Thirteen-year-old Lilico has a picture-perfect life in Japan. She’s captain of the girls’ basketball team, which is headed to win their final competition, and she and her teammates are best friends. Then her parents break the news: They’re moving to New York! After a whirlwind of travel, Lilico lands in an American school, completely out of place, and somehow offending Emma, the most popular girl and leader of the basketball team, on her first day.
Lilico’s misery slowly abates. Her parents, also struggling with culture shock, never really support her, but she manages to work things out with the help of her guardian spirit, who manifests in her cat, Nicco. Even more, she’s helped by the cheerful friendship of Nala and Henry, the nerdy kids who befriend her first. But when she becomes the school’s star basketball player, she feels like she must be there for her teammates, even if that means leaving Nala behind. When Lilico’s choices hurt Nala, she will need all the help of her old and new friends to bring everyone together and finish the year successfully, in basketball and in a new home.
Although the art style has many manga trademarks, such as Lilico starting out the story as a stereotypical Japanese school girl in sailor suit uniform with perky pony tail and oversized eyes, she’s gradually toned down until she looks slightly more realistic in the final pictures. The new students she meets include a variety of characters with light brown skin tones and their hair varies from short and curly to long and wavy. Readers will see glimpses of Japanese food and culture in some parts of Lilico’s home, such as her father’s clothing and interest in katanas, but they are usually explained as her parents being embarrassing or passed off with stereotypical remarks from the Americans about how the Japanese are “so polite.” There are kawaii elements and lots of emotional drama is signaled with stars, tear drops, etc.
This OEL (original English language) manga is being published by an American/British publisher, Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan, and I think it is intended to be a combination of manga tropes with the U.S. style of graphic memoir, à la Raina Telgemeier, but I did not find it to be very successful in either arena. Lilico never really thinks deeply about her actions and when she manages to reconcile Nala and Emma in the end, it’s by exploiting Nala’s sewing abilities to create free costumes for the basketball team. Nala and Henry, in their turn, befriend Lilico in the beginning because of their obsession with Japanese culture and Nala seems more excited over getting a genuine sailor suit school uniform than learning about Lilico as a person. Lilico’s parents are almost completely absent, both emotionally and physically, and make no comments on Lilico popping out in New York for a date with an unknown boy. Most of the text is told in brief, exclamatory sentences with lots of dramatic declarations and, while it might pass for a school drama manga, it’s hard to see this as representative of a US-based school story. The students appear to be attending a privileged school, with plenty of access to technology, fashion, and entertainment, and no issues of race or economic status.
The author speaks very briefly about her own life, coming to the US from Japan and teaching students how to draw manga, and includes character sketches and some information on her art tools. I think this might have been stronger if it had been a series, following up a on number of things that are quickly passed over, like the initial disagreement between Emma and Nala, on Emma and her friends virtually bullying Nala, Lilico’s comment that her father thinks he’s the reincarnation of a samurai, and the school’s lack of a coach for the girls’ basketball team.
Although not an outstanding example of either realistic graphic memoirs or manga, this is notable in being appropriate for middle grade readers; there is no language stronger than the occasional “crap” and one or two brief kisses between Lilico and her new boyfriend. Kids may not learn much about either basketball or Japanese culture, but they will appreciate seeing that kids with many different interests can be friends, and Nala’s elaborate costumes will please cosplay fans. This might also convince some readers to explore the manga genre a little further, or to take a break from manga and try out some different graphic novels.
By Misako Rocks!
Feiwel and Friends, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: Ages 9-13
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: Japanese
Character Representation: Japanese