I did not study Jean-Paul Sartre in high school
Nor did I study Sartre in college, even though I did take Introduction to Philosophy! Ha.
Seriously, though, my high school wasn't bad. I was able to take electives in courses like Russian History and Great Books, but the high school in this new graphic novel is a step beyond beyond. Tina M. attends Yarborough Academy where the students study the great philosophers and stage Kurosowa's Rashomon for the spring play. Sophomore Tina is keeping an existentialist diary for her Honor's English class and thus establishes an ongoing dialog with Sartre which mirrors her existential path as a teenager. By keeping the diary, Tina begins to understand who she is and who she is becoming.
This graphic novel is being compared to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and I don't think that's fair to either book. Both novels do feature bright, philosophical, angsty female protagonists of South Asian descent, but that's where the similarity ends. Persepolis takes place in war-torn Iran during the Islamic Revolution and Tina's Mouth takes place in present day southern California.
The pressures to succeed that first generation Tina feels from her intellectual Indian family, the heartbreak of being dumped by a best friend, trying to fit in two different cultural worlds, having a crush on a popular jerk - those are all very real and relatable situations. I found Tina's perspective refreshing and smart with a touch of teen melancholy. No one wants to get ditched by friends or have unrequited feelings for someone wholly inappropriate, but that's the way life goes. And it is melancholy. But you learn from it.
That may be the most important lesson that Tina learns from her existential experiment. How do you know who you really are when you are constantly growing and changing?