Books written for a teen audience about disordered eating and mental health must be handled with care. In Hungry Ghost, by Victoria Ying, the main character, Val, struggles with intrusive thoughts and disordered eating. Ying herself has had similar struggles, and wrote a character with similar experiences. There are potentially triggering topics of fatphobia, obsession with thinness, and disordered eating. Val’s obsession with her size and food infiltrates everything, including time with friends and family and even her ability to grieve.
Val is Chinese-American. I do not have personal or professional expertise with disordered eating and I am not a member of this culture, so I can’t speak with authority about the way Ying handles the complicated nuance of identities and mental health. However, the book is based on the author’s own experiences. As Ying writes in the afterward, “Val is not me, but I was her.” I found that she handled the difficult topics with care and in a way that could potentially reach the teens who could most benefit from the story.
In the book, Val, as narrator, mentions the Chinese concept of guai, to be a good and obedient daughter. Val’s relationship with her mother is central to the story. She yearns to be seen as obedient, and when her mother expects thinness, obedience through Val’s eyes is an obsessive focus on food and calories. The mother’s near constant comments about food are often in the guise of looking out for Val’s health. Even at a young age, when given a slice of her own birthday cake, Val’s mom insists, “Don’t eat. Just taste.” The mother’s comments on food and health are destructive, and focus on outward appearance rather than actual physical or mental health.
The cruelty and destructiveness of Val’s obsession with food and eating filters into every moment of her life. With every bite, she calculates calories and the need to purge, going as far to plan trips to the bathroom away from prying ears. It’s intrusive and disruptive to her life and her relationships.
The book is very didactic in its representation of disordered eating, which, considering the topic, is necessary. A young adult book about such a triggering topic has to be intentional and and almost over the top in its insistence in the pain caused by this obsession. Every moment that portrays a disordered eating thought must portray the negative and damaging reality. Without repeated reminders, a book about a young woman’s obsession with appearance and food could potentially glorify the very thing Ying is writing against.
Ying illustrated the book with soft colors and lines. The palette is limited (mostly pale pink, green, and gray) and the outlines are all done with the scratch of pencils. Val has been taught to not take up space with her body or emotions, and the art reflects that. The book doesn’t have the saturated dark colors that will stand out on a shelf. The illustrations are light with sparse details. The subtlety matches the character of Val and a story about a debilitating obsession to be small.
Beautiful and softly illustrated plants, trees, and flowers are a motif throughout the book, in moments of pain and moments of healing. Peonies grace the cover, cascading from her empty stomach. Peonies, while incredibly beautiful, are fragile, thornless, and hardly able to stand on their own, but they are perennials and they will grow back. In a book about pain and a journey to healing, I appreciate the connection.
Victoria Ying’s Hungry Ghost is a well-crafted graphic novel about a difficult topic, and I recommend it for high school or young adult collections. It will appeal to readers who look for family or relationship drama and realistic narratives, and I will be recommending it to many students in my library.
By Victoria Ying
First Second, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Chinese-American, Eating Disorder Character Representation: Chinese-American, Eating Disorder