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Review: ‘Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer’

Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer
Writer/artist: Gillian Goerz
Dial Books; $20.99

My favorite part of Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer is when the rather strange young girl Shirley Bones finally reveals to her new friend Jamila that she’s a detective, which seems to answer many of the questions Jamilia has about the super-smart, super-observant, super-mysterious friend wearing a garage-sale trench coat in the summer.

“Cool!” Jamila says, to which a blushing Shirley replies, “It’s fairly ordinary.”

Kid detectives were fairly ordinary when I was a child racing through books to participate in the library’s summer reading program, a generation ago, and, if anything, they are still more common now, something that the seemingly all-knowing Shirley slyly acknowledges in this rare meta-joke of cartoonist Gillian Goerz’s entry into the kids book sub-genre.

One of the particularly neat things about Goerz’s book is that the fact that it is a mystery involving a kid detective is kept from the reader for a good 60 pages, and that fact in itself is presented as something of a mystery.

Jamila Waheed is new in town, and her mother has signed her up for a summer science camp, even though she would prefer to spend her free time practicing basketball at the court down the street, something her mother forbids her to do unsupervised.

Shirley Bones, meanwhile, is so socially awkward that her mother has had trouble finding her friends to play with, and so she signed her up for summer ballet camp.

After a chance meeting between the girls, and an arranged meeting between their mothers, a plan is arrived at: They will be excused from their respective summer camps provided they spend their time together at the basketball court, essentially supervising and socializing one another. Jamila is so happy to be able to play basketball all day that she’s slow to realize what’s in it for Shirley, and what, exactly, Shirley is up to, as she’s constantly being visited by kids and bringing the strangest items with her.

Once Jamila does learn that Shirley is a detective, she wants in, and together they break the rules their moms established for them and stray from the basketball court to crack a particularly vexing case. A brother and sister brought their pet gecko to the public pool, and it was stolen! Or maybe kidnapped? In either case, it’s definitely missing, and it’s up to Shirley and Jamila to find it.

The rest of the book follows the case, as the girls track down suspects, sift through motivations, eliminate possibilities and ultimately solve the crime, with Shirley finding a way to bring about a sort of justice in which everyone wins, no one loses, and a handful of other kids also have their summers saved, similar to the way in which she and Jamila were able to save their own summers.

Goerz recycles detective fiction cliches to comedic effect throughout, with Shirley paying off an informant with candy and a classic climax in which all of the suspects are gathered in the parlor…er, the backyard for the revelation of who committed the crime and how it was pulled off.

Given how much time and attention is spent on the two girls, their families and their relationship to one another, a dynamic that has its own story arc parallel to the details of gecko-napping case, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this is but the first outing of Shirley and Jamila.

Beyond the parodic elements, Goerz has the various character beats of a great middle-school dramedy down pat, and the fact that she works them into a charmingly drawn graphic novel is all the better.

There’s a great deal of cartoonishness about the artworkthe characters never change clothes, for one thingbut Goerz’s art style is of a perfect compromise one, between cartoony exaggeration and realistic rendering. The result is that her book reads like a good middle school prose novel, and looks like a great graphic novel…which, of course, it is.

J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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