Ghost Book

Everyone knows that ghosts can be terrifying. Many can rattle off stories about wandering spirits and vengeful entities that chilled the blood, but some might forget that ghosts aren’t always scary. One could point out that being a ghost is like having red hair or being double-jointed; it’s an aspect of that person’s (or spirit’s) character but it’s not the totality of it. The overall ghost story might tone down the terror for the audience or because the author wants to tell a different kind of story involving ghosts and the afterlife. Such is the case of Ghost Book, written and drawn by Remy Lai, a book about ghosts that speak to kids while also tackling some complex topics like grief and friendship.

The story begins with two children who were born on the same day, and are tied together due to some cosmic shenanigans. July Chen is considered eccentric by many of her classmates, when they notice her at all. She has what’s called Yin Yang eyes, which allow her to see ghosts, including the hungry ones that come out during Hungry Ghost Month. Despite her father’s insistence that ghosts aren’t real, she still sees them and William, who is not a ghost but a wandering spirit caught between the realms of the living and the dead. July tries to help her new friend get back to his body, but the price to save him may be too high.

Young readers will find a plucky protagonist in July Chen, who is considered by many of her peers to be “weird” but is still a brave, resourceful heroine when it counts. She is also dealing with the loss of her mother, who died when she was born, and a father who practically refuses to talk about July’s mother. As July tries to protect William, readers will also see a friendship that begins because both children are terribly isolated (William, because of his condition, and July, because of her reputation), but that bond grows more as they go on a quest into the realm of the dead where many terrors await them.

The art does depict some unsettling images of hungry ghosts. Looking like rejected sketches while Edvard Munch was painting “The Scream,” their empty eyes and repetition of the word “hungry”—all drawn in a sickly gray speech balloon—make them seem even more inhuman and terrifying. They become especially frightening when they are drawn toward William as a potential snack. However, the book balances the frights with lighter fantasy elements, like the bumbling Ox-head and Horse-face, who look exactly like their names imply. They are collectors of wayward spirits and are also pursuing July and William, but they are also more interested in eating dumplings than meeting their quotas.

The book exists in a world of Chinese mythology while also dealing with some universal truths. Ghost Book is a Orpheus-like descent into a fantastical underworld while also serving a moral about the hold grief can have over the living. Its simplistic artwork does imply that this story is for children, those who might see a little of themselves in William or July, but it also doesn’t pander to its audience and should be a part of any children’s graphic novel collection.

Ghost Book
By Remy Lai
Macmillan, 2023
ISBN: 9781250810434

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12 years

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  Indonesian,

Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American

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,

Andy Warner’s Oddball Histories: Pests and Pets

Andy Warner’s previous collection of short comics, A Brief History of Everyday Objects, detailed a wide variety of inventions from the toothbrush to the bra. In this new series he has refined his focus to reach younger readers, taking out the more mature humor of his earlier book, and starting what I hope will be a long-running series of quirky historical facts with a volume focused on domesticated animals.

A comic introduction explains Warner’s own history with animals and how they are intertwined with the lives of humans, especially in the three categories the book is divided into: “Creatures we find cute”, “Creatures we find useful”, and “Creatures that find us useful”. Within these categories, Warner explores animals like horses, from prehistory to modern times, chickens, “from the jungle to the nugget,” raccoons, rabbits, bees, and many more. Each mini-history encapsulates the origin of the animal and their first domestication or contact with humans, their significance in history, and how they interact with people today. Warner finishes up with another comic-style afterword, some additional drawings and maps, and an index.

Warner’s detailed cartoons show a diversity of skin tones, hair textures, and cultures, although a number of prehistoric people have lighter skin than seems historically accurate. The various animals shown are from across the world, from cockroaches in ancient Egypt to guinea pigs in Peru, horses in Mongolia and dogs from South America to China. Warner’s cartoons are humorous, but he generally stays away from stereotyped depictions, especially of older and non-Western cultures. The scope of each cartoon is limited, but he makes room to show the perspectives of indigenous and non-Western peoples. For example, the history of the horse includes the role of horses in the Spanish invasion of South America, the changes they brought to indigenous peoples in the southwest of North America, and their role in the expansion of the Mongolian empire. The chapter on rabbits includes their role as a food source in ancient Rome, their devastating introduction to Australia via British colonization, and their shift to pets.

Warner’s comics have fun while staying as realistic as possible. The animals he shows are drawn in a quasi-realistic style, with magnified drawings showing details of their anatomy and a sprinkling of smaller images showing them interacting with humans. Prehistory humans are generally shown wearing skins or rough clothes toga-style, while later images are more historically detailed. Warner depends for his humor on unexpected and quirky facts and humorous asides from the various historical people. When faced with a massive aurochs and the fact that, “they had enormous horns that could gore and hooves that could trample,” a dark-skinned and curly-haired woman nervously says “Ha-ha. Ok! We get it. Can we talk about something else now?”

This is a strong addition to the growing genre of nonfiction graphic novels. Readers who enjoy the humor of historical comics like Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales and Action Presidents and those who like the information and narrative style of the Science Comics are sure to enjoy this smorgasbord of furry facts. This will also draw in readers who enjoy browsable nonfiction like National Geographic fact collections and would make a good starting point for class assignments on different animal and historical topics.

Andy Warner’s Oddball Histories: Pests and Pets
By Andy Warner
Little, Brown, 2021
ISBN: 9780316463386
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)

Let’s Not Talk Anymore

In this deceptively simple and colour-filled graphic novel, we are introduced to the author’s family history as seen through the eyes of five female members at fifteen. The book starts in 1908 with Weng Pixin’s great-grandmother Kuan in China. Her story is followed by the narratives of her grandmother Mei in 1947, her mother Bing in 1972, herself in 1998, and the imagined story of Pixin’s future daughter in 2032. The fact that we are shown, rather than are able to attend to their verbalizations, is an indication of the struggles this matrilineal family has, and continues to face, with silence as their paramount defense in all aspects of their lives. “She grew to quiet her voice, just so she could survive.”

While the stories are not completely based on her female family members due to the silence and lack of family stories, Pixin extrapolates the histories and uses her art to explore the concealed and stifled personal struggles that had traditionally been internalized, subdued, and hidden from others in her lineage. It is through her art and the telling of these stories that Pixin delves into the rationale behind the harrowing and negative relationship she had always had with her own mother. These stories are told in a series of vignettes, moving both forward and backwards in time, each exploring key and interrelated elements in the lives of the five characters. This arrangement effectively illuminates the inter-generational complexities of societal expectations, family dysfunction as well as successes, and reveals how they are transferred from one generation to another. The themes that resonate within these vignettes are the love of nature and animals, a sense of alienation from the adult world, the suppression of trauma, and the sanctuary of artistic expression to compensate for the silence that predominated each of their lives. The breaking of that silence and the understanding of the causes of the frustrations and anger that seems insurmountable is the valuable undertaking that Pixin and her imaginary daughter explore with the fragments of the family history that they can find. “I wonder also what it would be like to live in a world where you have no control over your life.”

Pixin’s illustrations, painted in bold and vibrant colours, are reminiscent of folk art, focusing primarily on domestic settings. Included in the panels are extreme close-ups, recurring images of crickets, and the daily chores of each of the teenagers within their time frames. The layout of the panels is not static, but, while fairly conventional, it is also reflective of an uncomplicated and straightforward narration that combines to engage the reader in unanticipated observation and mediation. This is not a book that should be read quickly, but savoured. The ambiguity of the stories being told adds to the appreciation of the book as a whole. The occasional full-page panels add to the awareness of this being a work of art and passion. The occasional dialogue offers additional snippets of information about each of the characters, their motivations, and their challenges, but it is not the driving force for this graphic novel. It is the images, and the silences within the panels and illustrations, that ultimately carry the story.

Recommended for high school library collections, public library collections, and collections on memoir, family histories, and Chinese creators and history.

Let’s Not Talk Anymore
By Weng Pixin
Drawn & Quarterly, 2021
ISBN: 9781770464629
Publisher Age Rating: 16 and up

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Chinese
Character Representation: Chinese

Fire Power, Volume One: Prelude

For anyone worried about what Robert Kirkman would be doing after The Walking Dead, fear no more!

Fire Power follows the story of orphaned Owen as he searches for answers to who his parents were. He has sought knowledge at temples around China before landing at the Temple of the Flaming Fist, where he meets master Wei Lun, an hysterical and wise old man who is trying to relearn the power of the Fire Fist. Wei Lun has answers for Owen, but must join the order and prove himself first. While there, Owen also meets Ling Zan, a sympathetic lady who shows kindness to Owen when none of the other disciples will. At the Temple, there are several mysteries, including a dragon who is guarded around the clock, and a Scorched Earth clan determined to free it. Owen must show his ultimate loyalty and prove himself worthy of Wei Lun’s trust. At the end of the novel, we flash forward 15 years, where the rest of the this story presumably will happen.

I got some definite Iron Fist and Doctor Strange vibes throughout Owen’s training at the Temple, and I really enjoyed the whole thing. Master Wei Lun is absolutely hilarious, and I actually laughed out loud several times through this volume. But, holy time jump, Batman! I was IN that story between Flaming Fist and Scorched Earth, so much so that I forgot to really come up for air. Then, we jump 15 years into the future and leave it on a crazy cliff hanger! I can’t wait for the next to come out so I can continue this crazy journey with Owen.

Samnee’s art is a cartoony style, and it is beautiful. The color palette is full of rich tones, and the scenery around the temple is stunning. Characters are extremely expressive, which adds to the hilarity at some moments and the heartbreak at others. Battle sequences are clear and easy to follow, and the attack sequences using special abilities are vivid.

Image rates this for Teen, and that is perfectly fitting. There is some mild language, and a bit of violence with some blood, but not a ton of gore. This story so far would be fine for middle school and high school audiences.

Fire Power Volume One: Prelude
By Robert Kirkman
Art by Chris Samnee
ISBN: 9781534316553
Image Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18)

Tamamo the Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories

Cautionary Fables and Fairy Tales is the umbrella title for a series of three compilations themed after a specific region of which this one is the third. The first two cover Europe and Africa while the fourth one, on Oceania tales, is in publication. All have been funded through Kickstarter efforts.

I had high hopes for this collection of Asian folktales, but was dismayed to discover that few of them have source notes or any markers for context. The geographic location is mentioned, but no background is provided for readers who may not be familiar with yokai, kitsune, demons, and other supernatural beings from Japan, China, India, Georgia, Laos, Myanmar, Turkey, Iraq and Tibet. I was very pleased, however, with the reworking of “The Ballad of Mulan” which followed the ancient tales rather than the Disney film. Aside from this tale and a few others such as the title story and “Urashima Taro,” most of the stories may not be familiar with young audiences. This is not a criticism, but it is also where source notes could have made this an outstanding addition to the ongoing reworkings of folklore in the comic book format.

The length of the stories varies as does the black and white art work in this anthology. Several of the tales have been modernized to including texting and other nods to contemporary life, but the vast majority have retained the ancient settings; particularly those by a diverse range of illustrators including Gene Luen Yang, Nina Matsumoto, and Carla Speed McNeil. Most of the other creators in this collection are known better through their webcomics and indie titles. The illustrations range from manga-like cartoon-y artwork to detailed and realistic penciling and the application of black and shadows. The mood of the stories is also as diverse as the tales themselves, with a mixture of light and dark themes. Some of the tales are excerpts from longer legends and books such as Yang’s “From the Journey of the Monkey King” from American Born Chinese. All the tales offer warnings or advice for the protagonists and the readers. Unfortunately for many of the protagonists, there is a great deal of pain in learning these lessons. They do, as the overall theme indicates, offer a cautionary edification for the reader.

I wish I could recommend this for library collections but the lack of source notes for this storyteller is truly a stumbling block. There is no need in today’s publishing world not to respect the tales and culture from where the stories originated. Very few of the entries even acknowledge that the individual tale has been adapted.

Tamamo the Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories 
By C. Spike Trotman, ed. Kate Ashwin, ed. Kel McDonald
Art by Carla Speed McNeil, Gene Leun Yang, Nina Matsumoto, et al
ISBN: 9781945820342
Iron Circus, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: all ages
NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)

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Related to…: Inspired by myth, Retelling