Where does one’s sense of identity begin, how does it evolve over time, and can it be shaped honestly to avoid misunderstandings? Laura Gao wrestles with these elusive questions as she navigates the curious wonders of growing up in her graphic memoir Messy Roots. Whether riding on a buffalo though the lily pad ponds of China, playing tricks on her little brother, or getting love struck by a slick female basketball player at her middle school in Texas, Laura Gao aims to find her identity and truth. This coming-of-age memoir presents a wildly amusing and deeply personal account of straddling between different cultures which will resonate with young adults seeking to find themselves along the universal journey of life.

Messy Roots transports readers on a ride through the curious and vivacious life of Laura Gao as she embarks on fanciful escapades in Wuhan, China, immigrates to Texas, returns overseas to her native homeland one summer, and finally reaches San Francisco in adulthood. Like an alien transplanted to another planet, she struggles to adapt to American culture by changing her Chinese name from Yuyang to Laura (after the first lady under President George Bush), hiding her Chinese dumplings for lunch at school, and defying stereotypes of being a math whiz. She further weaves cultural details seamlessly into her narrative–from reflecting on the Chinese legend about the young maiden whisked off to the moon during the mid-autumn festival to satisfying her cravings for white rabbit candy (a sweet milky confection).

Gao’s characters, rendered through sketched line drawings, resonate with comedic effect. Facial expressions and doodles capture a mixed range of emotional nuances and personas, sometimes with exaggerated effects reminiscent of manga. Intricately composed panels in some instances feature subtle details that warrant a second viewing to fully appreciate their thematic implications.

A remarkable and rollicking rampage through one teenager’s rites of passage, Gao delivers an honest and humorous take on the ups and downs of growing up in a constantly shifting world while tackling intersectional themes of immigration, assimilation, racism, sexuality, and self-identity. While the story adopts a warm, light-hearted tone, it also sheds light on more serious issues including the anti-Asian microaggressions that continue to persist during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her debut offers a refreshingly energetic voice to young adult library collections, bringing a queer Wuhanese American to the forefront of BIPOC characters.

Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American
By Laura Gao
Harper Collins Balzer + Bray, 2022
ISBN: 9780063067776

Publisher Age Rating: 14+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Chinese-American,  Queer, Genderqueer ,  Character Representation: Chinese-American, Queer, Genderqueer,

  • Jerry

    | He/Him Information Strategist, San Francisco Public Library

    Reviewer

    By day, Jerry Dear, APALA member and Information Strategist at the San Francisco Public Library tackles research questions in the Periodicals department. He also teaches in the Library Information Technology department at City College of San Francisco. By night, he serves the Asian American community and ventures into the vibrant literary arts and graphic novel scene. In whatever time remains, he indulges in comics, anime, manga, and Asian American literature and film.

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