Category: Young Adult

Demon in the Wood

Cover image for Demon in the Wood by Leigh Bardugo and illustrated by Dani Prendergast

by Leigh Bardugo

Illustrated by Dani Prendergast

ISBN 9781250624642

“I would burn a thousand villages, sacrifice a thousand lives to keep you safe.”

Eryk has lived his life on the run, with his mother Lena as his only companion. Eryk and Lena share a secret, a unique power that divides them even from the other Grisha who can summon or manipulate the elements. Eryk has been taught to trust no one, to don a new name and a new backstory at a moment’s notice, but he longs for a place of safety to call home, for other people who he can trust and confide in. When Eryk and Lena decide to winter in a Grisha camp on the border of Ravka and Fjerda he meets Sylvi and Annika and begins to harbour a tiny hope of a home. But when the truth comes out, the consequences of his secret will have a terrible price.

Others have described Demon in the Wood as the Darkling’s villain origin story, but really it is more like a single step along that path. In this case, it is the story of how a boy temporarily going by the pseudonym Eryk discovers the depths Grisha will sink to in order to protect themselves in a world that believes the only good witch is a dead witch. Rather than turning him against his own people, it drives him to imagine a world where Grisha have an exalted place, and their power raises them up rather than making them a target of persecution. But the methods he is learning as he begins the pursuit of that agenda hint at the dictator he will one day become.

The Darkling’s mother, going by the name of Lena for the moment, is perhaps the more interesting of the two characters. Lena recognizes that their power is unusual, even among Grisha, and tries to teach her son to protect himself from those who would use him, whether mundane or magical. However, the lengths to which she is willing to go to protect her son, and the value she teaches him to place on his own life above the lives of others will have dark echoes down the years. Both characters have understandable motivations, but they have many years yet to be twisted and warped before we encounter the characters we know from Shadow and Bone as Baghra and the Darkling.

Demon in the Wood is developed from a short story that was originally published in 2014 as a bonus item alongside the release of the third Grishaverse book, Ruin and Rising. Like The Language of Thorns and The Lives of the Saints, this is a beautiful edition for fans of Bardugo’s work, but not an essential addition to the main story. Dani Prendergast joins Daniel J. Zollinger and Sara Kipin among the ranks of artists that have done striking work to bring Bardugo’s world alive through their illustrations. Her colours and lines are particularly evocative at depicting Grisha powers in action, from shadow to water and especially ice.

10 Years of Required Reading: Best YA

Welcome to the last round up for my first decade of blogging! My reading continues to include a lot of YA novels (particularly fantasy) so this category clearly needed its own dedicated post. Here are five of my favourites from the past ten years.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Cover image for The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

by Holly Black

ISBN 9780316213103

Vampirism is a terrible reality in Tana’s world, a raging epidemic that took her mother, and almost cost her her own life. Vampires who choose to feed without killing their victims have spread the infection like wildfire, and the government has responded by sequestering vampires and their victims alike into Coldtowns across the country. When Tana wakes up in a bathtub after spending a party hiding from her ex-boyfriend, Aidan, she expects to find the usual morning-after chaos. Instead the house is deathly quiet, probably because all of the partygoers have been slaughtered by vampires. But in one of the bedrooms Tana finds Aidan tied to the bed covered in vampire bites, and a vampire named Gavriel shackled to the bedframe. Horribly familiar with the risks of infection, Tana sets out for the nearest Coldtown to turn the lot of them in. The Coldtowns are a mix of decadence and squalor, plotting and trading, where the most powerful vampires are internet reality stars. The glamour lures people into coming voluntarily to the Coldtowns with the promise of vampirism and immortality, but once inside, humans become an invaluable food source, rarely achieving their dreams of eternal life. Tana is willing to go into the Coldtown, but she’s also determined to hold onto her humanity and find her way back out. Holly Black makes the vampire narrative fresh with unique rules for her world, and unusual social consequences. At the same time, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was clearly written by someone with a deep love of the classics of vampire literature.

Categories: Fantasy

Every Heart a Doorway

Cover image for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9780765385505

A long time ago, a little girl named Ely West found a doorway, and went on an adventure to a Nonsense world, where she was very happy, until one day she was too grown up to tolerate all the nonsense. Now Eleanor West runs a school for other children who have found doorways that led them home, only to be forced back into a mundane world where no one understands what happened to them. No one except Eleanor. The newest student at Eleanor’s school is Nancy Whitman, and she has just returned from the Halls of the Dead. After years spent perfecting the art of stillness for the Lord of the Dead, everything about this world seems too hot, and fast. Her parents insist on things being just like they were before, meaning colourful clothing, regular meals, and dates with boys, even though Nancy has realized she is asexual. So Nancy is sent to Eleanor’s school to recover from her “ordeal,” and there she meets other children who have had the same experiences. But soon after Nancy arrives, someone begins murdering students. So begins the Wayward Children series, which now has seven volumes and received the Hugo award for best series this year.

Categories: Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

Himawari House

Cover image for Himawari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

ISBN 9781250235565

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her growing up in America. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels cast adrift, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together the girls navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean into this tale of found family.

Categories: Graphic Novel

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

ISBN 9780593125298

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through fiction, and the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long. Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Categories: Graphic Novel, LGBTQIA+

Six of Crows

Cover image for Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

by Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 9781627792127

Kerch is a land that worships gold and industry, and in this respect the slum rats of the Barrel are no different from the more supposedly more upstanding merchers of Ketterdam. Kaz Brekker has spent years building up the Dregs gang from nothing, creating the Crow Club, and laying a territorial claim to Fifth Harbour. With such a ruthless reputation, it is no surprise that a mercher might approach him with an unusual job, one that cannot be entrusted to just anyone. A Shu scientist has been captured by the Fjerdans, and is being held in the impregnable Ice Court. He holds the knowledge of a new drug, jurda parem, which can take Grisha power from miraculous to unimaginable, with terrible consequences, both for the Grisha, and for the world market. Kaz assembles a crew of his best pickpockets and thieves to travel to Fjerda during the Hringkalla festival, and attempt the impossible—breach the Ice Court, and extract Bo Yul-Bayur, before anyone else gets to him. Six of Crows is the first installment in a duology set in the world of Shadow and Bone. It is an extremely well-paced story, balanced between the past and the present, as well as action and character development. I’d particularly recommend the audiobook, which is performed by a cast of excellent narrators.

Categories: Fantasy

Thanks for celebrating 10 Years of Required Reading with me this week! If you missed the series, you can catch up beginning with a review of my most popular posts.

10 Years of Required Reading

When I launched this blog in the fall of 2012, shortly after my husband and I moved to the Seattle area for his job, I had no idea I would still be maintaining it a decade later! At the time, I was at loose ends waiting for a work visa, and looking for something to fill the time. Since then, I’ve returned to library work, starting in public libraries and then making an unexpected jump into the world of corporate librarianship. We’ve adopted two cats, bought a condo, and settled in to stay. These days I don’t have quite as much spare time to read or review, but I still love having a place to collect my thoughts and reading history, especially when someone asks me for a reading recommendation!

In honour of the tenth anniversary of Required Reading, I thought it might be fun to dig into the stats and find my most popular posts. Since October 2012, I’ve published 722 posts (this makes 723!) for a total of more than half a million words, which have been read by people from literally all over the world:

Heat map of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country.
Heatmap of all-time visitors to Required Reading by country

Over the course of the coming week, I’m planning to share some of my favourite reads from the the past ten years, but to kick things off, here are the top five most popular posts on the site:

The Rose and the Dagger

by Renée Ahdieh

ISBN 9780399171628

Cover image for The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

I’m not sure why this 2016 review of the YA fantasy sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn is so popular, but year after year this review continues to receive hits. It’s one of the few spoiler reviews on my site, because I couldn’t find a way to write about it without discussing the ending. It makes me think that, despite the taboo, people actually do like spoilers! Inspired by the 1001 Nights, the sequel focuses on Khalid and Shahrzad trying to break the curse that turned him into the murderous caliph who executed all of his previous brides, including Shahrzad’s best friend. She must find a way to regain the trust of her allies, and free the kingdom from this curse so that no more girls have to be sacrificed. 

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Always and Forever, Lara Jean and P.S. I Still Love You

by Jenny Han

ISBNs 9781481430487 and 9781442426733

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han

My 2015 and 2017 reviews of two of the books in Han’s popular To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series continue to see high traffic, with a bump driven by the recent Netflix adaptation. However, the much of the traffic here comes from some popular text graphics I shared on Pinterest, that continue to do the rounds. P.S. I Still Love You follows Lara Jean and Peter trying to figure out how to date for real after the fake dating plot of the first book, when another boy from her past shows up with a letter in hand. Then, Always and Forever, Lara Jean focuses Lara Jean’s senior year of high school and her decision about whether or not to follow her boyfriend to college. You can start the series here with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance

The Outside Circle

by Patti LaBoucane-Benson

ISBN 9781770899377

Cover image for The Outside Circle by Patti LaBoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

This 2016 review of a Canadian graphic novel continues to see a high hit count, and the search terms lead me to guess that maybe it is being taught in some Canadian classrooms. The Outside Circle follows Pete, a young aboriginal man who goes to jail after a fight with his mother’s boyfriend. Eventually, time served and good behaviour gets Pete admitted to a traditional aboriginal healing centre in Edmonton, where the program aims to help First Nations people process their history in order to help them understand the cycle of abuse in which they have been trapped. The standout here is the striking art by Kelly Mellings which brings Pete’s story to life using a minimalist colour palette.

Categories: Canadian, Graphic Novel

El Deafo

by Cece Bell

ISBN 9781419710209

Cover image for El Deafo by Cece Bell

This 2015 post is a review of Bell’s graphic memoir, based on her own experiences as a deaf child in school, although the characters are drawn as cute rabbits. When four-year-old Cece suddenly becomes violently ill, she wakes up in the hospital unable to hear, and has to be outfitted with a hearing aid. When first grade rolls around, it is time for Cece to go to her neighbourhood school, where she will be the only deaf student. Cece’s El Deafo character doesn’t just turn deafness into a super power. Rather, El Deafo is Cece’s more assertive self, the one that is brave enough to stand up and explain when something that her friends are doing is actually making things more difficult for her.

Categories: Middle Grade, Graphic Novel

Thanks to all my readers, whether you’ve been here from the beginning or are just tuning in now! Check back throughout the week as I highlight some of my favourite reads since the inception of this blog.

Asian YA Fantasy and Romance Mini Reviews

This month my book club is reading books by Asian or Asian American authors. I predominantly picked up YA romances and fantasy that fit this theme, and I’ve gathered a few picks together here, with a focus on East Asian stories.

A Pho Love Story

Cover image for A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

by Loan Le

ISBN 9781534441958

“In different circumstances, this could happen. This is possible in an alternate reality.”

Linh Mai and Bao Nguyen’s families are sworn rivals. For the last six years, their families have operated competing pho restaurants across the street from one another in La Qinta, California’s Little Saigon neighbourhood. But despite the deep enmity, Linh and Bao are curious about one another, and it doesn’t take much to push them together. When open-hearted Bao does a favour for Linh and her family without their parents’ knowledge, it becomes the beginning of a secret friendship, and maybe something more. Soon Bao and Linh are working together on the school newspaper, with Bao writing restaurant reviews that Linh illustrates. Bao has always felt directionless, but through this project he begins to find himself as a writer, while Linh struggles with the knowledge that her parents will never support her choosing a career as an artist, despite her obvious talent. A Pho Love Story is told in alternating chapters, switching between Linh and Bao’s perspectives. Unfortunately I didn’t find that the two had distinct voices, and it was easy to forget whose chapter I was reading. However, I was invested in the family mystery, and learning more about the complicated history that tied Linh and Bao’s families together long before the competing restaurants, sparking a bitter rivalry. Loan Le also excels at food descriptions, and this book made me positively hungry.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

XOXO

Cover image for XOXO by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9780063025011

“You agreed to share your whole life with your fans, so that they can love you without fear that you’ll disappoint or hurt them.”

Jenny has her future clearly planned out: graduate high school at the top of her class and be admitted into one of America’s best music conservatories before pursuing a career as a cellist. Boys and dating don’t figure into this plan, until Jenny meets Jaewoo at her part-time job at her uncle’s karaoke bar. Jenny spends one whirlwind evening with Jaewoo before he disappears back to Korea and she expects she’ll never see him again. But then Jenny’s grandmother needs surgery, and Jenny and her mother will be traveling to Seoul to help her halmoni through the recovery. Jenny enrolls at a prestigious arts academy, only to discover that among her classmates are the members of the K-pop boy band XOXO—and Bae Jaewoo is the most popular member. Jenny should be focused on her future, and as an idol, Jaewoo is absolutely forbidden to date. In fact, XOXO barely survived a recent scandal when one of Jaewoo’s bandmates was photographed with a girl. Both Jenny and Jaewoo are confined by expectations in their own way, trying to figure out how a music career fits into their future. XOXO was a cute, fast paced romance. However, the effort to keep the pacing brisk did mean that many scenes ended abruptly, with some rough transitions. Events that perhaps should have taken place on page are also passed over with a sentence or two, and the overall effect was somewhat jarring.

Tags: Fiction, Young Adult, Romance

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Cover image for The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

by Axie Oh

ISBN 9781250780874

“You claim the gods should love and care for humans. I disagree. I don’t think love can be bought or earned or even prayed for. It must be freely given.”

When Mina sacrifices herself to save her brother and the girl he loves, she finds herself in a palace beneath the sea, home of the Sea God. Every year, Mina’s kingdom has sacrificed a bride to the Sea God, searching for respite from the storms that have plagued the coast for the past hundred years, but every year the storms return. Perhaps Mina can finally be the true bride who breaks the Sea God’s curse, and saves her kingdom. But caught in the realm between life and death, Mina instead finds herself a ward of Shin, the Sea God’s right hand man and most trusted protector. Still determined to find a way to help her people before her limited time in the spirit realm runs out, Mina must contend an implacable man who blocks her at every turn. The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is based on a Korean folk tale, however that story is about Shim Cheong, the dutiful daughter. Oh’s retelling is told in the first person by Mina, who makes the rebellious choice to save Cheong, who she regards as a sister, and give her a future with Joon, Mina’s older brother. Mina becomes the heart of this new story, rising to the unexpected challenge she faces, and using her voice a storyteller, which also allows Oh to weave in other Korean myths.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale, Romance

An Arrow to the Moon

Cover image for An Arrow to the Moon by Emily X.R. Pan

by Emily X.R. Pan

ISBN 9780316464055

“Her parents’ expectations had become a paperweight, and she was meant to hold still, nearly flattened.”

Emily X.R. Pan’s second novel is Romeo and Juliet meets the Chinese legend of the moon goddess Chang’e and the hunter Houyi. Pan blends the two tales together, along with nods to the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film. Luna Chang and Hunter Yee have grown up in Fairbridge, where their fathers are academic rivals at the local university. However, the enmity between the two families seems to run deeper than mere professional rivalry can explain. Both the Changs and the Yees come from Taiwan, but have differing stances on Taiwanese independence. An Arrow to the Moon is set in 1991, seventeen years after the Terracotta Warriors were unearthed in Shaanxi, an event with magical significance for Luna and Hunter, who were born on the day the tomb was opened. When Hunter and Luna accidentally meet at a party, the world shifts beneath their feet—literally. Things begin changing in Fairbridge, first manifesting as mysterious cracks in the ground. Hunter’s tense relationship with his parents grow more fraught, while Luna learns that her mother has committed an unforgivable betrayal. As their relationship grows, it threatens to unearth family secrets, call in old debts, and unleash a magic that was never of this world.

Tags: Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Fairy Tale

The Empress of Salt and Fortune

Cover image for The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

by Nghi Vo

ISBN 9781250750303

“History will say that she was an ugly woman, but that is not true. She had a foreigner’s beauty, like a language we do not know how to read.”

This last title isn’t YA but I read it as the same time as the others and it fits thematically! The Empress of Salt and Fortune is the first in a series that will follow the cleric Chih, a disciple of the Singing Hills abbey. Chih is an archivist and keeper of stories, and they are trained to find and record the most interesting tales—perhaps especially those tales that some people would rather were never told. Following the death of the formidable Empress In-yo, Chih is drawn to Old Woman Rabbit, and soon finds that they are in the company of the Empress’s long-time handmaiden, companion, and confidante. The relationship between the foreign bride who seized a kingdom and the servant girl who chose to follow her into exile is one of choices, about what they are and are not willing to sacrifice for one another, and for ambition. In this short but perfectly honed novella, Chih quietly peels back the layers of Rabbit’s life, until they uncover a secret that could bring down a dynasty.

Tags: Fiction, Novella, Fantasy, LGBTQIA+

You might also like:

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

Daughter of the Moon Goddess by Sue Lynn Tan

Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children #7)

Cover image for Where the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children #7) by Seanan McGuire

by Seanan McGuire

ISBN 9781250213624

“She did not look back and she did not cry. For the first time in her life, she was leaving a place she loved because she had chosen to do so, and there was power in that.”

Many children who come back through their doorways seek to find them again. They struggle to fit into a mundane world that does not believe the doors are real at all, that any memories they might have of other worlds are simply fantasies built to repress unspeakable trauma. These misfit children find a home at Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children, among those who also hope to find their way home once more. But there are other children who really do want nothing more than to forget what they saw on the other side of their doors, to reintegrate into their home world and forget their travels ever happened. These children belong to the Whitethorn Institute, where the headmaster promises his wards that he can help them forget, so that they can become useful members of society once more.

The seventh book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series opens on Cora Miller, who is back at Eleanor West’s school after her adventures with Kade and company in Come Tumbling Down. The Drowned Gods continue whispering to her, threatening to pull her back to the Moors. And worse, Cora is that afraid that even if her own door ever comes back for her, she would pollute the beautiful world of the Trenches by letting the Drowned Gods follow her there. After months of nightmares, Cora decides that she needs to try something different. In desperation, she requests a transfer to the Whitethorn Institute, which Eleanor reluctantly grants. When Cora departs like a thief in the night, she never expects to see any of her traveling companions again.

At the Whitethorn Institute, Cora hopes to find a way to weaken the Drowned Gods hold on her. And while she does find that, the methods are extreme, and she also discovers a sinister institution that is crushing the spirits of its inmates. Here we encounter Regan Lewis, the protagonist of Across the Grass Green Fields, who is now an inmate of Whitethorn. On the verge of graduation, Regan breaks down, causing Cora to question the Whitethorn method, and what is really happening at the Institute. But to unravel the mystery she will need allies, something extremely hard to come by in an authoritarian school that enlists students to police one another. Fortunately for Cora, one of her former classmates has followed her to Whitethorn, determined to extract Cora from its clutches and bring her home. Their investigation hints at a possible larger conflict between the schools that may have profound implications for the rest of the Wayward Children series.

New to the Wayward Children series? Start here with Every Heart a Doorway.

The Magic Fish

Cover image for The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

by Trung Le Nguyen

ISBN 9780593125298

“The space between two shores is the ocean and being caught in between feels like drowning. And, really, what is the point of tears among so much salt water?”

Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through fiction, and the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long.

The Magic Fish is set in 1998, when Tien is thirteen. He is out to his best friend Claire, but not to their other best friend, Julian, in part because Tien is harbouring feelings for him. He has contemplated coming out to his parents, but he doesn’t know the word for “gay” in Vietnamese, rendering his truth inexpressible. Nor is the American cultural milieu particularly welcoming. News of the murder of Matthew Shepherd plays in the background of one scene, and when Tien and Julian dance together at a school dance, Tien is called in for counseling with the school priest, who advises him against coming out to his parents. “All the parents I’ve counseled described the heartbreak of their children coming out the same way. It feels like a death in the family,” the priest warns, even as Tien’s mother has returned to Vietnam to attend an actual funeral.

"I'm always a little lost these days. There was a time when I knew exactly where I was supposed to go."

Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales that weave through The Magic Fish. The first one is read aloud by Tien to his mother as she works on her sewing in the evenings. The second is told to Tien’s mother by her aunt back in Vietnam when she returns home for the first time in many years. The final fairy tale is one she reads to her son, modifying the narrative to convey things that have gone unspoken between them for too long. Each tale has its own unique visual aesthetic, reflecting the imaginations of Tien and his mother. They are stories that are familiar in various versions across cultures, but known in English as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work.

Communication is a theme throughout The Magic Fish, specifically in the struggles Tien faces to communicate with his parents, who do not speak much English. In Vietnamese, Tien lacks the specific vocabulary he needs to come out to his parents, making this already challenging difference feel like an even more unbridgeable gap. However, we also see this theme in Tien’s hesitation to come out to Julian, with whom he does share a language, but whose rejection he fears. Meanwhile, Tien’s mother Hien is also struggling to keep in contact with her family back in Vietnam, to remain connected to them across time and distance. The story she chooses to tell Tien is that of The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice when she goes to her new home above the sea, just as Hien lost much of her ability to communicate when she moved to a new country where she did not know the language. In the United States, she turns to stories both to improve her English vocabulary and pronunciation, and to find common ground with American-born son. In this way she is finally able to convey her unconditional love and acceptance. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.

Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms

Cover image for Cheer Up: Love and Pompoms by Crystal Frasier with art by Val Wise

by Crystal Frasier

Art by Val Wise

Lettered by Oscar O. Jupiter

ISBN 9781620109557

“The team is great. They’re the only people who really stuck their necks out for me last year when I came out. But sometimes they’re so eager to prove how much they support me that they don’t listen to what I want.”

When the guidance counselor tells Annie and her mom that she needs some additional extracurricular activities to round out her college applications, Annie is less than thrilled when her mom pushes for cheerleading. Grumpy and unsociable, Annie feels like the exact opposite of a peppy cheerleader. Worse, her past behaviour has alienated more than one member of the team. But her former friend Bebe pushes for the squad to give Annie a chance, the same way they gave Bebe a chance when she came out and transitioned last year. With Bebe and her friends, Annie learns how to be part of a team, and file down some of her sharper edges and defensive impulses. As the two girls repair their friendship, they discover that they may have other feelings for one another as well.

Much of the story in Cheer Up has to do with the different ways in which the people in Bebe’s life support her in the way she needs, or fail to. Bebe’s parents are tentatively supportive of her transition, but they don’t understand that transitioning is literally saving her life. “They think of me transitioning as a luxury. And they’re worried it’ll distract me from getting good grades and getting into college,” Bebe explains to Annie as the two are reconnecting. Meanwhile, the cheer team is almost too supportive in certain ways, sometimes failing to listen to Bebe’s preferences, like the fact that she doesn’t want to run for homecoming queen. Annie has to find her own position in Bebe’s life, and strike the right balance when her combative nature clashes with Bebe’s tendency to go with the flow and pick her battles carefully. Annie has never stepped down from a fight in her life, and their two personalities make a great contrast.

I initially missed the memo about this being a love story, despite the subtitle, and thought that this story would be about repairing Annie and Bebe’s past friendship. Bebe and Annie used to be friends, and we’re never told why they no longer are at the start of the story. It seems that their falling out happened a couple years ago, whereas Bebe’s transition happened the previous year, so the two events do not appear to be directly related. The story does not delve into what led to the rift, or addresses how it might impact their romantic relationship moving forward. However, I loved the way Cheer Up addressed Bebe’s uncertainty about her sexuality—something that had been on the backburner in the midst of her transition—and her worries about how being openly trans might play into the way potential romantic partners perceive her.

The sweet and hopeful nature of the story is complemented by bright, full-colour illustrations by artist Val Wise that really made this graphic novel a joy to read. If you’re looking for a fun, heartfelt read that handles serious issues with a light hand, check out Cheer Up.

Himawari House

Cover image for Himawari House by Harmony Becker

by Harmony Becker

ISBN 9781250235565

“The storefronts and signs, once faceless strangers, now greet me like new friends. Every new word I learn lifts the fog around me a little more, revealing the colors and shapes of the world around me.”

Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her growing up in America, and feeling the pressure to assimilate. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels just as cast adrift there as Tina and Hyejung, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together they navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home.

Harmony Becker is the artist of the Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy, by actor George Takei. Himawari House is her solo graphic novel debut. Nao’s cultural background reflects Becker’s, and she also studied abroad in Korea, adding a depth of realism to her fictional take on these experiences. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Becker employs grey scale art that adapts to the seriousness of the scene, becoming more cartoonish or exaggerated in funny moments, or when the characters are overwhelmed by their emotions and resort to humour. The visual depiction of spoken language is also masterfully handled, conveying both the struggles of codeswitching and the increasing mastery the characters experience through immersion.

Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean. Many scenes are rendered in multiple languages. Even English is not just one singular language but a multitude, articulated in the different accents and dialects of the various characters. Hyejung’s English, learned in Korean, is different from the American English Nao speaks, but for them it is still a more comfortable common tongue than Japanese. In Masaki, we find a character who is uncomfortable speaking English, but who reads it well at an academic level, demonstrating that there are different types of fluency. Tina, meanwhile, speaks Singlish with her family, something that none of her housemates realize until they overhear her on the phone one day and realize it is different than the way she speaks English with them. Communication is complex and multifaceted, and never to be taken for granted, but love in all its forms can stretch across language barriers.

Though all three girl travelled to Japan to find themselves, perhaps the most important thing they find is one another, and the home they build around their common experience. They laugh and cry together, supporting one another through cram school, crappy customer service jobs, crushes requited and unrequited, and unexpected bouts of homesickness as they come of age in a world completely different from the ones they grew up in. If finding our place in the world is hard, it is made easier by finding the people we belong with.

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