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.
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (9781524715700)
Lily, her mother and sister move in with her elderly Korean grandmother. In the small town, Lily soon discovers that everyone knows and loves her grandmother, who wears glamorous clothes and tries to offer advice and help to her community. Halmoni has always been special to Lily too, sharing stories of tigers, girls and stars with her and her sister. So when they are heading to Halmoni’s house and Lily sees a tiger out of the car window, she knows it’s from her grandmother’s tales and that tigers are tricksters. As Lily starts to understand that her grandmother is severely ill, she believes that she can help by working with the tiger to release the stories from her grandmother’s jars. The stories emerge and shine in the darkness, returning to the sky as stars and allowing Lily to hear some of the more difficult stories for the first time. Yet, Lily isn’t sure if the tiger is actually real and if the tiger is, can she be trusted to really help Halmoni?
Keller’s novel for middle grade readers explores the complexity of stories both in terms of folklore but also stories of previous generations in a family and the difficulties they faced in other countries and in traveling to the United States. The power of stories themselves is never in question here, shining through as each tale is shared. They connect, explain and inspire. But stories here are also hidden, carefully kept from others so that their pain need not be shared. This too speaks to their incredible power and the importance of them being told. So in the end, whether you believe in the tiger or not, you will believe in the stories themselves and their magic.
This novel is so beautifully written. Readers will experience it as a series of jars to be opened and released by them. The tales themselves are told in language and tones that really make them understood to be part of an oral tradition. The rest of the book, the story of Lily and her family, is layered and fascinating. All of the characters are complex and have multiple dimensions to their personalities. Lily is caught up in her own world of tiger traps and magical jars, but everyone else has their own perspectives on what is happening to Halmoni and their family.
A powerful book of stories, magic and tigers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Books for Young Readers.
Frankly in Love by David Yoon (9781984812209)
Frank Li’s parents expect him to date only Korean-American girls. They make racist comments about all other races, even though Frank’s best friend Q is black. So when Frank breaks the rules and starts dating Brit, a white girl, he has to come up with a cover story. That’s where Joy comes in, she is a fellow Korean-American also caught in her families rules and she is also dating a non-Korean. So the two of them create a system where they pretend to date one another while actually dating other people. It’s the perfect plan until it falls apart as Frank learns what love is. Meanwhile, Frank’s family faces health issues and violence. Frank realizes that while his family may never understand him, he loves and needs them in his life.
Yoon has created one of the hottest YA titles of the fall. To my delight, it’s popular for a reason. Yoon’s frank exploration of racism both societal and within one family is refreshingly honest, not ever ducking away from difficult and deep conversations. The interplay of that and other serious topics with an almost rom com escapade of fake dating makes for an intoxicating mix.
Frank Li (whose name is a delight) is a wonderful protagonist. He is immensely smart and not overly naive. His personal take on his heritage and culture grows and changes throughout the novel in an organic way. There are no easy answers offered here, no final moment of clarity. Instead it is all about growth and the ability to understand one another and find connection, even after it has been damaged or severed.
A great teen novel that is a marvelous mix of romance and depth. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Putnam.
Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (9780062430083, Amazon)
Harper and her family have moved to Washington DC after she was injured during her stay at a hospital. Harper has no memory of how her injuries happened, but they may be the key to understanding the family’s new house. Harper’s little brother has been acting strangely since they moved in, speaking to an imaginary friend and then becoming almost another person. As Harper makes a new friend in the neighborhood, the two of them start researching what happened in the house in the past and discovering that the threatening presence that Harper feels in the house may be a ghost! In fact, Harper may be one of the special people who can sense ghosts in the world, but she has to figure out how to do so safely and who to trust with her secret.
Oh is the founder of We Need Diverse Books. She has crafted here a middle grade novel that has Korean-American main characters and uses their culture skillfully as an important part of the story and the solution to their haunting issues. She has also created a book that is pure scary fun. This is not a serious book about diversity and modern society, but instead a romp of delightful scares that make the book real fun to read.
The lightness of the book will have young readers loving it. Oh allows the young protagonist and her siblings and friends to be the real heroes of the book, even as the dangers they face grow in size. The pace of the book is key to its success as well, as Oh allows it to pick up pace towards the ending, controlling it just enough but also allowing it to get wild and zany.
A great pick for fans of Ghostbusters or scary stories, I look forward to more adventures with these characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
A Piece of Home by Jeri Watts, illustrated by Hyewon Yum (InfoSoup)
Hee Jun loved living in Korea where he fit in with his classmates at school and his grandmother was a respected teacher. She was also able to have an extraordinary garden there. When his father moves them to West Virginia, everything changes. Hee Jun does not fit in with his classmates due to the way he looks and the way he talks. His grandmother too is different, her inner spark gone. His little sister has problems at school too, taking out her fear physically on her teacher. So their grandmother is asked to go to school with her. Slowly, the family begins to find their place in West Virginia, even discovering a beloved flower with a new name.
Watts tells the story of immigration with an eye towards giving people time to adjust and find their footing both with a new language and a new culture. The sense of loss for the characters is palpable on the page, eliciting a real understanding of the immense change they are undergoing. The little sister’s violent reaction to school is handled with sensitivity and understanding, offering the grandmother a chance to connect with her new surroundings. The entire book is filled with deep emotions combined with a gentle nurturing attitude.
Yum’s illustrations are done in watercolor. They show a loving family that manages to thrive despite the changes. The differences between their lives in Korea and West Virginia are shown on the page, particularly with regards to the grandmother and her vibrant life in Korea compared to her lonely existence in the first weeks in the United States.
A strong and thoughtful look at immigration that beautifully explains the huge changes children undergo as they move to a new country. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
What Will You Be, Sara Mee? by Kate Aver Avraham, illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien
Sara Mee is about to celebrate her first birthday. For Korean Americans, that means that she will participate in a special game called toljabee which will predict what she will be when she grows up. Her older brother Chong can’t wait to see what items she will pick from the table. But first there is plenty of preparation for the big day, including special clothes for Sara Mee, great food, and music. When the time for the game comes, Chong is allowed to help set the items before Sara Mee. What will she pick?
Part of the specialness of this book is the depiction of the extended Korean family, some who still live in Korea and others who live in the United States. There are grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more who bring the event and the book to life, filling it with faces and noise. Avraham’s text is sprinkled with Korean words and written in a light tone that invites the reader into this family get-together. O’Brien’s art is done in ink and watercolor. The smiles on all of the faces as well as the use of bright colors really create a book filled with joy.
A welcome book about Korean Americans and traditions, this book should find a place on library shelves across the country. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.