Robin Ha writes in the Acknowledgements page at the end of her graphic novel, Almost American Girl: “So you can only imagine how thrilled Mom was when I finally told her I had been working on this memoir for over a year and found a publisher for it. After realizing there was no turning back on this project, Mom insisted that I at least leave her out of my story completely. I told her that would be impossible. She was the driving force behind it. If she hadn’t wanted me to write this story, she shouldn’t have brought me to America in the first place. Mom was so upset with me that she avoided me for months.”
This acknowledgement is a bittersweet moment for this reader after spending time with Ha’s journey as a young teen, first in South Korea and then in the southern United States, powerless and bewildered and, at that time, totally dependent upon her single mother. Ha could not have articulated, in print and illustration, her story without her mother’s presence whom, at the beginning of Ha’s tale, was considered a superhero to her daughter. This memoir effectively and beautifully illuminates Ha’s early experiences as well as contemporary issues of immigration, the sense of belonging, parent and child relationships, the stress resulting from social hostility toward single parenthood, bullying, and, in balance, highlights the power and impact of art in determining self.
Ha’s artistic ability is the grounding for her as she presses forward counter to new step siblings that are obstructive at every junction, not understanding much of the language at school or the school culture, and being able to make friends. She also no longer has access to the volumes of manga and manhwa she and her friends devoured. This is a time of extreme tribulation and only subsides when circumstances allow her and her mother to move to a more accommodating part of the country where she finally connects with others who are much more compatible with her. Ha’s command of the written word is a testimony to this blossoming journey of self awareness and growth as an individual and artist. The comic drawing class she is encouraged to join becomes her escape from her seclusion and gloom.
Ha’s art illuminates the locations in both Korea and the United States, her realistic characters are actualized and individualized, and is permeated with a soft color palate with splashes of bright color when she is experiencing excitement or other strong emotions. Ha’s illustrations extend a glimpse into the frustrations and alienation caused by the paucity of comprehension of unfamiliar language and society. The varied employment of panels successfully carries the transitions the reader experiences from Ha’s ordinary life to that of her fictional world and back again. The chapters are all delineated by a solo snapshot page filled with dense colours that offer a glimpse to the episode to follow. This is an emotional ride for all those involved, characters and reader.
Almost American Girl
By Robin Ha
Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Korean American
Creator Highlights: Own Voices