Rebecca Bernard
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Book Review: ‘Are You Listening?’ by Tillie Walden

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Are You Listening by Tillie Walden
Photo: The News Wheel

If you’re looking for a book that takes the traditional road trip story and turns it on its ear with beautiful art, deep storytelling, and a little bit of magic, I have a tome you should add to your teetering To Be Read pile. Are You Listening? by Tillie Walden hit bookstore shelves last week, published by First Second. It follows runaway Bea and her neighbor Lou as they drive through western Texas to see family, return an adorable cat, and run away from their problems.

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In January, when I set my reading goals for the year, I committed to trying new storytelling styles. That’s led me to pick up more books written in verse, like Blood, Water, Paint by Joy McCullough and graphic novels like Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell. When one of my book contacts on Twitter started raving about a graphic novel that revolved around a road trip, I knew I had to read it for The News Wheel.*

At the beginning of the story, Bea backs off of a bus after spotting a shadowy figure in the back. After walking along the road, she ends up at a convenience store at the same time as Lou, her neighbor from home. After a misunderstanding, Bea admits to being a runaway and asks to ride with Lou as she pulls her camper to visit an aunt in west Texas. We don’t know a lot about either Bea or Lou when the story starts out, as the story lacks a big exposition on their backstory. Instead, we pick up bits and pieces about them as we go throughout the story. Some readers might find that frustrating, but I appreciated it. I’m all about books showing me their characters’ stories instead of just telling me in an internal monologue.

Along the way, Lou and Bea pick up a cat they name Diamond and are pursued by ghostly figures as they race along the road. Walden introduces the bad guy characters slowly in the story, as well as the magic. It starts with the shadowy figure on the bus and moves to odd comments from diner staff and headlights approaching a parked car. To tell you much else would spoil a lot of the story, so you’ll have to read it to find out what I mean.

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I enjoyed Are You Listening?, but I will say that I read the book twice to really appreciate it. The first time around, I wasn’t aware that the book had magical realism and I didn’t pick up on some of the cues and got confused. However, I still enjoyed my first reading. The art in this book is simply fantastic, with lettering styles, color, and shapes conveying the emotions in each scene and helping drive home the points being discussed.

If you’re ready to dive into graphic novels, consider hopping in the car with Bea, Lou, and Diamond in Are You Listening?, available now online, at your local indie bookstore, or at the public library.

*Let’s be real, I was looking for an excuse to visit a bookstore.