A devastating yet hilarious look at creativity, friendship, and the thrill of animation

Author: Kayla Rae Whitaker

The Animators Book CoverI was not prepared to love The Animators, but this extraordinary novel by Kayla Rae Whitaker snuck up behind me, tackled me to the ground, and flashed the “V for victory” sign in my face.

It is that good.

Sharon Kisses and Mel Vaught are cartoonists, business partners and best friends. After a decade of callus-inducing hard work, they have just won a prestigious grant from the American Coalition of Cartoonists and Animation Professionals. They are hailed as indie darlings, which puts them face-to-face with fabulous opportunities and a load of pressure.

Drugs, cigarette smoke, and lots of swearing greet the reader at the beginning of the novel, and I wasn’t sure if I could deal with 369 pages of Sharon and Mel’s angst-y, hipster lifestyle. But with the turn of a single page, the book is upended—in the best way possible—and I realized that putting it down was not an option. Things get deep real fast: there is a death, a medical emergency, and a road trip south with unforeseen detours. We find ourselves miles away from where we started in Brooklyn, and we learn that Sharon and Mel have some tragic stories they’ve been hiding—of family and childhood and how less-than-ideal circumstances have messed with their heads.

The novel covers serious ground but it never feels stifling or depressing, mainly because Sharon and Mel are witty and tender and have each other’s backs in ways that actually made me gasp out loud. With all their flaws, they manage to bring affection and humor to supremely uncomfortable moments. “I want to be able to feel this way all the time,” Sharon says. “To be able to laugh about the things that have happened to me, baggage and all, light and dark. To own it handily enough so that it could be funny and horrifying at once.” Page after page, we see examples of this melding of funny and not-funny, and it is jaw-dropping.

Whitaker also succeeds in making the subject of animation fascinating, even for readers like me who know nothing about drawing or film-making. We witness the exquisite push-and-pull of Sharon and Mel’s partnership and competitiveness, and how the creative process brings them to life—something everyone can relate to. In Sharon’s words: “It hits me how badly I want to get back to work, how much I’ve been missing it. The anticipation before a new project. Envisioning it in the confines of your own head, intangible, a whiff of itself, two steps from a daydream. Then, through work and love and sheer fucking will, it becomes real. If you’re lucky, what you’ve made will be better than anything your flimsy imagination could have put together.”

The Animators is Whitaker’s first novel, which is tough to believe because all the pieces fit together so snugly. She hasn’t just nailed character development, plotline and emotional intensity, but her language is utterly divine. It has a way of jumping off the page and making the reader pant with wanting more.

If her freshman effort is this rich and colorful, I can only wait impatiently for whatever amazing thing Whitaker writes next. Get cracking, Kayla Rae! “Work through the dead ends… Get in there. Don’t pussyfoot around.

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Laura Bird