The beauty of comics is that, in terms of connecting with readers on an emotional level, they are such a sophisticated visual storytelling form that sometimes less really is more. Take Saadia Faruqi and Shazleen Khan’s multiple Broken Frontier Awards-nominated Saving Sunshine, for example. This is a story that is all about the narrative nuance and the readers picking up the telling details in characters’ interactions; where nothing needs overt explanation because we are feeling the story as much as we are reading it. It’s a remarkable graphic novel and while its target audience is listed as between 8-12 it has much to say to readers of any age.
In Saving Sunshine our protagonists are young siblings Zara and Zeeshan whose antagonism towards each other comes to a head on a family holiday (of sorts) in Florida. The duo finally push their parents to the point of exhaustion with their constant bickering and suffer the ultimate punishment – a phoneless break in each other’s company! But when the pair become involved in the plight of a sickly turtle stranded on the beach they must learn to work together for the greater good…
There are multiple converging strands to Faruqi’s story, touching as it does on themes of the realities of growing up Muslim in the US, environmentalism, and family dynamics. In that first instance we witness overt Islamophobia at airport security, Zara being bullied at school for wearing a hijab, and everyday casual racism. These cruelties and injustices ensuring the readers are rooting for the siblings to put aside their differences all the more strongly. The green issues are weaved through the story unobtrusively through informative cutaways and asides.
Shazleen Khan’s art is absolutely stunning here, arguably all the more so for its lack of ostentation. In a book like Saving Sunshine visual characterisation is essential in carrying much of the emotional weight of events and Khan proves yet again what a subtle and yet sophisticated storyteller they are. Everything from facial expression to body language reminds us of the complicated interactions of our two young heroes, while their delicate selection of colour enhances mood and atmosphere throughout.
To call Saving Sunshine a “feelgood” story would not be entirely apt because it’s far more complex than that. But this is nevertheless an enriching and uplifting experience. A careful but revealing portrayal of the entangled realities of family life and sibling bonds that is never shy of employing important social commentary along the way. One of 2023’s standout graphic novels, an intuitive collaboration between the two creators, and also a long overdue acknowledgement of Shazleen Khan’s place as one of the finest of the new wave of comics illustrators of their generation.
Saadia Faruqi (W), Shazleen Khan (A) • First Second, $14.99
Review by Andy Oliver