Ice Network

Graphic novel puts unique spin on figure skating

Author Walden recalls adolescent experiences in new memoir 'Spinning'
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Tillie Walden's graphic novel 'Spinning' depicts the world of figure skating as seen through the eyes of a young skater. -Courtesy of Tillie Walden

Over the past few decades, graphic novels have blossomed into a powerful subset of literature. Mash-ups of comic books and serious novels, graphic novels have grown to fill every niche, finding particularly fertile ground in young adult books.

The latest graphic novel from a young star of the genre, Tillie Walden, is a memoir in words and pictures of growing up as a figure skater. Spinning, published by First Second Books, won't hit bookstores until September, but it is available for pre-order now through various online retailers and booksellers.

The novel begins with the adult author stepping on the ice after years away from the sport but soon flashes back to an 8-year-old Tillie, who is developing her skills as a singles and synchronized skater. At the age of 10, she and her family move to Texas, where she is forced to adjust to a new rink and new teammates. The book follows her through middle school and high school as she deals with academic responsibilities, skating competitions, conflicts with classmates and a sweet first love.

Walden, who is only 21, says the story is true as far as she can remember. Like so many others, she took up skating because an older sibling was doing it.

"I started kind of as a fluke," Walden said by phone from Germany. "My older brother was a skater, and quite good at it. I remember being 4 or 5 years old and going to see him skate, and I thought I might as well try, too. He stopped because he couldn't cope with the way kids at school reacted to him being a figure skater."
 
Once she started skating, Walden was completely committed to it. According to her book, she enjoyed her time on the ice despite the lack of support from her parents. Her father would drop her off at the rink and leave her there, and she would travel alone to competitions.

"Skating at its most basic level was a really fun thing to do," Walden said. "It was fun to skate fast and it was fun to land jumps. There was something raw I really loved. I always thought when you started doing something, you should do it to the best of your ability and keep going. There was something deep down I appreciated."

Walden credits her formidable work ethic as an author to her years of skating. She said she illustrated the 400-page book -- in pen and ink -- in just three months.

"I'm fast," she said. "Skating taught me how to work hard."

The artwork attached to the book is done in dark blue and white, with splashes of yellow. All the realistic details -- from the arm-holds of the synchro team to the dressing-room scenes and skate bags -- should appeal to skating fans.

One odd detail is that the skate blades are drawn with the toe unattached.

"For most of my childhood, I never really knew how a blade worked, I never really looked at it," she said. "I drew it that way because that was how I thought it was. I was working off these childhood memories of how I thought the world worked then."

The reader sees Tillie develop her independence from her parents and come to terms with her sexuality, all through the lens of the ice rink.

While skating is often shown in an unflattering light in popular culture, Walden's novel is unusual both in its realism and in its portrayal of synchronized skating, which is generally overlooked by books and movies.

"I had seen Ice Princess, Blades of Glory, all the silly and goofy skating movies," Walden said. "I wanted to show that, in reality, there's so much more going on. It's messy, it's imperfect, but for some reason there's this weird cultural layer where we only want to see it in this sparkly light. I wanted an honest skating story so other skaters could read it.

"At the same time, my experience is my own experience. It's not going to resonate with everyone."

The competition scenes in the book nail the wild enthusiasm that is a staple of the synchro discipline, with the shrieking and chanting of the crowd not only written but illustrated as well.

"People get so fanatical about synchro," Walden said. "It's kind of fun, and the teams are so competitive with each other, and you've got this whole gang of girls behind you. It's crazy."

Toward the end of the book, as she's completing high school, Walden decides to stop skating and focus on drawing comics.

"Skating becomes your whole life, and it became hard to stop," she said. "It really takes over your whole existence. All your friends are at the rink, and you become extremely committed to it. It becomes hard to separate your life from figure skating."

Walden has been in Europe for the past few months, trying to get a bigger picture of her place in the world. She still has her skates and said she gets on the ice every couple of months. 

"It's hard to find time to skate at all," she said. "I'm so busy drawing comics now."