Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha
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Content: There is some mild swearing and a lot of bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

When Robin Ha was 14, in 1995, her mother married a Korean man in America and uprooted their life in Seoul, moving them to Alabama. Robin was shocked and upset (partially because her mother told them they were going on vacation, and then sprung it on her when they were already there) because she liked her life in Korea. She had friends, she liked her neighborhood, she liked her school. She fit.

And suddenly, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know much English and the kids in Alabama are cruel to an outsider. In this graphic memoir, Robin tells the story of the year she learned to adapt and learn and try to fit in. It’s an interesting immigrant story, but it’s also the story of how her mother didn’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal Korean society (she was a single mother who had never been married, and that’s looked down upon) and wanted not only a better life for her daughter, but a freer one for herself. Ha reflects on the dual nature of being Korean and living in America, and eventually not quite fitting in either place.

A customer at the bookstore pointed me in the direction of this one. She’s on a bit of a Korea kick, and she said this was one that helped her understand what life is like in Korea. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it did delve into Korean cultural mores, and it really portrayed how Ha often felt like she was in over her head. I liked Ha’s artistic style as well. Everything was written in English, but she color coded the text bubbles: blue for Korean, black for English. She used color and framing to help portray young Robin’s feelings of helplessness and anger, and in sepia-toned flashbacks, gave readers her mother’s story and Robin’s history in Seoul.

It’s an excellent graphic memoir, and definitely one worth reading.

They Called Us Enemy

by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott and illustrated by Harmony Becker
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Content: There is violence, some swearing, and many racist actions. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Everyone knows George Takei as Sulu on Star Trek (and as a side note, Hubby and K and I are working our way through the original series on Netflix — a consolation prize for not paying for CBS all access so we can watch Picard — and are enjoying it immensely). And if you’ve followed Takei on social media at all, you know about his childhood in the Japanese internment camps during World War II. But, since not everyone knows about this (shameful) part of our past, and because his story is relevant today with the ICE camps in California and Texas, he decided to tell it as a graphic novel.

It’s a tough story, but an important one; Takei was about 4 or 5 when his family was shipped off to live in one of the camps in Arkansas. He admits that he doesn’t remember much, and that he is grateful his father was willing to talk about their time in the camps (many of those who were sent felt shame and didn’t talk about it). It reminded me of John Lewis’s March, in that this is framed by a TED talk, by Takei looking back at this time. It’s a mirror to white people, at how harsh and how exclusive and judgmental we can be. And what the government will do — to citizens! — in the name of national security. (War is just awful.) While I’m not entirely sure the storytelling was smooth and the art was good but not brilliant, but the story is important enough to make this one worth reading.

Stargazing

by Jen Wang
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Content: There are some awkward moments, and a bit of violence by one of the characters. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section at the bookstore.

Christine is an Asian-American girl, who lives a very stereotypical Asian-American life: she plays the violin, her parents expect her to get good grades, she takes Chinese class on Wednesday nights, and so on. And then she meets Moon, the daughter of a single mom who comes to live in the small house behind Christine’s. Moon is unlike everyone Christine knows: impulsive, loud, creative, outgoing, and most of all, seemingly unstoppable.

They become best friends, but when Moon seems to move on from Christine, she gets jealous, and then Moon ends up in the hospital. Is there any way Christine can salvage their relationship?

I adore Jen Wang’s books, and this is no exception. She’s tackling immigrant issues, but they’re not at the forefront. Christine and Moon’s friendship is, and the conflict between their families. It could be because Moon’s family is a single mom or Buddhist, or because Christine’s parents are strict. I liked that they were both part of the Asian community, but the story is universal. There are some absolutely perfect art spreads — I liked it, especially, when the girls went to the planetarium on a field trip — and I think Wang tackled the issue of friendship, especially new friendship, perfectly.

Oh, and bonus points for including K-Pop as part of this! A really good graphic novel.

Sea Sirens

by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some intense moments, but the language is actually pretty simple. It’s in the Middle Grade graphic novel section, but I’d give it to the younger end of that set.

Trot is a California girl through and through. She spends the days (when she’s not in school!) at the beach with her grandfather while her mother works — he fishes, she surfs. Except there’s a problem: her grandfather has the beginning stages of dementia and doesn’t always remember where he is or that he’s supposed to be watching Trot. After one experience where her grandfather goes missing, Trot’s mom grounds them both to the house. So, Trot sneaks out with their cat, Cap’n Bill, and they go surfing. Except, they end up in the underwater world of the Sea Sirens. The are mortal enemies with the Sea Serpents, and Trot and Cap’n Bill help defeat them. So, they’re taken in as heroes for an underwater adventure with the Sea Sirens. (And Grandpa comes too!)

As I mentioned in the content, this is almost a beginning chapter Graphic Novel (does it belong with the other beginning chapter books? Perhaps.) — the language is basic, there are a lot of illustrations and not a lot of text, and the adventure is pretty simple. I think it serves the same function as the Babymouse books: it’s there to help beginning readers find a footing in the world of graphic novels. It’s fantastic that the main character is Vietnamese-American, and that her grandfather sometimes slips into Vietnamese when he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. It’s a cute book — I bet the full-color finished is quite gorgeous — and it’s a start of a series of adventures that Trot and Cap’n Bill will have. It’ll be a good one to put into the hands of those 1-3rd graders who are looking for something fun to read.