Being vulnerable is hard. Being vulnerable to your mistakes? Much harder. Being vulnerable and actively trying to become a better person because of them? The hardest choice of all. However, this is what Hazel Newlevant’s New Ivy League, out August 20, is all about.
The comic follows Newlevant as one of 17-year-old working on a “youth conservation crew,” the New Ivy League. Homeschooled and sheltered, she finds adjusting to her diverse workspace an adjustment. Ultimately, she finds herself critically examining both herself and her world to find flaws not there before. Newlevant’s work is highly biographical. In a note at the very end of the comic, they write about the events that inspired it.
“It’s incredible, believing over and over again that you’ve figured things out — only to stumble on new ways your place in society shields you from the truth,” they include. “I didn’t really know anything. Maybe I still don’t.”
There is power in this honesty. Knowing your privilege and your biases allow you to expand beyond them. True understanding comes from learning that you don’t know everything, that your sole experience is not everything. By admitting that they have learned a lot but still have more to do, Newlevant’s work should be groundbreaking. It allows them to explore, find gaps in their knowledge, and fix them. It allows them to become a better person.
As such, the book should have three huge chef’s kisses. The plot should be impeccable, the characters are memorable, the artwork iconic. However, everything is deeper than it seems, and so it is with No Ivy League.
No Ivy League Requires More Character Development
Even though the comic gives such a good premise, in the end, it does not deliver. As you read, many issues emerge in the plot and characters, which harms the themes significantly. Many of the characters feel one-note. They seem not to have their own motives, thoughts, or desires to be examined. For example, it was revealed that Hazel’s mother wanted her homeschooled because of the efforts of school integration. What she says warrants future questioning. After all, wouldn’t we all need answers if our parents might be racists?
However, Hazel never directly confronts her over this detail or discusses it with their mother. Even if this did not happen then, at some point they had to have talked about it. Newlevant also wrote in their note that they
“Wish that I could fully understand and paint a picture of the experiences of my friends, my coworkers, and my parents — everyone who’s been transmuted into a character in my own coming-of-age narrative. But I won’t pretend that I can. Taking the reader into the feelings I was grappling with is the truest way I can tell the story.”
Exploring that scene fully could have truly taken the reader into their feelings. It could have been a moment of exploration, of how a Caucasian woman or family confronts their ingrained prejudices. Instead, it feels like Newlevant is ignoring the elephant in the room. It leaves the reader with many unanswered questions long after the book’s end.
The Characters Of No Ivy League Remained Tedious
Another matter with the characters is that many of them don’t leave a mark on the reader. While explaining their process of making the comic, Newlevant writes,
“When I looked at photos from that summer, I realized I’d forgotten quite a few people! But I continued to leave them out because they didn’t play a role in my story.”
Even with this exclusion, some of the characters included still feel like they don’t need to be there. Half of Hazel’s coworkers introduced in one scene are never heard from again. With no true service to the plot. It would have been better to leave them out.
Development, In General, Was Necessitated
The biggest disservice the comic brings is that Hazel’s homeschool friends get more scenes to develop themselves, but still, feel underutilized. Anson, her boyfriend, and Scott, her friend, are both homeschooled as well. However, there is no moment in the story where they realize their privilege. When Scott and Hazel discuss how most homeschooled children are Caucasian, Hazel ends up going for a walk. It ends with her at the library reading about past discriminatory acts that have occurred in Portland.
This could have been a moment where she became closer to Scott. She could have told him about all that has happened at her camp, with both becoming more educated. Instead, she goes it alone. Likewise, Anson serves as a character that Hazel makes out with several times and not much else. When she discusses some of the issues that homeschooling inherently has with him, he dismisses all of her concerns. He also believes that they should tell the committee what they want to hear, not what they believe.
This is, in effect, lying and not telling the truth to power. Not that surprising, since Anson is a 15-year-old Caucasian boy. After this incident, he was never seen again. Did they break up? More scenes with him would have benefited the comic.
Writing & Plot Of No Ivy League Feels Restricted
With all of the above, it should be no surprise that the plot ultimately feels spasmodic. The events in the comic feel like stray glimpses in the character’s life. It never feels like a complete story. This is most felt towards the end when Hazel celebrates the last day of summer with her team. However, there are so many loose ends that it doesn’t feel like a good place to end. What happened between her and her mom? Did she continue to date Anson? Even after becoming disillusioned with home-schooling, did she continue in the future? Did she ever talk to any of the kids from the camp again? None of these questions are addressed, so the narrative feels unsatisfying and incomplete, unfortunately.
However, No Ivy League Is Nice To Look At
The best thing about the comic is the art. Newlevant originally drew in pencil and then used watercolor paint and ink to complete the scenes. This produces some gorgeous scenery, like the chapter titles. It also helps add to the naivety of the characters and makes it more believable. Since none of the characters look super slick, you can easily believe they are emotionally stunted teenagers.
New Ivy League helps show privilege and how it affects us all. However, it is much less effective at showing the effects of it, or how you can help others recognize it. The comic is a decent read if you want to learn the basics of self-improvement. Otherwise, your time might be better spent with a different read.
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