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

Stone Fruit

Stone Fruit, the debut graphic novel by comics artist Lee Lai, is a heartfelt story about two young women navigating the end of a relationship and the tension points between biological and chosen family. Lai does a marvelous job adapting the structure of young adult coming-of-age stories to the tumultuous years of our twenties, when many of us are still working out what kind of adults we hope to become.

This book centers on Ray, a young woman who’s part-time caretaker to her rambunctious young niece Nessie, and Bron, Ray’s fiercely imaginative, mentally ill girlfriend. Ray and Bron have decided to forge a life together, but their fresh start is complicated by existing family ties. For Ray, family means a strained relationship with her sister, Nessie’s mom, who is wary of Bron’s mental illness and perhaps her trans identity. Bron has her own complicated family of origin: religious conservative parents who have never fully accepted her as a trans woman, but also a younger sister who feels like Bron left her behind. When Bron decides to leave Ray and return home to her parents, both women find themselves reevaluating their familial relationships, unearthing trauma but also testing for the possibility of connection.

Stone Fruit feels like a novel that has the potential to be someone’s favorite book, appearing at the right moment for a reader facing any of the challenges that animate Ray and Bron’s lives: mental illness, a strained relationship with a sibling, an unexpected breakup, a first taste of aunthood. Though Stone Fruit is a breakup story, its melancholy is tempered by moments of joy and insight. Lai has a particular talent for capturing the mundane: life-altering conversations in nondescript restaurants; awkward breakups that end with running out into the street in your underwear; bad babysitting sessions powered by episodes of Peppa Pig. The understated storytelling meant that it took me a while to feel immersed in the story, but once I found my footing, I was deeply moved by this sharply observed snapshot of the human experience.

Lai’s art is terrific and will please fans of traditional media, with fluid brushwork and dreamy blue gouache. Simple four-panel pages put the emphasis on characters and text; the artwork is accomplished but never gets in the way of the narrative. Lai’s one bold artistic choice is her depiction of Ray, Bron, and Nessie during their babysitting romps—the three become monsters with reptilian skin and wicked teeth, a witchy image of female power that serves as a symbol for the kind of female-centered family that Ray and Bron want to create.

Stone Fruit is a strong choice for adult comics collections. I’d particularly recommend it to new adult readers looking for a narrative that speaks to their experiences; however, older adult readers will find just as much to enjoy here. Those purchasing for a young adult audience should be aware of the inclusion of nudity and a brief sex scene.

This title also delivers welcome representation of queer, trans, and Chinese diaspora experiences, adding breadth and inclusivity to graphic novel collections that have historically tended to exclude marginalized voices. Lai is a new voice to look out for, and her debut is well worth picking up.

Stone Fruit
By Lee Lai
Fantagraphics, 2021
ISBN: 9781683964261

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Australian, Canadian, East Asian,  Trans
Character Representation: Chinese, Queer, Trans,  Ambiguous Mental Illness

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection explores the identity, imagination, and struggle of cartoonist Yao Xiao. Baopu is a monthly, serialized comic published in Autostraddle, a online community dedicated to publishing independent, progressively feminist, queer media. Thus, Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection allows us to enter the universe of a bisexual, Chinese-American emigrant woman, an identity not often, if ever, shown in popular media. The collection includes both never before seen comics and fan favorites.

Baopu is a Taoist word used to illuminate the importance of simplicity and the ideal of living in a simpler state. Xiao clearly exemplifies this ideal through her work. The artwork is understated and the writing is accessible. The use of simplicity in Xiao’s artwork conveys a feeling of intimacy. Every comic in this compilation seems like it could have easily come directly from Xiao’s diary. And, frankly, this makes her comics likeable. Regardless of your identity, Xiao’s artwork is relatable. Xiao portrays herself in pseudo-minimalist drawings throughout each comic. In fact, her line work is so uncomplicated that her character is often only identifiable by a triangular hat differentiating her from the characters around her. While some readers may find the lack of detailing in her work frustrating, others will find it endearing.

As for the actual writing in this collection, once again readers may find themselves divided. Some of Xiao’s writing, such as one comic highlighting her frustration to pick a—literal—box, may read as cliched and a bit saccharine. However, other comics, such as those highlighting her loneliness as an immigrant, are quite poignant. One notable comic, titled “Quiet Night Thoughts” illustrates a poem by famed 7th century Chinese poet Li Bia. Xiao beautifully applies a poem written during the Tang Dynasty to her experience as a Chinese-American in the 21st century.

Given the independent nature of this publication, no particular age group is ascribed to the book. However, this book will mostly likely be appreciated by teens and emerging adults. Another issue with the independent publishing of this book is availability. This title most likely will not be available to libraries unless purchased from the publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing, or Amazon. And, ultimately, may not be worth the investment.

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection is a sweet, engaging book. However, for a comic collection, the book is short at 128 pages. The collection feels incomplete. As a reader, I found myself wanting more. Xiao is clearly a young, very promising comic artist. I would love to read a more comprehensive volume of work from her. While I cannot recommend that this particular book be added to your library’s graphic novel collection, I would highly recommend that prospective readers take a look at Xiao’s professional Instagram account (@yaoxiaoart) and published work on Autostraddle. Xiao is a competent artist and cartoonist. More is certainly to come.

Everything is Beautiful and I’m Not Afraid: A Baopu Collection
By Yao Xiao
ISBN: 9781524852450
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: (16+)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Chinese American Bisexual, Queer
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator, LGBTQIA+ Creator

The Unstoppable Wasp, vols. 1-2

We all know Janet van Dyne, The Wasp, but Nadia, The Unstoppable Wasp, is a whole other experience. She’s smart, she knows it, and she’s here to shake things up, starting with the scientific patriarchy. Oh, and take down the organization that kidnapped and raised her. And make friends, even with villains. And finish her dad’s projects. And maybe take the bomb out of her friend’s head. Who needs sleep?

Every once in a while, there’s a comic that has a very sound concept, but has trouble with follow-through. Unstoppable Wasp is such a case; volume one is interesting enough at first, though a bit unbearably cheerful and manic, before descending into just kind of silly to the point of feeling pandering. Volume two picks up at the end of volume one, ties them together, and adds in another level of depth and interest.

My primary problem with the Unstoppable Wasp comics is the writing; the first volume especially feels like one long advertisement for diversity in science, especially with the significant number of pages at the end dedicated to interviews with real women in science. Of course, they’re not just women in science, but women in science who also have social media handles and/or are involved in TV or YouTube.

That’s great, and sure, we should talk more about it, but within the story it comes across as the White Savior bringing together her plucky team of disadvantaged girls of color. Because, of course, the rest of the team are girls of color, each from a slightly different background. It doesn’t help that after forming the Agents of G.I.R.L. (an unfortunate acronym that matches the phrase Nadia ascribes to it), the plot never comes back to them for the rest of the first volume. Thankfully, the second volume circles back and gives more detail to each girl beyond just say, Black, into pop culture, quirky dresser, and engineer. Overall though, there’s a weirdly strong emphasis on whether they’re interested in fashion or not, adding to a Barbie feel.

The art is also variable; the first volume is very smooth, but the girls all look strangely the same in body shape, facial features, and coloring. The exception is Lashayla, who is actually a darker-skinned Black girl, an unusual sight in comics. The second volume gives much greater visual variety, though Lashayla is strangely much lighter in skin tone, which is disappointing. The one consistent complaint I have with the art is that the girls all have overfull lips in both volumes. It’s a little disconcerting, but also something of a nod to older comics. Otherwise, the art does a good job of conveying the frenetic energy of Nadia and handling this very dialogue-heavy comic.

The most distinguishing feature of Unstoppable Wasp is that it discusses mental illness in teenagers. We’ve seen discussion of mental health in comics before, even in Marvel (consider the Mariko Tamaki run of She-Hulk), but as far as I know, almost never with youth. And the most remarkable part of it is that they don’t do a bad job of it. There’s discussion of likely genetic links, therapy sessions, and medication. There’s supportive family and friends, encouraging her to take care of herself. Mixed in with that is talk of having to separate the public, heroic image of a person and the personal image that can be more troubled. This means a brief discussion of domestic abuse; I wish that had been expanded a little more because it feels like that particular topic is brought up and quickly set aside, though not done poorly.

I can’t strongly recommend this series because the first volume is so rocky, but if you’re looking to add to your collection with more diverse superheroes and something tailored towards teens, Unstoppable Wasp is a solid choice. It would be a great suggestion as further reading for lovers of comics like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, or Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat.

The Unstoppable Wasp, vols. 1-2
By Jeremy Whitley
Art by Elsa Charretier, Alti Firmansyah & Gurihiru
ISBN:

VolumeISBN
19781302906467
29781302906474

Marvel, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: T+
Series Reading Order: https://www.goodreads.com/series/208648-the-unstoppable-wasp-2017 (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Traits: Characters with Disability East Asian, Black, Latinx Queer,
Creator Highlights:
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Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World is a pitch perfect historical graphic novel for anyone who wants to learn about brazen rebel ladies throughout history. Pénélope Bagieu started with a list of 50 women whose stories she wanted to tell and narrowed it down to about 30 for the book. In interviews, Bagieu is quoted as saying that one of the hardest choices was deciding “whose stories I could tell a 200 times without getting bored of.”  She especially wanted to showcase that not all brazen rebel ladies are western, white, educated, cisgender, straight women. At the end of the book, Bagieu does include the rest of her list of fabulous women for further reading.

Spanning nearly 2500 years of history, Brazen gives life to women such as Agnodice, one of the first women gynecologists who lived in 350 BCE Athens, to Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghanistan rapper born in 1996. Bagieu covers doctors, scientists, artists, explorers, entertainers: just about anyone from anywhere through time. Some of the women I knew, such as Nellie Bly, Josephine Baker, Hedy Lemarr, and Temple Gradin, are listed but others such as Nzinga, warrior queen of Ndongo and Matamba, Cheryl Bridges, athlete, and Giorgina Reid, lighthouse keeper, are entirely new to me. I found myself especially delighted Bagieu made sure Mae Jamison was included, the first black woman in space who happens to be a sci-fi and comics nerd.

Typically in anthologies or in music, the placement of the stories or songs are arranged by the artist just so, with a theme or an overarching story told via that placement. I could not find such a theme here and this is not to say that the work is haphazard—rather the thoughtfulness of the placement of the brazen rebel’s lives are listed such that you could read about a rebel from 2500 years ago and the next story is of a brazen rebel from the 18th century. The book does not need to be read in chronological order, but I will warn you that when you sit down with the book you’ll likely finish it one sitting, just as I did.

Bagieu wrote, illustrated, and colored the art marking her as a force to reckon with. In another interview, Bagieu selected a “very simple palette of four colors for each story, chosen carefully regarding the era, the country, the global feeling of the story.” In between each story is a two page highly detailed and colored spread of the brazen rebel in action, whether she is warrior queen or Temple Gradin and her cows.

Pénélope Bagieu is known for her attention to detail and the wit of her subjects. Here she gives these ladies all the attention and voice that they deserve. Each brazen rebel is finely drawn and brought to life, their stories may be told over a few pages but each story is in-depth enough to whet a history lover’s appetite. Brazen is listed as age appropriate for older teens, 16+, and up, but it could easily become the favorite of middle grades and up, especially as a reference book for further study. Highly recommended for any collection especially for history lists as well as lists for LGTBQ+ peoples.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World
By Pénélope Bagieu
Art by Pénélope Bagieu
ISBN: 978-1626728691 1626728690
First Second, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

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Character Traits: Japanese, Chinese, Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Pansexual, Trans

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder

Discover the wonders of everyday life with four stories set in Beijing, China. In My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder, Nie Jun explores life through the eyes of a young girl named Yu’er and her grandfather.

Yu’er is disabled, and relies on her grandfather for transportation. She dreams of swimming in the Special Olympics, but the family does not have access to a pool. So her grandfather fashions a harness to a tree that allows Yu’er to practice swimming. The message of the story is if you believe in yourself, anything is possible.

In another story, Yu’er finds some neighborhood kids tormenting a butterfly. She tries to stop them, but they push her to the side. A young boy, Duobao, comes to the rescue. He whisks Yu’er away to what he calls Bug Paradise. Duobao shows her the visual and sensory pleasures that can be found there. From the sounds of crickets chirping, to the buzz of the bee, Yu’er imagines a symphony all around her. The scene captures the marvel and magic that surrounds us, that we are too busy to notice.

Yu’er has rosy cheeks and wears an orange and white cap with a tuft of her bangs hanging out. Her grandfather is a rotund fellow, who is always in a jovial mood. The artwork is done in the style of watercolor. The main colors used are orange, yellow, green, and blue. The courtyard residences that make up the hutong are naturally grey, but the author infuses them with orange and green window trimmings to give it a vibrancy. It makes the images pop out, and you want to absorb every little detail.

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder captures what life is like living in a hutong. These types of structures are normally found in the northern parts of Beijing. A hutong is an alleyway that connects rows of siheyuan. Siheyuans are residences that are built to form squares or rectangles to create a courtyard. These types of spaces began during the Yuan dynasty circa 1271-1368. When initially people think about Beijing, they might think of the Summer Olympics. A visual of huge crowds, historic buildings, and a place where tradition and the present combine. The hutongs as depicted in the graphic novel give us a sense of interconnectedness of the community. By being connected physically, communities become closer and cooperation is necessary for peace and harmony.

I found My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder to be a visual feast for the eyes and like a warm cup of soup for the soul. You can’t help but feel your spirit glowing. The story radiates happiness, and an appreciation for the simple things around us. Children will enjoy the visuals, and the character of Yu’er. The theme of the importance of dreams, and not letting your limitations define you will resonate with the young and old.

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder
by Nie Jun
ISBN: 9781512445909
Graphic Universe, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 7-11