YA Graphic Novel Round-up 3

M is for Monster
by Talia Dutton
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Content: It’s raising a body from the dead, and dealing with issues of identity. it’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

M is Maura, Dr. Frances Ai’s sister, brought back to life. On the one hand, M wants to continue living, so she pretends to be Maura. (Dr. Francis is so desperate to get her sister back that if this didn’t work, she would take M apart and try again. For obvious reasons, M doesn’t want that.) On the other hand, M is bad at being Maura; she doesn’t care about science, hates Maura’s clothes, and doesn’t laugh at Francis’s jokes. She wants to explore fashion and sewing, and just be herself.

This is a really clever twist on Frankenstein, looking at the monster’s point of view, and an exploration of identity and what it means to be a “person”. It’s sweet and charming and absolutely delightful.

Piece by Piece
by Priya Huq
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Content: There is a hate crime to start the book, and Islamaphobia, as well as some abusive statements by an adult.

Nisrin is attacked on the way home from school – she was wearing a head covering, part of a Bangladeshi traditional costume. She is told that she needs to go back “where she came from”, and that “her kind” are not welcome. She is injured in the attack. The summer passes, and she can’t leave the house. But when school starts again in the fall, Nisrin decides to wear hijab to school, which doesn’t sit well with her mother and grandparents. They don’t understand her decision, and she has some challenges dealing with it. She does, however, find her tribe, and makes up with her best friend, who she had a falling out with after the attack.

It’s a good story, one that I think needs to be told. I appreciated that Nisrin was Bangladeshi, because isn’t a usual nationality for stories about Islam. However, while I felt it was important, I felt like it was missing something I’m not entirely sure what, but it wasn’t quite,, something. Still, I’m glad that it’s out there.

Himawari House
by Harmony Becker
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Content: There is some smoking and drinking, but the kids are all of age. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Nao was born in Japan but basically is raised in America. She learned to fit in, but she has often wondered what it would be like to find her roots, and go back. So, she takes a year between graduating high school and going to college, and heads to Japan to find out. She moves in to Himawari House and meets Tina – a young woman from Singapore – and Hyejung – a young woman from Korea – who are both learning to find their way in Japan. There are two boys in the house as well, though they are Japanese. The three girls become close friends, ashring in their successes and sadnesses, ads they figoure out who they are and what they want for their future.

Oh, this one was delightful. I loved that Becker captured the challenges and joys of learning to live in a foreign county, and the challenges of being biracial and trying to a way to fit in. Becker gave us the inner lives of all the characters, which was delightful. I also liked that she pulls illustrating styles from manga – there were many frames that strongly reminded me of the manga I’ve read. It was a smart story, compelling, and beautifully drawn. I loved it.

Measuring Up

by Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu
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Content: There is some pressure on a character by a parent, which may be triggering for some. It’s in the Middle Grade Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Cici and her family live in Taiwan. She’s happy; she has her A-ma there to keep her company while her parents work and to teach her how to cook. So when Cici’s parents take jobs in America, Cici is heartbroken. Especially since A-Ma isn’t coming. Life in America is strange, and Cici wants to find a way to help A-Ma visit, so she enters a cooking competition for kids. The only problem is that Cici only knows how to cook Taiwanese dishes, and not “American”. She learns about Julia Child (yay!) and practices and practices to become better. And yet, she doesn’t want to lose her own identity and heritage.

What a delightful book! I loved the meshing of the immigrant story and food. There is a huge metaphor about how immigrants have to balance assimilation and their own heritage. There’s also a theme about finding your own path and not the one that your parents set out for you. I loved the characters, and how Xu drew them. She also met the challenge of drawing food and cooking, which isn’t easy.

I adored this one.

The Magic Fish

by Trun Le Nguyen
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Content: There some fairy tale-type violence. It’s in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

 Tiến is a first-generation American, trying to live his best life. However, he has recently come out as gay to his friends, and wants to share that with his parents. However, he doesn’t know if they understand English well enough and he doesn’t know the words in Vietnamese. His mother feels like Tiến is growing apart as he grows up, but they do still share one thing: a love of reading fairy tales. And maybe through this connection,  Tiến will find a way to share about his life.

Honestly? It was a gorgeous book. The art was spectacular, and the fairy tale retellings (three re-tellings of Cinderella-type stories) were marvelous. I liked  Tiến  and his friends and the way he tries to navigate coming out and his feelings while his mother deals with being separated from her elderly, sick mother.

However, I’m not entirely sure who this graphic novel is for. I know adults will read it and love it, as will those who enjoy fairy tale re-tellings. But, is it for the middle grade age group? Maybe? Maybe there are some 4-8th graders who will read this and see themselves, or need to read this because they lack the confidence to come out to their family. But it lacks a real plot, which most middle grade books kind of need to have.

At any rate, it’s a gorgeous book, and Nguyen is a talented artist. I will be curious to see what he does next.

You Brought Me the Ocean

by Alex Sanchez, illustrated by Julie Maroh
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Content: There is some kissing and some bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Jake has always had a dream to study the ocean. Except, he lives in New Mexico with his mom — his dad disappeared when Jake as born — and no way of getting out.

It doesn’t help that he feels different: not just because he’s not sure if he’s gay (spoiler: he is), but because he’s always had these weird “birthmarks” on his body. It doesn’t help that his best friend, Maria, wants to take their relationship to the next level, either.

It’s less a book about superheroes, though it is set in the DC universe, and more about one kid coming to own his own truth. He comes out, he finds out who his dad is and what his marks mean. All of this, while falling into a relationship with Kenny.

It’s nice that the adults are fully formed; you understand Jake’s mom’s paranoia, and Maria’s parents are incredibly supportive. Kenny’s disabled father had the biggest arc: he starts out seeming unacceptng and homophobic but turns out to be supportive of his son.

It’s an incomplete story: I thought Jake would have a chance to face his father or at least move forward, but no: this book is about Jake fully becoming who we was meant to be.

And that’s a good thing.

Dragon Hoops

by Gene Luen Yang
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Content: There are swear words, but there are all bleeped out. It’s a bit thick, which might be intimidating for younger readers. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

I’ve read a lot of what Yang has written, but even so, I didn’t expect this to be a graphic novelization of his last year teaching at Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, California, and the year the high school men’s basketball team had.

Yang himself admits it up front: he never thought he’d be writing a graphic novel about basketball. He’s more of a superhero guy. And I get that. But, Yang does a fantastic job of letting his readers into the world of an elite high school basketball team. He introduces us to several of the main players, getting to know them and the dynamics they have with the coaches. As a parallel story, Yang explores the transition from teaching full time and writing part time to writing full time. It was an interesting story, one in which I found myself invested in the outcome: would the Bishop O’Dowd Dragons win the State Championship?

I found myself fascinating by the book. Not only because Yang does a superb job humanizing the people in the game, he does a superb job portraying the games themselves. I think he really does capture the athleticism and the intensity in each basketball game. All of which made this graphic novel very enjoyable.

Girls of Paper and Fire

by Natasha Ngan
First sentence: “There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow.”
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Content: There is sexual assault and rape (though mostly off-screen) as well as physical violence. There is also some implied sex. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

I’ve seen this one on the shelf for a while, and it looks intriguing, but I had NO idea what I was about to get into.

In some ways, it’s easier to explain the world Ngan created: it’s vaguely Chinese (she’s half-Malaysian) but she’s flipped the usual hierarchy: the Moon caste, who are fully animal demon, are on the top. Then come the Steel caste, who are half human and half demon. And finally, on the bottom, are humans, the Paper caste. There are a lot of politics in the book, but the long and short of it is that the Paper caste are treated horribly and discriminated against. Especially under the Demon King. As part of this discrimination, though it’s framed as a “privilege”, eight Paper caste girls from across the country are taken to be the king’s private prostitutes.

Lei, our main character, is one of those Paper Girls. She is taken, against her will, because of her golden eyes, to be a bribe from one of the king’s generals. And it’s not an easy life. Lei deals with the politics of court life, the discrimination from the demons in court, resentment from the other Paper girls.

It’s complex and hard to explain, but Lei is a phenomenal character to spend time with. She’s open and vulnerable, yet fierce and determined. Ngan is expert at balancing the world building with character development, and the chemistry between Lei and the person she falls for is intense! In fact, she does an excellent job with intensity all around: the fight scenes, the chemistry, everything.

So, yeah. It’s a hard one to explain (and to sell), but I’m definitely picking up the second in the series!

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982

by Cho Nam-Ju, translated by Jamie Chang
First sentence: “Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 14, 2020
Content: There’s some swearing, including a few f-bombs. It will be in the Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

This is the story of one Korean woman, and how she get to the point, a year after giving birth, where she’s impersonating (but is she really?) other women. Something I didn’t know until the end: it’s told through the eyes of a psychologist/psychiatrist that Jiyoung goes to see, presumably because of her condition. She tells this psychiatrist about her life, from a childhood where she and her older sister were mostly neglected in favor of their younger brother, through school where she was often harassed by boys, to the workplace where she was often treated by men as a servant. She just decided it was her lot, and did the best she could, though there were women — including, eventually, her mother — who were telling her life could be different. Jiyoung gave up working when she had her baby, mostly because it was too hard to juggle daycare and a full-time job and her husband wasn’t terribly supportive.

This was just a portrait of one life, albeit one that had quite a few run-ins with the patriarchal system of Eastern Asia. It was a sad little book — sad that Jiyoung was never really encourage to do much of anything, sad that the lives of women still revolve around the men and boys. It’s odd too, it had footnotes (which makes more sense knowing it’s psychiatrist notes) and an odd cadence. It’s not a story I read to really connect with the characters, though much of that Jiyoung went through was relatable. But, even though we got the facts of her life, I felt like we never really got to know her. Although I appreciated the insight into contemporary Korean culture, I just felt disconnected through the book.

Oh, and the author got epidurals wrong, which is a small thing, but an annoyance all the same.

I do appreciate that this book exists, if only to highlight the sexism and misogyny in countries other than the United States. But, no, I didn’t find it enjoyable.

Love from A to Z

by S. K. Ali
First sentence: “On the morning of Saturday, March 14, fourteen-year-old Adam Chen went to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s some mild swearing, including a couple of f-bombs. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

Zayneb is a senior in high school in Indiana, and she’s dealing with an Islamophobic teacher. He’s constantly bringing up ways in which Muslims are backward and how the religion is repressive, even though he’s white and doesn’t know nearly as much as Zayneb, who is actually a practicing, hijab-wearing, Muslim. Which makes her a target. So, one day, right before spring break, she’s had enough: and starts passing notes with a friend about the teacher and needing to take him down. He intercepts the note and reports her to the principal, and gets her suspended.

Which leads her to spending time with her aunt, who is a teacher at an international school in Doha. And that’s where Adam comes in. His father is the director of that school, and Adam’s home from spring break at college in London. Except he’s dropped out: he just got a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, which his mother had and died from complications connected to, and he’s determined to make as much art as he can, while he still can. He’s also Muslim: his father, who is a Chinese-Canadian, converted to Islam after the death of his wife, and Adam and his younger sister Hanna soon followed.

Adam and Zayneb have an instant connection, and while this book is dealing with heavier stuff like racism, people’s perceptions of Islam, and dealing with a diagnosis of MS, it is, at its heart, a rom-com. There’s a meet-cute in the airport, there are several meetings, a setback or two, and eventually, they fall in love and are super happy together. It’s a good Muslim story: they don’t actually hold hands or stay out all night, or even have sex in the back of a car. They enjoy talking and connecting and do everything properly and by the book. And the physical stuff doesn’t happen until the Epilogue, after Zayneb graduates from college and they get married. It’s really quite sweet.

I loved seeing a really religious rom-com, because there isn’t many of those out there. And because I’m an outsider to Islam, I appreciated the glimpse into that religion. There’s this one scene where Zayneb is face-timing with a friend, who has another friend (who is a white girl) with her. Zayneb says something to the effect how white feminists want to free Muslim women from wearing the hijab, because it will free them from oppression, and that’s not what it means. I have to admit that I was one of those white feminists for a very long time, but I’m coming to realize that it’s just an expression of their religion, and just because it’s different from me, doesn’t mean it’s oppressive or wrong. I appreciated that reminder.

In short: it was a unique YA romance, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me

by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: May 7, 2019
Content: There is implications of sex (but none actual), some teen drinking, and a few instances of f-bombs plus other language. It will be in the Graphic Novel section of the bookstore.

Freddy has a problem: her girlfriend, Laura Dean, keeps breaking up with her. It’s more complicated than that: Laura will be super cute and lovey and want Freddy to do all sorts of things with her and Freddy will feel wonderful, and then Laura Dean will take off, or Freddy will find her kissing another girl, or she’ll just disappear and leave Freddy hanging.

This roller coaster ride of a relationship is taking its toll on Freddy, too: she’s become a crappy friend to her actual friends, whom she stands up often because of Laura Dean. And she’s questioning whether or not it’s her fault that Laura Dean keeps taking off.

I loved this. Seriously. I loved that it was a lesbian love story, that everyone was so accepting, but that Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell used this to talk about abusive relationships. Because, as the reader probably figures out before Freddy: Laura Dean’s super abusive. In fact, that’s the whole arc of the story: helping Freddy figure out that even though Laura Dean is popular, and even though she might enjoy the time she spends with Laura Dean, that doesn’t mean they have a healthy relationships. But they also tackle other issues: one of Freddy’s friends is in the closet to his family, and his boyfriend is upset he can’t go to a family party, and Freddy loses the connection with her best friend, right at the time when she needs Freddy the most.

This book is messy and complicated, but it’s also glorious and compelling. And I hope people read it because it’s fantastic.

The November Girl

by Lydia Kang
First sentence: “There’s a foolproof method to running away.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Every November on Lake Superior, the weather is unpredictable and ships go down. It’s been that way forever. They call it the November witch. And little do they know that they’re right: her name is Anda, and she’s the half-mortal, half-nature witch who feeds on death and destruction, living with her father on Isle Royale most of the year, and feeding on shipwrecks in November to satiate her appetite.

Hector is a half-Korean, half-Black kid who’s on the run from his abusive uncle. His plan: hide out on Isle Royale until he turns 18 in May, and can be a legal adult, and get out the grips of his uncle. Except, things don’t quite go according to plan. First reason? He can see Anda (no one else can). And second reason? They get involved.

I feel like, as a Michigander, I should have liked this one more. It was super atmospheric, and Kang’s love for the Lake (though not the one I’m most familiar with; I know Erie better) shines through. But, honestly? I just found I couldn’t care for the characters. I didn’t buy Hector and Anda’s romance (and I got tired of it, especially since she played the manic pixie dream girl role to Hector’s cutter outsider persona) and I thought the ending was a bit on the tidy side.

Maybe it’s just a wrong person, wrong time, wrong book problem.