Tom Beland’s “Chicacabra” is a charming, sometimes beautiful book that rather ingeniously uses its magical body-sharing premise to tell a tale about empathy. The protagonist Izzy is still reeling from the loss of her parents — her father dead, her mother dead inside — when she discovers a chupacabra in a boarded-up government test facility. Sensing a kindred spirit, the beast bonds with her and takes up part-time residence in her body. Now she has to navigate not only the struggles of high school and the weight of grief, but sharing her body with a mythical creature she can’t always control.
Izzy and her family are the center of “Chicacabra,” and she anchors the story well with a strong sense of self and even stronger opinions. Beland creates a believable teenager who thinks she knows everything but can’t answer any of the questions that most bother her. Izzy flies into rages and tosses off judgments, a seeming stereotype of a hormonal young girl, but she always finds her way back to compassion and self-awareness. “Chicacabra” is that rare story that trusts teenage girls to figure things out, and central to that trust is allowing the characters to make mistakes and learn from them. Izzy is allowed to get to know herself, good and bad.
The vehicle for her growth is often the apology, either in accepting or offering. Apologies are central to “Chicacabra” — who has to make them and why, whether they’re accepted, and what form they should take. It’s quite an interesting way to come at the themes of responsibility and forgiveness, and Beland handles the nuance and variety of amends-making well. Occasionally the characters stretch the bounds of believability with the directness of their apologies, but it doesn’t detract hugely.
Beland’s cheerful, simple art belies his sometimes serious subject matter. “Chicacabra” takes place a cartoon world where everything has rounded edges and every character has some jagged edges. Izzy jumps from bouncing through Old San Juan to staring at her comatose mother, and the art style doesn’t vary to match. Instead, Beland uses the black-and-white palette to change the mood of his scenes. The result is a world that mirrors reality; it doesn’t change just because Izzy has.
Puerto Rico itself is nicely utilized as a setting, from its folk tales to its foods. Beland is generally judicious with the “Dios mio” exclamations, and while arguments over the consistency of tostones could sometimes veer toward performative ethnicity, Izzy and her friends are never exoticized.
Izzy’s friends are another strength of the book. Though they pop in and out, and are nowhere near as important or well-imagined as Tio Tony, they’re all great examples of how to use secondary characters. Beland resists the urge to give them neat arcs and backstories, instead making them feel like the protagonists of their own unfinished stories who’ve just popped in for a scene in Izzy’s. The reader doesn’t know what happens to all of them, or how they turn out.
Though it touches on loss and family, forgiveness and growing up, at its heart “Chicacabra” is about empathy. From literally seeing through another creature’s eyes, Izzy learns how to metaphorically see the world through other people’s eyes. Fun to read and full of humanity, this is just a really lovely book.