The concept of sanpaku is that if you have white space above or below your iris that you are doomed. Marcine, the protagonist of Sanpaku by Kate Gavino, becomes obsessed with this idea. She discovers that famous people like JFK, Marilyn Monroe, and Abraham Lincoln have had this affliction.

The author of You are all Sanpaku, a real book that popularized the concept of sanpaku, Sakurawa Myoki, believed that sanpaku was the cause of the West’s decline. He argued that Americans were out of tune with their bodies and the universe. He believed that a diet of brown rice, umeboshi plums, and bancha tea were the cure. Also, that you had to chew your food at least 50 times. Marcine believes it’s a ‘load of crap’ before discovering that her Lola (grandmother) may have it. She becomes overzealous in her pursuit to escape sanpaku and gets rid of all her food except for a can of Spam. Despite all of Lola’s efforts, she soon passes away. Marcine becomes more determined to save others from the curse.

Marcine’s story takes place in the Philippines, where we can see the confluence of two cultures: Filipino and Spanish. Marcine goes to a Catholic private school, and works at a supermarket trying to catch shoplifters. The owner of the supermarket takes pictures of the thieves and posts their picture on a wall. Marcine discovers that her Lola had stolen some Durian jam. Temptation and the need to know what it feels like plague Marcine’s thoughts. She finds herself stealing a paper dog from the store.

Two events—one pulled from the real world, one fictional—have a huge impact on the kind of person Marcine will become. A woman named Vilma is up for consideration for sainthood. At the same time, we learn that Selena, the Tejano singer, has been killed by her manager. Many people feel great sorrow at the loss of Selena. Poetry is written, her music is played on the radio all day long. Sorrow turns into disappointment as a Jehovah’s Witness magazine proclaims that Selena was raised a ‘Jehovah’s Witness’. This leads the mostly Catholic population to assertions that Selena can’t go to heaven, or her death was caused by her religion because Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in blood transfusions. This goes to show how rumors can destroy or harm a person’s reputation. The same things happens with Vilma. A rumor circulates that Vilma was involved in a lesbian relationship. Vilma had sculpted a version of the Lady of Guadalupe, and used her friend as a nude model. For Marcine, these events reveal how gossip and not facts can impact a person’s legacy.

The graphic novel is the size of a small album. Every illustration is one panel only. The background on each individual page change. Some are in wavy patterns, square shapes, circles, or intricate tiles. This allows us to focus on the characters front and center and put everything else to the side. Everything is black and white, the only color being on the front cover. The art work seemed very basic with the patterns and characters populating the frame. I would have liked more action and less patterns.

Sanpaku is a story for those who like coming of age stories. It offers a unique perspective into a different country and culture. I liked the theme of not following rumors or religious fervor to discover your own path in life. I found Sanpaku to be very culture specific and for somebody outside the Filipino culture there were parts that went above my head. I would recommend this for libraries to expand their Own Voices collections and for those with large Filipino communities. While the story has some adult themes, I would find this suitable for older and mature teens to read.

by Kate Gavino
ISBN: 9781684152100
Archaia, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Adult

In Waves

The graphic memoir has become an increasingly important genre for the comics medium. With his graphic memoir In Waves, A.J. Dungo is joining the likes of Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Tom Hart. It’s heady company to be in, especially considering that Maus, Fun Home, and Rosalie Lightning are all different kinds of survivors’ stories. Dungo’s first-person narrative—when it is a first-person narrative—tells of his survival even as Kristen, the love of his life, slowly succumbed to cancer. Combined with tales from the history of Hawaii and the history of surfing, it’s an odd story, but that’s okay. Comics is an odd medium, and some of its best work is done in the service of strange tales, strangely told.

In Waves is Dungo’s first book and began as an art school project focused on two major figures in the history of surfing: native Hawaiian Olympic swimmer Duke Kahanamoku and surfboard innovator Tom Blake. The project’s ambitions expanded naturally when he decided to incorporate his partner Kristen’s story into the existing narrative. The results are eccentric, but overall quite moving. It’s a slow-paced story whose moments seem to come and go like tides. From the beginning, the reader knows that Kristen will not survive this story, but that does not lessen our attachment to her, nor does it reduce her significance. And while his inclusion of Blake and Kahanamoku’s stories in a book about a loved one is an unusual choice, it adds a pleasing ebb and flow to the narrative. Dungo and Kristen were both surfers, so learning about the sport’s royal Hawaiian origins and its many developments fits into their story more naturally than one might expect. There’s a sorrow to both of these men’s triumphs, and to surfing itself, and a kind of parity in the way that these great surfers used their boards to escape their worldly problems. Using this same technique, surfing is everything to Kristen and “her boys” as well, and the narratives flow unexpectedly naturally between the past and present. The result is an emotional portrait of different times, flowing together into one. Adding in the visual influence of Hokusai—the Japanese artist most famous for The Wave—this book is an elemental experience rather than a plot-driven one.

In Waves has its limitations. Dungo sketches his historical figures carefully from photographs, but his contemporary characters have sparse facial features. He sometimes seems aware of this problem, as he often draws the backs of his characters’ heads. This can limit their emotions as well as make it easy for readers to confuse different characters, and it minimizes the impact of the fact that his primary characters are largely Asian American. Even so, his art is patient and directed, with monochromatic pages skillfully dictating mood and pacing through color, panel structure, and design. His words are largely dispassionate, but somehow a passionate mood infuses everything his characters say and do. As a result, this book transcends both its apparent limitations and ambitions. In its words, pictures, and silences it has much to say. It is a book that one person could read many times, and never quite get the same meanings from twice.

Death is a part of life and history, and every library—public, school, or otherwise—serves people of all ages who have lost loved ones. This is a very valuable book for any collection because it speaks honestly and accessibly about loss but not just about loss. Dungo is describing loss as part of a living tapestry. It isn’t the end, but it can’t be discarded. This book is a significant graphic memoir and is highly recommended for all libraries and is unusually accessible for such an artistically-rendered story. That said, In Waves is most appropriate for libraries with teen and young adult comics collections, though it wouldn’t look out of place in an adult collection. Other than the fact that it is a book about a loved one’s death, there are no content warnings attached to this book.

In Waves
By AJ Dungo
ISBN: 9781910620632
Nobrow, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: Teen+

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Character Traits: Characters with Disability Japanese, Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator

Petro and the Flea King

Everything about the day was normal before Petro broke his grandmother’s vase. Petro, who is an ungrateful young boy, breaks the vase while throwing a tantrum and then, struck with contrition, sets out to make it up to his grandmother. But when he gets to town, he sees a strange sign warning about fleas—and that’s just the beginning.

This whimsical, black and white graphic novel spins out the yarn of Petro’s fantastical journey. Finding the town occupied by the frightening Flea King and his army of minions, Petro embarks on a quest to capture the Flea King so he might replace his grandmother’s vase with the promised prize money. Petro encounters many characters and situations along his way. He’s imprisoned in a birdcage by a kapre and escapes the fierce adarna bird through teamwork. He’s even swallowed by a whale at one point, and, meeting in its stomach a little man and a monkey, helps the three escape by using a sling-shot fired spicy pepper aimed at the whale’s uvula! Elements of these thrilling adventures are drawn from Filipino folklore and literature, and the very few words of text that are included in the book are in Filipino. Readers who don’t speak Filipino should have no trouble getting the sense of the text without translation due to the expressive illustrations which, while appearing simple at first glance due to their thick lines and black, gray, and white tones, are full of surprising details.

Though the sheer speed and fantasy of the plot does sometimes result in confusing moments, many readers will find themselves swept away in the story’s magical characters and slapstick humor regardless. Petro and the Flea King is accessible to a wide range of readers due to its near-wordlessness, but elementary and middle-grade readers will likely find it most appealing: some will find the physical humor and imaginative scrapes Petro finds himself in most compelling; some will find themselves curious about the Filipino cultural elements threaded throughout the graphic novel. An introductory note written by publisher Jean Marie Munson contextualizes the Filipino influences of the graphic novel. She writes of how she always wanted to see “familiarities of [her] ethnic identity in pop culture” growing up and that she hopes the reader will “take away from this book how wonderfully colorful Philippines (sic) storytelling can be…”. (The note is not translated into perfect standard English but is perfectly comprehensible nonetheless).

The combination of near-wordlessness and a fantastical, fast-moving plot results here in a tale that is sometimes a bit difficult to keep straight, but this drawback is outweighed by the graphic novel’s humorous spirit, rich infusion of Filipino folklore, and dynamic illustrations. Petro and the Flea King is an invitation to suspend disbelief and enjoy each new transformation, capture, ally or enemy that Petro encounters.

Petro and the Flea King
By Kenneth Kit Lamug
ISBN: 9781717379238
Rabblebox, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: All Ages

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Easy Readers (5-9), Middle Grade (7-11)
Character Traits: Filipino,
Creator Highlights: Own Voices