Nao grew up not fitting in in the United States, hoping to find a place that felt more like home in Japan. She had visited as a child, but now was going to be attending Japanese cram school. She moved into Himawari House, a house shared with several other students, all attending the school but at different levels. Nao discovers that fitting in isn’t as simple as a shared language, especially when she doesn’t speak it as well as she thought. Two of the girls who also live in the house have left their own countries to study in Japan. They all learn to find a way to connect with both Japanese culture and their own. Whether it is through shared food, watching shows together around a laptop, or reconnecting with family they left behind.
This graphic novel is wonderful. There is so much tangled in the stories of the three girls. Each of the teens is a unique person with specific experiences that led them to come to Japan, whether it was well-planned or almost a whim. They all face difficulties and handle them in their own ways, which tell the reader even more about who they are. Add in a touch of romance and their search for a place to belong becomes painfully personal and amazingly universal at the same time.
The art is phenomenal. From silly nods to manga style to serious moments that shine with a play of light and shadow to character studies that reveal so much in a single image of one of the characters, the illustrations run a full gamut of styles and tones. The language in the book is also fascinating, sharing the English mixed with other languages, changes in linguistic formats and the blank moments that happen when learning a language. It’s all so cleverly done.
A great graphic novel that explores finding a place in the world to belong. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
When Lola Visits by Michelle Sterling, illustrated by Aaron Asis (9780062972859)
A little girl’s grandmother, Lola, always comes to visit in the summer. The first thing she does when she arrives for the summer is to make mango jam. Summer smells like that jam and also the sampaguita soap that she uses. Lola’s suitcase carries other smells like dried squid and candy. Summer smells like cassava cake hot from the oven. It smells of chlorine from lessons at the pool and sunscreen on the beach. It smells of all sorts of food, even limes on the trees. Summer ends with the smell of sticky rain while saying goodbye to Lola at the airport. The house becomes grayer and quieter. The breezes are colder. Summer ends with return to school and the last bites of summer in mango jam.
Sterling creates a symphony of senses in this picture book that celebrates the food of the Philippines and shares a special connection made every summer between grandmother and granddaughter. Using food to add taste and smell to the summer setting works particularly well. The food bridges nicely into other summer scents of pools, lakes and beaches, creating an entire world of experience that is universal but also wonderfully specific.
Asis’ illustrations are done in gouache and digital art. With light brush strokes, he creates cabinets, tree branches, pool water and cooling cakes. This light touch adds to the summery feel of the book, inviting us all to feel a bit more sunshine and brightness.
Delicious and sensory, this book is a treat. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.
I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illustrated by Julia Kuo (9781250249319)
A little girl grows up seeing her beloved Popo, her grandmother, often in Taiwan. They spend time together cuddling, eating and going to the park. Then the girl’s family decide to move to San Diego, far away from Taiwan. The girl goes to school in America with children of all colors. She doesn’t speak English yet, but she is learning. She calls her grandmother regularly. When they return to Taiwan for a visit, it feels different and she can’t communicate in Chinese as well as she used to. Her Popo’s house seems smaller though it smells just the same and her dumplings taste the same too. When her grandmother gets sick, the girl wishes she lived closer, but a dream is just the right thing to being them together after all.
This #ownvoices picture book is based on the author’s childhood, moving from Taipei to Albuquerque. It shows how a long-distance connection between a grandparent and grandchild is possible, keeping memories fresh and new experiences shared with one another. The book is filled with elements of Taiwan, such as New Year’s celebrations, dumplings and other food. Smells of Taiwan are mentioned regularly, wafting through experiences and dreams.
Kuo’s art is bold and beautiful. She allows the little girl to age through the course of the story, toddling in the park then heading to school, becoming less round and more lean as the pages turn. Popo also ages, the lines on her face more pronounced and her hair changing from black to gray. It is subtle and beautifully done.
A gentle story of immigration and continued connection to those left behind. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.
Growing up in 1950s San Francisco isn’t simple for a Chinese-American girl who loves to dream of working on math that will send people into space. Even her best friend isn’t interested in the same things as Lily is. As Lily becomes more aware of her sexuality, she soon realizes that she is queer. She’s particularly intrigued by a male impersonator in San Francisco. As her love of math draws her closer to a white classmate at school, she realizes they may have even more in common. Soon the two teens are heading out to a club together to watch that same male impersonator that Lily was dreaming about. But remember, it is the 1950s and Chinese girls are not allowed to be gay, so Lily is risking a lot. It’s the time of McCarthyism too, so Lily’s family is threatened by the fear of Communism when her father’s papers are taken away. Lily must find a way to navigate the many dangers of being Chinese, queer and young.
Lo’s writing is so incredible. She creates a historical novel that makes the historical elements so crucial to the story that they flow effortlessly along. She avoids long sections of exposition about history by building it into the story in a natural and thoughtful way. That allows readers to feel Lily’s story all the more deeply while realizing the risks the Lily is taking with her family and friends. Lo also beautifully incorporates San Francisco into the book, allowing readers to walk Chinatown and visit other iconic parts and features of the city.
As well as telling Lily’s story, Lo shares the stories of Lily’s aunt and mother. They took different paths to the present time, making critical decisions about their careers and marriages. These experiences while straight and more historical speak to Lily’s own budding romance and finding of people who support her as she discovers who she is. They remove the simple look at who her mother could be been assumed to be and make her a more complex character.
Layered and remarkable, this book speaks to new, queer love and shows that intersectionality has been around forever. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
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.
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.
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.
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.