Onion Skin

“The onion serves to season and enhance the flavor of other foods. I guess sometimes people are like onions. We complement each other and bring out the flavors that make us who we are.”

Onion Skin opens with food flying across the page as a food truck flies through the page chased by motorcycles. Then we meet Rolando. After an “accident” at work, Rolando has lost direction. He soon meets Nera who lives in a non-working food truck in a junkyard. One thing leads to another, and despite their lack of knowledge or know-how, Rolando and Nera fix the truck and start cooking. Their food truck, the Dawgburger, quickly grows a large following as they travel through Mexico, thanks to seasoning from two plants left to Nera by her grandmother.

Onion Skin, by Edgar Camacho, was originally written in Spanish and published in Mexico in 2016, where it won the first National Young Graphic Novel Award. This book, which celebrates the cuisine of Mexico in muted colors, was a hit there, and I imagine will be a hit here as well.

Camacho’s distinctive loose sketch style is worthy of praise, and I was often drawn to the unique details of the page that I might have overlooked in a more traditional tight comic illustration. One image in particular toward the beginning of the book struck me. The panel illustration shows a plate of half-eaten chilaquiles. In front of the plate sits Rolando’s discarded glasses, and in the reflection we see his frustration and tears.

Camacho also twists the traditional use of panels with the occasional word or limb that escapes the border or the use of multiple panels to break up a single image. These moments were as much of a treat as the delicious illustrations of food.

However, I was most intrigued by his narrative style. Much like onion skin, this story is told in multiple layers. The narrative alternates between two transitional moments in their relationship – the events leading to their first run in the food truck, and the events that eventually lead to the dramatic chase from the beginning of the book. The alternating scenes end in alternating panels. Each layer is different but parallel.

As the story progresses and action builds, the alternating scenes build tension and feel fast-paced, sure to capture the reader’s attention. At the same time, by creating parallels in the narrative, we are also given the opportunity to explore the evolution of character and relationships.

Onion Skin is a recommended purchase for any public library or high school library collection, especially collections where narrative graphic novels are popular.  There isn’t any content in the book that regulates it to adults, but the target audience is adults, and it would fit in the adult collection of a public library. However, this story about breaking free, exploring new ideas, and traveling the country will also appeal to teens who are ready to do the same. 


Onion Skin
By Edgar Camacho
Top Shelf Productions, 2021
ISBN: 9781603094894

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: Mexican,
Character Representation: Mexican,

A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars

This review is on the first three of four volumes of a visually poignant and enthralling graphic novel series about the Métis people of western Canada. The fourth and final volume, The Road Allowance Era, is forthcoming in April 2021. Contrasting the critical Canadian historical events with contemporary Echo’s current story, the series reveals how past governmental policies have shaped the current day experiences of a people.

Echo Desjardins, a thirteen-year-old Métis girl discovers that she has the magical ability to time travel back and forth to witness important events in Canadian Métis history. For readers outside of Canada, the Métis  have a distinct collective identity, with customs and culture, that are unique from Indigenous or European roots. Their roles in Western Canadian history have been contentious and distinctive, and often persists to be misconstrued and ignored today.  Echo’s magic allows her, and the reader, to more fully understand critical events of 19th century Canadian history and their repercussions through the individual entries in the series:  The Pemmican Wars, the Red River Resistance, and the Northwest Resistance.

Echo, an extremely quiet and reserved teen, is in a new foster home, missing her mother, and attending a new school when she first slips through time, and back, while attending her social studies class. These vivid and active time slips offer insight and augment her knowledge about her own family background, heritage, and history.  Present day Echo is mostly silent as is a large portion of the graphic novel series, superbly written by Katherena Vermette, an award-winning Métis poet and writer and effectively and brilliantly illustrated by Scott B. Henderson and coloured by Donovan Yaciuk. Their combined understanding of the issues, landscape, and people of the area bring an added vitality and realism to the series. Much of the story arc is delivered by narration boxes augmented by brief dialogue amongst characters mostly in the historical sections of the story. Poignant images throughout the series are those of “Mom’s play list” that Echo constantly listens to when not attending classes. The importance of the music and the connection with her mother are echoed (pardon the pun) in all the cover illustrations where her earbuds are resolutely visible as part of her personality.

In the first volume, Echo, a troubled and lonely teen, finds herself, without warning, transported out of her Winnipeg, Manitoba social studies classroom into a buffalo hunt in 1814 in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan during The Pemmican Wars. [1] During the following few weeks, Echo finds herself transported back and forth in time to visit the old fur-trade routes and a Métis camp where she is befriended by a young girl. Oddly enough, the fact that Echo remains in her contemporary clothing does not seem to evoke notice or comment by anyone in the historical segments. The volume concludes with Echo sharing her new found knowledge with her mother as she visits with her in her group home.  I was enchanted by the school library sequences in this volume and the selection of books that Echo selects to read.

Echo’s story is continued in volume 2 when she travels between her contemporary life and a Métis community in 1869 during the Red River Resistance.[2]  Her contemporary life seems to be settling down as Echo adjusts to the school, the foster home, the visits with her mother, and the continual discovery of her Métis heritage and history. A delightful humourous aside occurs in a illustration of the bake sale sign up sheet where Echo signs her name below that of Katherena Vermette (page 14). Echo shares her time slip adventures with Benjamin, a young Métis man she meets when first transported into this historical era. The volume concludes with Echo in tears as she witnesses her new friends being forced to leave their land.

The third volume begins with Echo’s mother coming to stay with her in the foster home. Echo’s historical travels take her to 1885, to the Northwest Resistance.[3] Riel has returned from exile to resist encroaching forces to ensure his people’s rights. Amongst the chaos Echo meets Josephine, Benjamin’s daughter. She also discovers, in conversations with her mother, a treasury of family photographs and her family tree. Benjamin is her grandmother’s great grandfather who lived to be 102, living through both resistances. The series will conclude with Volume 4, The Road Allowance Era.

Through the insight of major past events, Echo develops her own strength and sense of belonging. She is no longer the lost and lonely individual that related more to the playlist on her iPhone than the people around her. I eagerly await to see how it all comes together by the end of volume 4. I have included footnotes for readers who may not be aware of the struggles of the Métis people and much of their history is largely unknown.

The vibrant colour palate, the realistic illustrations, and the creative panel layout add to the vivacity of the history and the tales being told. Effective depiction of body language and facial features plus the historical accuracy of the writing and art make this series a highly recommended purchase for middle school, high school, public library, and academic library collections. Each volume includes a brief time line of the historical era explored in that volume plus additional material such as a recipe for pemmican, brief introductions to admirable historical characters, and maps.

[1] The Pemmican War was a series of armed confrontations during the North American fur trade between the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) in the years following the establishment of the Red River Colony in 1812. It ended in 1821 when the NWC merged with the HBC. Unlike the Hudson’s Bay Company, which imported most of its provisions from England, the NWC relied heavily upon locally procured pemmican, the majority of which was purchased from the local Métis. Pemmican was made of dried buffalo meat pounded into a powder and mixed with melted buffalo fat.

[2] The Red River Rebellion (or the Red River Resistance, Red River uprising, or First Riel Rebellion) was the sequence of events that led up to the 1869 establishment of a provisional government by the Métis leader Louis Riel at the Red River Colony, in what is now Manitoba.

[3] The North-West Rebellion of 1885 was a rebellion by the Métis led by Louis Riel against the Canadian government. Many Métis felt that Canada was not protecting their rights, their land, and their survival as a distinct people. During the rebellion, Riel was captured, put on trial, and convicted of treason. Despite many pleas across Canada for clemency, he was hanged. Riel became a heroic martyr to the Métis and Francophone Canada.


A Girl Called Echo: Pemmican Wars
By Katherena Vermette
Art by Scott B. Henderson and Donovan Yaciuk

VolumeISBN
19781553796787
29781553797470
39781553798316

Highwater Press, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: Teen
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Middle Grade (7-11), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: First Nations or Indigenous
Creator Highlights: Metis
Related to…: Book to Comic

Yoshi no Zuikara: The Frog in the Well Does Not Know the Ocean

It kills me to spoil the first-chapter reveal of this series, but if the series will continue and grow past its roots, then so be it. Yoshi no Zuikara: The Frog in the Well Does Not Know The Ocean starts out as a story of four classmates who transfer from their demolished local school to a larger, farther one. This introductory story is revealed to be the first chapter of protagonist Tohno Naruhiko’s new manga project, “Wakkamon.” That’s right – the whole thing kicks off with a story within a story, with the “real” story taking over afterward.

Volume two also starts with a glimpse of this manga and its coming-of-age tale.Tohno considers himself a fantasy manga creator, but his editor urges him to try something new and pull from personal experience growing up in the boonies. This approach could also be read as a metanarrative of sorts, given the author/illustrator Satsuki Yoshino started this series after the 18-volume Barakamon series about a calligrapher starting over professionally in the boonies. What is it about life in the country that makes the creative struggle so compelling?

As in Yoshino’s previous works, humor is mined from social interactions and well-intentioned accidents. For example, Tohno finds that his personal connection to his new slice-of-life story gets his creative juices flowing in a quick, satisfying manner. All he needs to do is commit the time and effort to getting it down on paper. However, that knowledge causes him to procrastinate and follow every distraction that crosses his path. Luckily, his helpful assistant, a fellow named Toshi-bou, knows of a nearby house Tohno can use as an isolation studio of sorts. He gets some work done, but a storm rolls in and the doors of the house are locked from the outside. Without the assistant to let him out, Tohno gets creeped out, especially once the sun goes down and he sees funeral portraits of the house’s previous owners.

By the first volume’s end, friends and relatives are seeking out his new comic and boosting sales any way they can. In volume two, Tohno meets a 10-year-old fangirl who swoons over one of his characters, goes to a book signing event in Tokyo, and speaks with his editor Hayashi, a woman. While the major plotline of the series involves a manga creator and the tasks required of him, it’s not generally about the actual-factual writing and drawing of his manga, at least not yet. The focus tends more toward Tohno’s insecurities and low self-esteem, such as the equally nerve-wracking possibilities that his book signing will draw a huge crowd or nobody. There are punchlines aplenty made from Tohno’s bewilderment at how to navigate train lines. The resulting effect is that of following an author around as their buddy and hearing their inner monologue for everything surrounding the making of a manga. Likewise, the art often zooms in on Tohno to emphasize his inner thoughts in contrast to his external interactions. Jagged speech bubbles convey his easily tilted personality, and thought bubbles follow him everywhere.

Yoshi no Zuikara is a great slice-of-life addition to any manga collection. Content-wise, a character says “shit,” there’s one drawing of a skimpily dressed character when someone mentions ecchi manga, and two adults enjoy beer during a dinner scene. In my opinion, none of these factors exclude teens from this recommendation, as they would probably latch onto the adventures of a timid but moderately successful artist as well as any adult. Tohno’s travails feel authentic and sincere while also never failing to lead to hilarity. Hand this manga to budding comics creators and fans of Barakamon, Handa-san, Bakuman, and Blank Canvas.


Yoshi no Zuikara: The Frog in the Well Does Not Know the Ocean
By Satsuki Yoshino

VolumeISBN
19781975316242
29781975317423

Yen Press, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: T
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Japanese
Creator Highlights: Japanese
Related to…: Book to Comic

Ronin Island Vol 1 – 2

This story begins on a peaceful island off the coast of Japan, where two young people compete against each other to be stronger, faster, better. One is the Kenichi, the son of a great samurai, and the other is Hana, a Korean refugee and outcast. When a  strange Shogun lands on their shores and demands fealty in return for protecting the island from the oncoming horrors, the villagers try to refuse. It becomes clear that the horrors are forces that they are not prepared to face. A strange plague has created a zombie-like horde bent on destroying the living. Hana and Kenichi go with the Shogun and quickly realize the young man has very sinister ambitions for an army of byonin, the plague infected humans. At the end of Volume 1, Hana and Kenichi take different paths to combating the mutants, Hana alongside the Shogun, trying to be the voice of reason, and Kenichi, cast out of the Shogun’s forces and protection.

Volume 2 opens with the two on separate paths back to the Island. Hana is traveling with the young, arrogant Shogun, and she tries to reason with the samurai Sato. Sato reveals why he is so loyal to the Shogun, despite the foolishness of most of the Shogun’s plans. The Shogun travels with his army of mutant byonin and humans to the island, where he believes he will be able to live in a paradise-on-earth after he’s bent the villagers to his will. Meanwhile, in exile, Kenichi is captured by bandits and has to fight his way out of a pit full of infected byonin. Both are fighting to protect their island from the monsters, both human and plague-ridden. Interspersed in the narrative is a series of flashbacks that provide insight into the childhood and training of Hana and Kenichi, and we see how their rivalry developed by the way each was treated. Kenichi, being born to privilege, was given more luxuries, but forced to learn difficult lessons and undergo taxing training from a young age. Hana was taken in by their sword master and often used as a training partner for Kenichi, but the villagers distain for Hana as a Korean and orphan motivated her to absorb the training that was meant for Kenichi.

Volume 2 provides some much needed backstory to our lead characters, and we get some insight into the Shogun and Sato, but the ancillary characters still have very little depth to them.  In the first volume, villagers, and even the duos master, are given little depth or space in the narrative. In volume two, Hana inspires others to break off from the Shogun and fight with her to protect against the byonin, but they are little more than page filler. Hana and Kenichi are the singular focus and tend to steal the page any time they are there. After two volumes, we still don’t know much about the Shogun’s motivations other than he’s a spoiled, immature ruler who doesn’t understand how to keep people loyal to him. Rather, most of the narrative focuses on the admirable dedication Hana and Kenichi show to the island, both for very different reasons.  

The first volume was published just as COVID-19 was becoming worldwide news. Now, this second volume hit shelves in the height of the pandemic. The publishing business plans out storylines years in advance, but this is another one of those coincidences of storylines hitting just at the moment they are most topical. The hysteria, lack of solutions to the byonin, the evolving nature of the plague, and the character’s evolving understanding of it  is extremely similar to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide. 

Milonogiannis’s illustrations are reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series with a little less finite detail in the facial features of characters. The action sequences are enjoyable and easy to follow, and her use of a different color palette to indicate flashbacks is helpful for keeping track of the narrative shifts.

Overall, this is an interesting story to draw parallels, but there needs to be a bit more depth and development of more than just the main characters for this series to be worthwhile.


Ronin Island Vol 1
By Greg Pak
Art by Giannis Milonogiannis
ISBN: 9781684154593
Boom, 2019
Publisher Age Rating:

Ronin Island Vol 2 
By Greg Pak
Art by Giannis Milonogiannis
ISBN: 9781684155576
Boom, 2020
Publisher Age Rating:
Series ISBNS and Order

Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Japanese, Korean
Creator Highlights: Korean-American

Banned Book Club

The Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, is based on the personal experiences of the author, who grew up during a time where South Korea was under a totalitarian government. It begins with Hyun and her mother arguing over her choice to go to school. Her mother wants her to give up school and continue to work in the family restaurant. Hyun ducks out to end the argument and attend her first day of school. Once off the bus, she is surrounded by protestors and police. Tear gas is exploding all around her, people pushing their way through the cloudy air to escape arrest. Hyun makes it to class and the teacher informs her that they need to stay away from Communist activities and not participate in protests.

Hyun wants to remain above the fray and avoid politics. She decides to join the folk dance team. They perform a dance for the school, which ends up turning political. She meets a young man on the team named Hoon who begins introducing her to new ideas. He runs the school newspaper and hides political messages in the articles. Hoon develops a crush on Hyun and the feeling turns mutual. He begins drawing her further into danger. She must decide how far she is willing to go.

The simplicity of the black and white artwork draws you into the horror of the situation. When Hyun first gets on campus, she experiences a moment of contentment. She is on a bus, headed to school, with a smile on her face. The minute she steps out, she is greeted with chants for the President to step down. The scene pulls back to reveal riot police with shields moving towards the protestors. Scenes shift to different angles, adding to the tension and chaos of the scene. There are two scenes of torture in the book. One is brief with the person having scrapes and bruises on their face. The other, while only a few pages seem as if it goes on forever. Part of it is left to the imagination as we see the objects he has been beaten with. The other act is quite cruel with the person’s face being smashed into the ground.

In the beginning, I found the title hard to get into as I had no familiarity or understanding of Korean history. The title Banned Book Club made me believe the story would be about how books changed the lives of students living in a brutal dictatorship. It was this aspect that I kept hoping would appear. After 94 pages the story began to take shape and I could see clearly where the author was going with the narrative. The theme became about how a young girl learns how to stand up and find her voice living with a government who wants to shut down any opposition or free thought. I highly recommend this book and suggest that readers learn about the Gwangju uprising to deepen their understanding. This graphic novel is most appropriate for older teens, but probably will be more appreciated by adults who are interested in historical events.

Banned Book Club
By Hyun Sook Kim
Art by Hyung-Ju Ko
ISBN: 9781945820427
Iron Circus Comics, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: OT

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: South Korean
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

My Brother’s Husband, Vol. 2

In the conclusion of My Brother’s Husband, Gengoroh Tagame continues the story of a Japanese family learning to accept and embrace a new member in spite of cultural and social taboos in Japan, as well as learning to face personal fears and worries.

Mike Flannigan showed up on Yuichi Origuchi’s doorstep in Volume 1 and announced he is Yuichi’s deceased twin brother’s husband. Japanese hospitality trumped initial shock and Mike is welcomed into the Origuchi home where Yuichi; a divorced, stay-at-home father cares for his young daughter, Kana. Kana is instantly enchanted by her new, hulking, Canadian uncle, and the affable Mike is eager to learn more about his husband’s family and culture. Yuichi is much more tentative and guarded in his acceptance of the brother-in-law he never knew he had.

Volume 2 of the manga covers more of Mike’s extended visit. The family learns to accept the sweet-natured man and Yuichi begins a deeper look at his relationship with his estranged brother. It also features more incidents that reveal the status of gay relationships in Japan: Mike enjoys a night out with a closeted gay friend of Ryoji’s from high school and Yuichi has a tense meeting with Kana’s teacher about Mike’s visit and its effect on Kana.

My Brother’s Husband is Tagame’s first all-ages manga and his clean, simple characters and uncluttered backgrounds make this an easy and enjoyable read. The plot is dramatic–not melodramatic.

Kana, with a child’s innocence and honesty, instantly accepts Mike for who he is and quickly becomes attached. She eagerly introduces her uncle to her friends. Yuichi, initially uncomfortable with his brother’s sexual orientation, slowly warms up to Mike and learns to deal with his own uncertainty and possible homophobic feelings. It’s the family moments that have the most emotional impact in this final volume of the manga. A trip to an onsen (a Japanese hot springs inn) includes Natsuki, Yuichi’s ex-wife and Kana’s mother. It’s really evident that Kana gets her clear-eyed view of the world and her common sense from her mother when Natsuki tells Yuichi he’s definitely matured during Mike’s visit and says, “I think we can call us a family.” Mike, Yuichi and Kana also make a solemn trip to the Origuchi family grave. The Japanese reverence for their ancestors comes across and the fact that they absorb Mike into their observance obviously means a great deal.

The family has a bittersweet parting in the final chapter as Mike’s visit comes to an end and he returns to his life in Canada. No one remains untouched by the events, including me, especially by Mike’s heartfelt promise to see Kana again (after failing in his promise to Ryoji to visit Japan together before his death). The story ends on a hopeful note for the family and for Japan—where gay marriage is still illegal and many homosexuals live life in the closet.

This manga is one of the best all-ages titles published last year. Its honest storytelling, high-quality artwork, and cultural relevance address a lot of timely social issues in a way that makes this work an invaluable addition to any manga collection.

My Brother’s Husband, Vol. 2 
By Gengoroh Tagame
ISBN: 9781101871539
Pantheon Books, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: All ages

Browse for more like this title
Character Traits: Gay
Creator Highlights: LGBTQIA+ Creator