“Tough! Strong! Fearless!” is the mantra of Roller Girl’s protagonist, 12-year-old novice skater Astrid – or Asteroid, as she is known on the skate track. It also perfectly describes the tone of this vivid and funny graphic novel from American illustrator Victoria Jamieson, a runner-up for last year’s prestigious Newbery medal.
Facing a long, empty summer break before starting junior high, Astrid is taken by her mum to a roller derby league game, in which fierce, tattooed women with elaborate, “creepy” makeup and names such as Rainbow Bite and Blast Unicorn race round a track while trying to knock their opponents over and out of the way. Astrid is thrilled and totally smitten, promptly signing up for roller derby summer camp. Once there, however, she is completely out of her depth, a weak and wobbly beginner among older, cooler girls with technicoloured hair. What’s worse, her lifelong best friend abandons her for ballet camp.
In many ways this is a classic coming-of-teens tale, exploring timeworn themes such as the ebb and flow of friendships, the recasting of mother-daughter bonds and the unfamiliar codes of a more grown-up world. But the graphic format makes it fizz, bringing life to the energy of the games (“thunk!” “swing!” “gasp!” “AAAAAARGH!”) and to Astrid’s frustrated flights of fantasy (there’s a great, whole-page panel in which Jamieson depicts a clothes-shopping trip as a lurid visit to hell).
Astrid, by turns sardonic, brave and utterly bewildered, is perceptively drawn. And the contact sport of roller derby (relatively little known in the UK) makes for a fascinating setting. Expressive, fearsomely physical and dominated by women, the author (aka Winnie the Pow of the real Portland Rose City Rollers team) brilliantly conveys its appeal.
• Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson is published by Puffin (£7.99). To order a copy for £6.79 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99