In the graphic novel Belle of the Ball, Brazilian author and illustrator Mari Costa treats us to a charming, sweet, and funny story of a high school love triangle between a nerdy wallflower, a charming jock, and an overly driven cheerleader.
When Belle Hawkins (who goes by her last name), school mascot and super shy wallflower, finally works up the courage to ask her crush, the super beautiful, super smart, and super popular cheerleader Regina Moreno, to the school dance, things don’t go particularly well. For starters, she forgets to take off the big cat head she’s wearing as part of her costume. Even worse, Regina has a girlfriend, the star athlete Chloe Kitigawa, who just so happens to show up right at that moment and threaten Hawkins to never talk to her girlfriend again. While both Hawkins and Chloe hope that that is the last time they see each other, fate has other plans. Later that day, Regina finds out that Chloe is failing English, which does not fit in with her 10 year plan for their lives. Regina decides to get Chloe a tutor. She sees Hawkins’s profile on a tutoring service website and comes up with a devious plan: play nice and ask Hawkins to tutor Chloe for free.
Initially, Regina’s plans work well. Hawkins jumps at the chance to tutor Chloe to impress Regina. Chloe, despite being stubborn and a bit of a jerk to Hawkins, decides to play along. That all changes, though, when Chloe remembers who Hawkins is. Long before Hawkins decided to start hiding who she was (and going by Hawkins instead of her first name), she and Chloe were close friends, with Hawkins perpetually dressed as a princess and leading Chloe on adventures. As their tutoring sessions continue and they spend more and more time together, old feelings between the two resurface and a romance begins to bloom. However, with Regina still in the picture, things are complicated and they can’t admit their true feelings.
I really liked Mari Costa’s writing. For starters, I love the main characters and the journeys Mari takes them on in the book. While they all start as stereotypical high school archetypes, there is so much more depth to them over time. Hawkins starts as your typical shy nerdy wallflower. She sits the other nerdy kids in school, but never has the courage to join in. She’d rather wear her mascot head than be seen. However, as the story progresses, she begins to have the courage to open up and let people see who she truly is, thanks in no small part to Chloe. Chloe appears at first to be your stereotypical jock, but by the end you see that she has her own nerdy side and is actually very sweet and charming. I loved the interactions between Hawkins and Chloe as their relationship develops. The antagonism between them (mostly coming from Chloe) goes from mean-spirited to playful and sweet. They go from being two people stuck with one another because someone else made them do it to two people who genuinely care for one another and want to be around each other as much as possible.
And then there’s Regina. Initially, I didn’t care for Regina. She comes off as very selfish and full of herself at the beginning of the book. Her conversations are often all about her and how smart, beautiful, and talented she is. When talking about their relationship with Chloe, Regina routinely frames it around her own goals and her own needs, putting Chloe’s second. With Hawkins, most of their dynamic revolves around receiving praise from Hawkins or asking Hawkins to do things for her. However, as the story progresses, she slowly begins to realize her flaws and make small changes for the better. While I still didn’t become her biggest fan by the end of the book and I still see room for her to grow, I did come around on her at least a little.
Mari’s art in this book is also outstanding. I really appreciated the unique color palette of the book, with Mari choosing to keep everything in black, white, and shades of red and pink. The pacing of her panels is also fluid. Not once did I get confused as my eyes moved from panel to panel. Mari uses her art to full comedic effect, with multiple awkward momsents illustrated hilariously. A special mention needs to be said for how she used Hawkins’ mascot head, this giant cat head, in several scenes. For me, though, the best thing about the art in this book was how Mari illustrated facial expressions, from over the top manga-style illustrations to emphasize character emotions to more subtle illustrations to show the character’s inner thoughts. It all really worked for me and made the character’s emotions and thoughts crystal clear. I really think that this helped the most with Chloe, the quietest of the three protagonists. There are pages in which she says maybe two lines of dialogue, but her eye movements and facial expressions say so much more.
I only have two minor complaints about this book. First, I would have liked to see more of Regina’s arc. I feel like a lot of it gets left to the last chapter and is fairly short. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work or that it’s sudden: you do see how she goes from selfish and stuck-up to a better friend to Chloe and Hawkins, and it does make sense. I just wish I saw more of it. Second, I wish there had been more about what happened to Hawkins that made her hide herself away so much. It’s hinted that something happened that made her go from Belle, dressed like a princess as much as possible, to Hawkins, hidden away in more androgynous clothes. Still, we get nothing more than “high school happened”, which, granted, is believable.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this graphic novel. If you’re looking for a sweet, funny, and light-hearted high school romance, I highly recommend it.
Jamie Rose is a trans woman living in Florida (so you can imagine how that’s going right now). She has a PhD in Applied Linguistics and teaches courses in language learning and teaching. A lover of stories, she enjoys reading both comic books/graphic novels and the ones without pictures. Her favorite genres are contemporary romance, science fiction and fantasy, superheroes, and comedy. When she’s not reading or working, she’s usually playing table-top games or video games, binging YouTube videos, or spending time with her wife and daughter. Find her on Twitter, Instagram, Bluesky, and Threads at @jamiegeeksout.