The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

The Magic Fish cover image

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (9780593125298)

Tiến loves to spend the evening together with his mother reading from a book of fairy tales. He reads while his mother continues her work as a seamstress, sometimes fixing Tiến’s clothing too. They don’t have much money, so Tiến’s jacket is full of patches. Happily, his friends don’t mind, not even the boy who Tiến has a crush on. As they share the tales, Tiến is searching for a way to share with his parents that he is gay, but they don’t speak English well, and he can’t find the right word in Vietnamese. When his grandmother dies in Vietnam, his mother leaves to prepare her funeral. Tiến is left behind to navigate his first school dance, where his teacher becomes concerned and he is sent for church counseling. What will his mother say when she finds out?

It is remarkable that this is a debut graphic novel. It is done with such finesse, weaving the fairy tales and the modern world together into a place full of possibility and transformation. The stories shared include versions of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, versions that grow and change themselves with endings that will surprise those who know the better-known stories. In this way, the author creates real hope on the page, that things will change, that love will prevail and that understanding will flourish, both through tales and in real life.

The art here is unique and exquisitely done. Using color to tell readers whether they are seeing the real world in the present, a flashback or a fairy tale, the effect is both dramatic and clarifies the borders between the various stories. The fine-line work here is beautiful, from each hair on the character’s heads to gorgeous dresses that swirl across the pages to dramatic landscapes and undersea worlds.

A great graphic novel that is about diversity, acceptance and the power of stories to bring us together. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Graphic.

My Day with Gong Gong by Sennah Yee

My Day with Gong Gong cover image

My Day with Gong Gong by Sennah Yee, illustrated by Elaine Chen (9781773214290)

May has been left with her grandfather, Gong Gong, to spend the day. But she doesn’t speak any Chinese and Gong Gong doesn’t speak much English. They go on a walk together through Gong Gong’s Chinatown neighborhood. Her grandfather knows everyone as they walk by, but May can’t understand what they are saying or why they are laughing. May gets hungry and asks for something to eat, but her grandpa just pats her head. They go to a Dim Sum restaurant next, but Gong Gong spends the time chatting, not eating. Then they head to the grocery store and shop. May thinks they may be heading home to eat, but instead they play cards with Gong Gong’s friends in the park. When a pigeon poops on May’s jacket, she bursts into tears. But it turns out that Gong Gong has been paying attention all along and has just the right toy and dumpling to help.

This picture book celebrates the generations spending time together, particularly those from immigrant families who have language barriers. Told entirely from May’s point of view with little asides to the reader of her confusion and hunger, the book captures May’s unease with her grandfather and her belief that he doesn’t understand her at all. That is then flipped around, as the book resolves into a grandfather who has been paying close attention all along.

The illustrations beautifully depict Chinatown streets with many people out and about and colorful shops and signs. The scenes shine with sunlight, showing readers the warmth and friendliness of the community long before May truly feels it herself.

A lovely look at grandparents and finding connection across generations. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Annick Press.

Parachutes by Kelly Yang

Parachutes by Kelly Yang

Parachutes by Kelly Yang (9780062941084)

Claire and Dani could not be more different from one another. Claire comes from Chinese wealth in Shanghai. When her father decides that she should go to school in the United States, she is quickly moved to California and into Dani’s house. Dani lives there with just her mother. She attends the same school as Claire, but as a scholarship student. Dani loves to debate and enjoys the attention her debate coach shows her. As the two girls navigate high school in parallel but separate social spheres, they both encounter sexual harassment and assault. Both of them shut down, lose sight of themselves, and tell almost no one what has happened. But as they get angry and refuse to be silenced, the two discover that they may just be the person the other one has needed to be their champion.

Yang tells the story of Chinese parachute students who come to the United States for high school. Their experience is fascinating and unique. Sent to a foreign country alone as a teenager, often from very wealthy families, these teens must learn in a new language and figure out a different society. There is so much to envy here, from the clothing to the handbags to the cars. The expectations for someone like Claire are huge, the pressure form her family immense, and the situations very adult.

Against that wealth and shimmer, Dani’s story is set. She is Filipino, she and her mother work as cleaners in the large homes. She goes to school with wealthy kids, but is known as a scholarship student. She is bright and ferocious, defending her friends along the way. Yet when her teacher sexually harasses her, Dani loses her voice and must regain her passion and anger to find a way forward.

The pairing of these two different girls is phenomenal, their journeys linked but separate in many ways. Powerful, wrenching and insistent, this novel is a rallying cry. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Private Lessons by Cynthia Salaysay

Private Lessons by Cynthia Salaysay

Private Lessons by Cynthia Salaysay (9781536209600)

Claire started to play the piano when her father got sick. Now after his death, it is a connection to his memory. As Claire longs to go to a school for music, she auditions to become a student of Paul Avon, a well-known and respected piano teacher in San Francisco. Her traditional Filipino mother is uncertain, but is soon charmed by Paul and manages to cover the cost of the lessons. Claire is soon practicing constantly, trying to get Paul’s approval for her playing and reach the emotional center of each piece of music. She participates in competitions and places well, but it never seems like quite enough. As Paul’s moods get more sour, he leaves Claire to watch his house while he goes on tour. When he returns though, Claire’s fantasies about playing for him and finally gaining his approval don’t work out and things turn sexual and sour between them.

Salaysay’s book is unusual and fascinating. She captures the drive and perfectionism of being a pianist who competes. She also shows the steady grooming and isolation of a young woman who is invited to the outskirts of adulthood and abused. At the same time, Salaysay also shows that sex has meaning and is nothing to be ashamed of, unless it is abusive or rape. This delicate line is kept pure throughout the book, as Claire learns about herself and what one event can do.

Salaysay’s writing is exquisite. Readers will at first be on alert about Paul and his approach, but soon will settle in just as Claire does as her playing improves. Yet throughout there are multiple points of tension for Claire and the reader. There is Claire’s falling out with her best friend, fighting with her mother, traveling to the city, and steadily becoming someone else. Yet when she is wounded and hurt, it is those same people she left behind who are there for her and help label what happened to her.

A symphony of a book, this novel encompasses music, race, sexuality and assault. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

Almost American Girl by Robin Ha (9780062685094)

This graphic novel memoir tells a compelling story. Chuna lived with her single mother in Korea, until they went to Alabama on a what Chuna thought was a family vacation. Instead it was a way for her mother to actually meet the man she had been dating long distance and see where he lived. Now at age 14, Chuna must learn a new language and figure out a new society which is very unlike that of Korea. She doesn’t get along with her new stepfamily and continues to be furious with her mother. After all, she lost everything with the move: her country, her language, her friends, and a lot of her favorite things. When her mother enrolls her in a comic book program, Chuna discovers a way forward with new friends and a new way to express herself.

Ha’s memoir is marvelous. She creates real emotion on the page, not shying away from the raw reaction that she had as a teen to being moved to an entirely different country unexpectedly. The book is filled with tension, between Chuna and her mother, her mother and her new husband, and the entire extended family. Readers will see flashes of hope and a future before Chuna does in the book, adding to a feeling of possibility and resilience.

The art in the book reflects the strong plotting that Ha has created here. She lingers in moments very effectively, emphasizing their importance for readers. The art moves from tans and pastel colors to more dramatic moments where emotion is shown in waves of colors or hauntingly dark scenes that capture depression perfectly.

A great graphic novel memoir that tells the story of the isolation of being a new immigrant in America, but also the potential for a new future through art. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee

Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee

Mindy Kim and the Yummy Seaweed Business by Lyla Lee, illustrated by Dung Ho (9781534440098)

Second-grader Mindy Kim and her father moved from California to Florida where Mindy has to go to a mostly-Caucasian school. On her first day, Mindy opens her lunch of seaweed, kimchi, rolled eggs and rice. It catches the attention of the other kids at her table, who don’t recognize any of it. The second day of school, Mindy can’t ask for a different lunch because the toaster had caught fire and distracted her father. She plans though to not get laughed at again, make a new friend, and convince her father to get a puppy. When Sally asks to try some of Mindy’s seaweed at lunch, Mindy is very surprised. Soon everyone is trying them. So Mindy has a new idea and has her father buy lots more seaweed snacks. As she creates her own snack trading ring, Mindy and her friend decide to start charging money for snacks rather than trading them. She soon finds out that she’s broken a school rule!

Lee has written an early chapter book that is marvelously accessible for young readers and also grapples with being different from your classmates. Mindy is also dealing with the death of her mother, something that is poignantly shown in her time at home with her father and with her babysitter after school. The use of seaweed snacks as a gateway into an illicit snack ring is clever and delightful. 

The illustrations inside the book offer breaks in the text for new readers. They are done with a wry sense of humor that is evident in the art and work well with the story that also has a lot of funny moments. 

A diverse and delicious early chapter book. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin Books.

Review: The Iron Will of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee

The Iron Will of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee

The Iron Will of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee (9781419731457)

Fans of the first of the Genie Lo books will adore this second novel in the duology. Genie has been busy doing her job keeping the demons in the Bay Area under control and settling their disputes. Meanwhile, the Jade Emperor has disappeared just as Genie finally takes some time off to visit a college campus with her best friend. As supernatural things start happening on the campus, it is up to Genie, Guanyin and Quentin to try to keep things in line. But the disappearance of the Jade Emperor has opened up competition for his throne. Genie nominates Guanyin for the throne, but accidentally sets her friend up to take on an unstoppable force. As Genie and her friends set off into parallel worlds to battle the supernatural, they discover that their combined strength may not be enough to save the world this time. 

Impressively, three years after the first book, readers will be able to simply pick up this sequel and start reading without needing to go back to review the first. Yee doesn’t backtrack much but carefully constructs his sequel so that the names and characters fall effortlessly into place for the reader. Yee’s characters are so vividly drawn. Add in the setting of a college campus and partying and you have a great setting for this second book. 

It is great to also see growth in Genie herself as she explores what she wants to do after high school, despite being a Guardian now. Genie remains as irreverent and sarcastic as in the first book, as well as being a great friend to those around her as well. She is brave, ferocious and full of tenacity, but it may take all of her cleverness to win rather than brute strength this time.

Smart, funny and full of great fights, this novel is the second in a marvelous pair. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from copy provided by Amulet Books.

Review: Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illustrated by Charlene Chua (9781534411333)

Amy can do a lot of things like brush her teeth and tie her shoes. But the one thing she can’t do is make the perfect bao, a steamed dumpling. So she sets out one day to make the perfect bao. It’s an all-day effort by her entire family. Her father makes the bao dough, and Amy helps him pound the dough and let it rise. Her mother makes the filling, and Amy helps her too. Then everyone sits down at the table to form the bao, including Amy’s grandmother. When things don’t go right for Amy, everyone offers her advice on how to do it. That’s when Amy realizes that the dough has been cut for adult hands. When her grandmother cuts the dough into smaller pieces for Amy, suddenly she too can make perfect bao! In the end though, all of the bao, perfect or not, taste delicious.

Zhang takes the universal story of a young person not being as good at something as they want to be and wraps it in a delicious bao package. Readers are invited into Amy’s Chinese-American home and she leads readers through the process of making bao. The frustrations of learning and perfecting a process are openly shared. The discovery that Amy makes that solves the problem is nicely portrayed as well and I appreciate that the child is the one who realizes her own solution.

The art by Chua is wonderfully bright and vivacious. Amy is shown as an optimist throughout, even as she is trying to brush her teeth and tie her shoes at the same time. The backgrounds in the illustrations suit the mood of the moment, moving from gold to orange to blue.

A tasty treat of a book that will leave readers hungry for more. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.

Review: The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee (9781524740955)

As a Chinese-American living in Atlanta in 1890, Jo veers between being invisible to being openly shunned. She even lives invisibly in an underground secret room with Old Gin, the man who has raised her. Fired from her millinery job due to her race, Jo returns to her previous job as a maid for the entitled daughter of one of the wealthiest men in town. From her underground chamber, Jo discovers that the newspaper publisher who lives in the house above is having difficulty. A competing paper has a new advice column that is getting a lot of attention. So Jo sets out to anonymously fill that role as Miss Sweetie. As her column gains attention and controversy due to her distinct take on race and women’s rights, Jo finds herself caught up in a mystery that may force her to reveal all of her secrets.

Lee writes about an interesting moment in American history. After Chinese people were brought over to replace African-Americans as slaves on plantations, they also fled the hard work and disappeared into urban areas. These Chinese-Americans then had to figure out how to get by in a world that saw only black and white, not other races. Jo finds herself at the heart of these struggles as she navigates the world of the South in the late 1800’s. Laws were changing, and certainly not for the better around her. It’s a captivating look at an almost invisible group of people who should not be forgotten in the history of our nation.

Jo is a marvelous protagonist. Lee does an admirable job of making Jo’s more progressive views make sense and not be too modern. Bound by the society around her, Jo is regularly reminded of her status and that helps the reader also understand the restrictions that Jo finds herself living in. Still, Jo fights for what she needs and figures out ways to move ahead and help those she loves. She is undaunted, brave and fierce.

A superb historical novel that looks at race, gender and America. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from ARC provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.