This is the sweetest trilogy of stories I have read all year. There I said it. I make no bones about it. Heartstopper is utterly lovely. That’s not to say that as a series it doesn’t address some quite intense issues – it does – but it’s handled in a sympathetic and mature way that makes the books accessible to a wide range of ages.
Heartstopper is a 3 volume (so far) comic / graphic novel series which chronicles the friendship and romance between Charlie Spring (openly gay) and Nick Nelson at Truman Grammar School for Boys in the UK. Volume 1 takes place over the course of a calendar year and starts in January, when we meet Charlie in school the Library sneaking kisses with a fellow student. Because Charlie’s school has changed their form structure, he ends up in a home room sitting next to Nick who is a year older and in a class above Charlie. It’s pointed out by another student friend of Charlie’s that Nick is one of the ‘rugby boys’, sports jocks I suppose you refer to them as. Charlie was bullied the year previously after being outed, and although not explicitly stated, it is implied that this kind of social group bullied him as a result. Despite this, the two boys hit it off and become (at first) gentle friends. Charlie falls hard for Nick, all the while thinking that it will be an unrequited attraction. But fate is a funny and unpredictable thing.
For me these are the first books of their kind that I have read – an exploration of teenage same sex relationships and all the issues that go along with that. As a result I have no other point of reference by which to compare them to. So anything I say is purely my impression as a novice to the situation. I do not claim any expertise in the matters spoken about.
As stated earlier these books incorporate some very intense and relevant themes, among them teenage sexuality and same sex relationships (not just being gay but also bisexual, lesbian and trans), non-consensual sexual contact (at one stage a fellow student tries to force himself onto Charlie after he tries to break their relationship off), homophobia and bullying (Charlie experiences both from his peers after his sexuality became known) as well as peer perceptions and acceptance (when Nick asks Charlie to join the rugby team, his team mates say ‘but he’s gay’ to which Nick comes back with ‘… Mate, I don’t actually think being gay makes you bad at sports …). Volume 3 also brings up the topics of self harm and not eating.
But these are not the only emotional issues that Charlie and Nick face. We learn that Charlie’s outing was not his choice which must have been very traumatic for him especially as a young man. As I understand it how and when someone reveals their sexuality to the world is an intensely personal thing. To have that experience taken from him must have been devastating for Charlie. We also see Nick’s uncertainty and soul searching as he confronts his attraction to Charlie and tries to reconcile that with what he thought he knew of himself. Volume 2 explores Nick discovering his sexual identity and all that that entails. To me it was very moving and I felt for both of them as they confronted these life changing concepts. These are things adults struggle with but for two people still learning about the world and their place in it, it must have been very confusing. Nick and Charlie also spend a lot of time discussing with each other when to come out as a couple, not just as individual people with individual sexual identities. They fear the reaction of some of their friends who have not even been supportive of their friendship, much less a romantic relationship.
This leads me to one of the marvels of these books. They manage to incorporate all this important material that (I assume) speaks to real life but does so with very few words because of course Heartstopper is a comic/graphic novel series. The story is told predominately in beautifully drawn illustrations. I have been thinking about how it manages to convey all that it does with essentially not saying much, and I wonder if the medium gives the reader space to think and form their own feelings, as well as time to consider and digest the situations rather than being directed through prose.
Another thing the author does is create in Charlie and Nick two very likable, complex and enjoyable characters that I was smitten by from the first moment they are introduced and the connection only increases as the books progress. We see their vulnerabilities, their worries, their feelings for one another, their bravery and their genuine desire to want to explore what it means for them to be together romantically. With every page you turn you are willing them on and hoping with all your might that they make it. Through it all they are very supportive of each other and learn that communication is a key in their relationship as they navigate tricky waters. But they are very devoted to each other and take each other’s slip ups in their stride.
But be warned … there is a BIG cliffhanger ending in Volume 1 so I would advise having Volume 2 on hand so that you are not left waiting to know what happens. I think that would be the equivalent of literary torture. And there appears to be an unresolved issue that Nick and Charlie will have to work through in Volume 4 (yet to be released).
For me one of the most important things that this book offers is hope. Hope that love in all its forms is open and available to everyone in the way they want to experience it, that people can learn better behaviours and gain a more constructive understanding of people’s relationships and sexuality, that acceptance for queer people is not something that has to be earned but is as automatic as breathing. It’s also about standing up for yourself and saying … this is me, this is who I am. These are fundamental principles that would make a huge difference to young people living lives like Charlie and Nick. Hopefully Heartstopper can help in some way achieve those goals.
Rating: 4 Stars (as a series)
(Header Image: Sarah Kreig)