on the island, the feeling of isolation, of loneliness, and how she would manifest friends for her long walks along the beaches and shores. She would create, “pretty, mysterious girls who would be my friend and show me secrets”…sound familiar?

This beautiful piece is not only heartfelt and thoughtful but makes for the perfect bit of companion reading for The Girl from the Sea, I can’t recommend it enough. You can read that blog HERE!

Using a combination of traditional panels and phone screen grabs, Molly takes a mixed-media approach on the illustration side of things and it’s very effective. Aside from the wrapping and the first handful of pages, the coloring in my review copy is predominantly black and white, we’ll see if that changes for the final version which would be nice.

The bottom line is the art, along with the simple approach to the subject matter, make The Girl from the Sea a very palatable read all while espousing bigger themes. In other words, a perfect middle grade read.

To order The Girl from the Sea, click HERE!