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Graphic Novelty²

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Harper

Almost American Girl

In this graphic memoir, Chuna “Robin” Ha chronicles how she and her mother moved to America from Seoul, Korea when she was fourteen. Her single mother wanted to take a vacation with American friends in Huntsville, Alabama, but it unexpectedly became a permanent relocation after her mother remarries. Overnight, Robin has to assimilate into American culture. She struggles to learn English and fit in both at school and with her new family, none of whom seem to accept her. She tries to lose herself in her art as she longs for the familiarity of her home, her school, and her friends in Korea while trying desperately to make her new home in America work. Where does she really belong? What is the true meaning of family?

Robin tells the story of the total uprooting of her life with grace. It appears to be colored in layers of watercolor that appear faded and washed out. The lines are similarly faded and shaky, suggesting uncertainty and impermanence. A teenager’s eternal struggle is laid bare and amplified across cultures here. She also shares with us excerpts of the comics and drawings she created during this time, which not only helps show us how she coped, but how she evolved as an artist.

Though Robin could be bitter and angry towards her mom for the extraordinarily unexpected way she uprooted both their lives, she presents her mom with empathy. Robin shares her mother’s story, and the story of her own birth and the circumstances that led to her being raised by a single mom. I believe this was a serious and deliberate decision in order for the reader to try and understand and emphathize themselves with Robin, her mother, and their situation and circumstances.

While this is a personal story, it is also a commentary on Korean vs. American culture. Robin struggles to reconcile these within herself, but we also see the differences starkly when Robin goes back to visit years after her permanent move to America. Ending the novel on this visit was the perfect way for us to see how exactly Robin changed and where she felt her home really was.

– Kathleen

Ha, Robin. Almost American Girl. 2020.

Estranged

Not everyone knows there’s a world below this one, where the fae and other fantastical creatures reside. Edmund knows, and so does his changeling, only known as the Childe. Edmund was born fae, but swapped for the Childe, so they have each grown up in the other’s world. When the queen’s evil sister Hawthorne claims the fae throne for herself, the Childe and his wax golem, Whick, escape to the world above to find Edmund. He is the crown prince and the only other person with a claim to the throne. Edmund is reluctant to leave the only life and family he has ever known, even for his birthright. Now that the Childe has found is human family – he’s not so quick to give it up, either. Can the two boys work together to save both worlds – worlds that neither of them feel they’re really a part of?

Wow. I was astonished this is a middle-grade graphic novel. It dives deep into mature issues such as identity and family. There’s a much weightier substance to the story than I was expecting, and certainly more than what’s standard for the target audience. Mr. Aldridge has no qualms about asking the hard questions of his audience, and writes them in in a way that his audience will be able to understand. In case it gets too rough, the graphic novel is laid out in chapters so they can take a break and come back to it later. If any of the target audience is like me and was too absorbed to do anything but devour it in one go, however, chapter breaks won’t be needed 😉

As a fantasy story, the art is darkly whimsical. It’s sketchy and cluttered, to convey a lot of information, but doesn’t come off as messy. Instead it gives more of an “organized chaos” vibe. Thin watercolor washes are built up in layers to also bring a sense of reality to the story.

I was shocked that this dark, weighty fantasy story was a middle-grade novel, and trust me… you will be, too.

– Kathleen

Aldridge, Ethan M. Estranged. 2018.

New Kid

Jordan Banks is a seventh grader starting at a new school. Not just any school though: Riverdale Academy Day School. It’s a prestigious school where a lot of kids from rich families go. Jordan got in on scholarship for his excellent grades, but he’d have much rather gone to art school instead. He loves to draw little comics about his daily life and observations, and has dreams of doing it for a living. Now, we all know middle school is hard. But it’s even harder being the new kid, and one of the only kids of color, in the whole school. Jordan finds himself struggling to make friends and fit in, and finds solace in his drawings. How do you make a place for yourself when not everyone is willing to let you have the space?

Though this is a middle-grade graphic novel, I enjoyed it and learned a few things from it to boot. Jordan is an African American kid, and author Jerry Craft cleverly documents not only the good, but the bad parts, of Jordan’s experience at a prestigious, mostly white school. Microaggressions such as being called the wrong name and assuming he plays basketball are documented in Jordan’s comics and conversations between characters. Some are explicitly mentioned, and some are more subtle. It made me recall how my schoolmates of color were treated while I was growing up. I grew uncomfortable, but that’s okay. I am glad I can now recognize these microaggressions as an adult if I myself and or others perform them, and take appropriate action to stop them.

The art and layout of this one are straightforward. There are chapters, like a print book, so there is always a good stopping point for younger readers. My favorite part was Jordan’s comics. Two-page spreads are dedicated to his work, at least one per chapter. They are done in pencil, complete with sketch and eraser lines, so you feel like you’re actually looking inside his sketchbook. They’re also often very funny!

Kids (and adults) of any race can learn from this graphic novel. It would be wonderful for kids and parents to read together and discuss Jordan, his feelings, and his experiences. I do hope we see more of Jordan and his observant and witty comics in the future – and if I want more, so too will the target audience ;D

– Kathleen

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. 2019.

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