Friday, March 09, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #68: Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez

Sandy is one of those imaginative kids you see a lot in fiction -- every creator's idealized version of her origins, smart but unfocused, spending all of her time scribbling in notebooks. (Novelists have slightly different versions, as do other creative types: this is the cartoonist's version.) She attends a strict Catholic school, somewhere vaguely Latin -- call it Bogota, Columbia, where creator Lorena Alvarez grew up herself.

And she travels to wonderful worlds in her dreams, full of color and life and happiness, where everything is both friendly and adventurous. Lights appear and turn into whatever Sandy imagines -- and, if she draws those things, they will last. Sandy's story is presented in vibrant color, in an animation-inspired style. Nightlights looks almost like a Miyazaki movie translated into comics pages, and has some of the same lessons and concerns.

Sandy's mother wants her to focus on her schoolwork, to be more grounded. So do the requisite grumpy nun teachers at her school, who are possibly the least nurturing teachers ever depicted in any fictional work. But Sandy just wants to draw and dream. Sandy's friends...well, as far as we can tell, Sandy doesn't have any friends, since she lives entirely in her own head. Does she want it that way? Well, she does leap onto the first girl who reaches out to her, which could be a clue.

That girl is Morfie, with purple hair and eyes, who immediately says Sandy's drawings are "really good." Morfie, we quickly see, is not normal -- she claims to be in "a different class," but Sandy sees her sitting in a tree later that day during a storm. And that night, Morfie is in Sandy's dreams as well, demanding Sandy draw for her so she can adore Sandy.

Nightlights is a book at least partially for younger readers, so it's not likely that Morfie will take over Sandy's life and turn her into an image-making machine. And it's a short book, so Sandy will find her way out before too long. And she does so in an interesting manner -- one that implies (as does the final pages) that she is paying attention and learning when she seems to be just scribbling doodles in her notebook.

Perhaps that's the lesson of Nightlights. It's the kind of book that seems bound to have a lesson, though it's not clear what that lesson should be. Alvarez never makes it clear where Morfie comes from, or what her deal is. She's clearly not just "the new kid," but what is she? And is Sandy's world -- either the daytime one of school or the nighttime one of strange lovable creatures -- infested with similar beings? What is the meaning of the last page?

I like Nightlights, and particularly appreciate the lovely, vibrant art. But it seems to be just this side of a formal allegory, and I can't figure out what the signs and signifiers mean. Typically, a book like this has a moral for the Sandy character to learn: do your homework first, for example, or never give up on your dreams, or perhaps the nuns are right and the Beloved Mother hates it when you draw in class. But none of those seem right for Nightlights. The moral, if any, seems to be for us: for people who might find a Sandy in our lives.

Maybe that moral is that we should trust her. She may seem unfocused and wild, but she will pull through in the end. She knows what's important, and what adoration isn't worth anything. I'll take that moral, I guess, whether it's what Alvarez meant, or not.

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