Yuna feels too Korean in America and too American in Korea. So, she folds 1,000 paper stars and wishes for a world where she fits. The problem is something terrible happens after she makes the wish, and another thousand stars might not be enough to fix it.
Yuna is a Korean American girl who feels out of place at her middle school, including with her own friends. Even the other Korean American kids, like her friend Esther, are more American and accepted at school than Yuna. Esther is a “cool Asian” who speaks to her parents in English and eats school lunches rather than a Korean boxed lunch. Yuna is embarrassed by her mom’s boxed lunches and wants to buy lunch at school like everyone else.
If Yuna can’t fit in as an American, maybe she could be someone else who belongs in Korea. So, she wishes for this change after folding 1,000 paper stars and collecting them in a big jar to make a wish. Yuna and her family return to Korea, but things don’t unfold as she had hoped. They go to Korea because her halmoni (grandmother) passes away, and Yuna thinks she made it happen because of her wishing stars. She blames herself and is full of guilt. Now, Yuna needs to fold another 1,000 paper stars by midnight to wish Halmoni back to life before her soul is gone forever. She lashes out at her parents and younger sister, especially when her sister gets some of the star paper wet. With less than four hours left until midnight, Yuna is desperate to finish enough stars to wish Halmoni back.
A Sky of Papers Stars is clear and organized in its art style. There is a regular font for the parts in Korean, a bolded font for English lines, and italics for the characters’ thoughts. The present-day artwork is bright and colorful with outlined panels. Several scenes set in the past are lighter and resemble pastels or sepia tones. Some have lined panels, and some fade out or blur around the edges. These distinctions make it clear between the past and present. The colors help you feel Yuna’s mood and what she’s thinking about. For instance, there’s a burst of red and orange in the background when Yuna yells at her mom about the homemade lunches, or there are cool, pale shades of blue when Halmoni is on her mind. Jen Wang’s Stargazing is an example of a middle grade graphic novel with a similar writing and art style.
A Sky of Papers Stars includes two central themes: wanting to belong or feeling out of place and grief after the death of a family member. The story and writing style are clear and straightforward, even with the flashbacks to Yuna’s distant memories of Halmoni or Mom reminiscing about her own school lunches. These themes may not be new, but they’re still a much-needed aspect of coming-of-age narratives, especially for marginalized youth who feel separation or alienation from other kids.
If you’re interested in expanding your library’s collection of middle grade graphic novels, this one is definitely worth considering. The Korean and Korean American characters are well-represented, and the book explores significant coming-of-age topics like identity, loss, and grief. If you believe a reader would benefit from When You Trap A Tiger by Tae Keller, they would probably benefit from A Sky of Paper Stars too.
A Sky of Paper Stars Vol. By Susie Yi Macmillan Roaring Brook, 2023 ISBN: 9781250843890
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Creator Representation: Korean-American, Character Representation: Korean-American,
High school is a time of transition. A time for coming of age. Relationships change. Both family and friends. Some end, others evolve, and new ones emerge. You begin to see yourself in a new light. It’s a time when many are suspended in limbo. For Deb JJ Lee, a Korean-American author and illustrator, their high school years were a time of tumultuous self-discovery. In Limbo is Lee’s graphic memoir chronicling the choppy waters of adolescent relationships and sense of self.
Lee struggles to find their place at home and at school. After emigrating from South Korea as a young child, they struggle with their identity and being other, not really Korean but not really American.
The memoir navigates relationships and emotion with great care and depth. After years of playing the violin, Lee comes to the realization that their passion is art, not music. The transition is difficult. Friends are in the orchestra and their parents invested so much time and money in lessons. This limbo between music and art is the theme throughout their freshman and sophomore year. And, as with the other themes of transition throughout the book, there are moments of dread and moments where the weight is lifted and Lee feels happiness or at least some peace. This is clearly communicated through the changing imagery in Lee’s illustrations. Their posture and facial expressions transition from feelings ranging from bored through sadness and loneliness to contentment if not happiness. During the lowest of lows, the panels fill with black smoke, drowning out everything else. But as they emerge from limbo with greater peace, the illustrations begin to shift as well. Rather than focusing on illustrations, Lee begins to find beauty in the details of every day. The pages turn into intricately drawn slice-of-life illustrations. But the peace is temporary, as they continue to navigate life transitions.
Lee’s story will be validating for many. Childhood friendships evolve and no longer seem to fit, and even new brighter friendships sometimes start to fade. These feelings are both devastating and almost universal for teenagers.
From the beginning it is also clear that the mother and child relationship is strained, another very personal and universal experience. However, as the memoir unfolds, it is clear that this mother is abusive, and that the strain in the relationship is far from universal. There are moments when the mother seems to begin to understand her child. When transitioning from music to art, Lee’s mother supports and encourages them, knowing that she must support what her child’s passions are, not what she wants them to be. However, that moment is more of an exception than a rule.
At one point in the memoir, Lee suggests that their mother avoided scrutiny from CPS because of “tiger mom” stereotypes of Asian mothers. Lee’s relationship with their family is complicated. Lee at times fears their mother, but at other times feels loved and supported. The dad is mostly sympathetic and warm but allows the abuse to continue. The complexity of the family dynamics unfold in the narrative as teenage Lee begins to unpack their trauma, a choice that invites the audience to acutely feel the betrayal.
The story will be validating for many. Lee is honest about their struggles and journey with relationships and mental health as a teen. There are no clear-cut solutions or fulfilling peace in the end, but there is therapy and the sense that they are on their way to self-acceptance.
In Limbo is not an easy book to read. The pace of this memoir is slow and deliberate. It focuses on Lee’s arc as a teen coming into themselves, rather than the events of their high school years. The content is also heavy. The book includes depression, abuse, and suicide attempts. However, for those who find their way to this memoir, it is a rewarding experience. I will highly recommend it to students who are fans of Tillie Walden, weighty memoirs, or anyone who needs reminding that the comic medium is a literary art form worthy of acclaim.
In Limbo By Deb JJ Lee Macmillan First Second, 2023 ISBN: 9781250252661
Publisher Age Rating: 14-18 NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16) Creator Representation: Korean-American, Nonbinary, Depression Character Representation: Korean-American, Depression
Devyn Dagny’s life is falling apart. She and her girlfriend broke up, she dropped out of college, and her best friend is marrying a man who is best described as “a pair of khakis”. After relapsing into alcoholism at her friend Amina’s concert, Devyn is given the opportunity to change things and start over completely. She gains the ability to “hop” into alternate universes, essentially possessing herself in another life. She can never return to her own reality. She can only hop a maximum of 53 times, at risk of destroying everything.
Writer Wyatt Kennedy and artist Luana Vecchio make the most out of this concept in the first half of the book, showing many wildly different realities. A medieval reality with shades of Joan of Arc. A Studio Ghibli-influenced castle in the woods. A spaceship, watching as a nearby star implodes. All of the hopping drains Devyn and she starts to lose hope of reuniting with her ex-girlfriend Nat in any reality. As despair sets in, she is advised to stop running, and to make a life for herself wherever she is.
This works out for a while. Devyn meets someone new, a male music teacher named Will. She reconciles with her friends. She thinks about having kids. Then she relapses again, and things get weird. At this point in the story I have a hard time keeping track of the plot, forgive me. It’s not clear whether we are with the same characters all the way through the story, or one of their alternates. There’s at least one large time jump. There are three different chapters titled “Finale”, and they all end the story in different ways. Throughout it all a strong emotional core remains, despite the layered and confusing plot, setting, and characters.
A large factor in Bolero working as well as it does is Vecchio’s art. It is, quite simply, beautiful. The story gives her opportunity to work in other genres and settings. At times it is explicitly sexual, at others it is tender and heartwarming. The character designs are well thought out and unique, each character looks and dresses in ways that are authentic to the character and easy to tell apart. The watercolor backgrounds are stunning, as is the use of pinks, purples, and blues to highlight the otherworldliness of the story. I will certainly be on the lookout for more work by Vecchio.
All of that said, this was an incredibly difficult review to write. Despite a confusing timeline and plot, Bolero is emotionally affecting. Although I have several major differences from the main cast of characters, I also struggle with mental illness. Kennedy and Vecchio are so effective at bringing that feeling out with their art that every time I tried to finish the book I would spiral into some level of depression myself. Usually I would simply avoid things that trigger me so much, but in this case I was compelled to keep going. It’s not like watching something awful, like a train wreck. The book is too beautiful for that. It’s more like picking at a scab, something I know is ultimately not very good for me but is incredibly satisfying.
The cover blurbs draw comparison to the comic Locke and Key and the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, as well as the comic Saga. These comparisons seem apt to me, and I would even throw out the movie Everything, Everywhere, All At Once as another. All of those are excellent, and are in fact favorites of mine. Bolero sets itself apart by how emotionally resonant it is, especially emotions the reader might not want to experience. There are some short-comings bring it up short of something like Saga, but it is still in excellent company.
Ultimately, this is a strangely-paced science fiction story that is about addiction and depression. It’s not an automatic purchase for most libraries, and it is definitely a book for adult audiences. Larger public libraries should have space on their shelves for this, and it will definitely find readers. It’s worth a purchase under those circumstances, but if you don’t have much of a patron base for adult comics that are unaffiliated with a larger series, you can safely skip it.
Bolero By Wyatt Kennedy Art by Luana Vecchio Image, 2022 ISBN: 9781534323124
Publisher Age Rating: M
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+) Creator Representation: Addiction, Bipolar Character Representation: Korean-American, Bisexual, Trans, Deafness, Addiction, Ambiguous Mental Illness, Depression
As if starting sixth grade wasn’t scary enough, Whit Garcia, a soft-spoken photographer, discovers that his new school houses more than just defective metal detectors and spooky run-down buildings. After reluctantly joining the yearbook club made up of the school’s other resident weirdos, Whit and his crew are thrown into the midst of a supernatural mystery as the ghosts of missing children start appearing. And yet, their presence seems more like a warning than a haunting, harbingering a sinister threat that seeks to add to its collection of specters. With his camera and friends in tow, Whit must confront his fears to get to the bottom of this investigation, even the ones that aren’t about ghosts and ghouls.
Fearbook Club, with its colorful and endearing cast of outcasts, tells a meaningful story about what it’s like to be stuck in a constant cloud of fear. Author Richard Hamilton taps into the familiar perils of tweenhood, whether it be struggling to fit in, experiencing bullying, or trying to survive in a world where metal detectors on campus and combination fire/tornado/school shooter drills have become the norm. Balancing these domestic threats with the more supernatural ones leads the story to provide an interesting conversation on how fear has an influence on how these situations are approached and resolved with varying results. The blasé and ultimately ineffective methods the school uses to combat the fear of its threats is a stark contrast to how Whit and his friends handle their paranormal ones, as they get to the root of what causes their fear rather than simply acknowledging it. This distinction leads to a timely and needed message on how kids can properly recognize and process what terrifies them, leading to a greater preparedness in facing them.
Though the story comes to a satisfying end, there are still aspects that come off somewhat underdeveloped or rushed. The comic has a steady pace until the last third, where a time skip leads a wonky, disrupted flow of events. A lot of off panel character development could have used focus to give a more well-rounded growth to the cast. That aside, Whit and his gang have a great collection of personalities that naturally bounce off of each other and form a tight bond over their shared weirdo status.
Artist Marco Matrone’s style thrives in this horrific setting, his use of dimmer colors and blurring effects in more suspenseful moments heightens the comic’s perfectly creepy atmosphere and overall gives a deeper feeling of unease. The designs of the ghosts are particularly inventive and frightening, their dark forms appear like they just walked out of the negative of a photograph. Even down to the character’s expressions, Matrone best utilizes each feature to convey the right amount of terror, concern, worry, as well as relief and contentment. For all the scarier moments of the comic, the art also brings out more emotion in its softer beats, as Whit and his friends sit under a bright pink sky at the end of a day where they have grown closer as friends, the mix of bright and dark hues more calming and comfortable than those seen before. It is a period of relief from the ominous presence that hangs over them while at school, and Malone graciously extends those feelings to the reader as well.
Those that are drawn to stories about a ragtag group of misfits going up against supernatural forces will no doubt fall in love with Fearbook Club. Think Ghostbusters meets Stranger Things with a Goosebumps vibe thrown in for good measure. While the comic has its fair share of scares, there is nothing overly disturbing that would unnerve seasoned horror lovers or those starting to dip their toes into the genre. The back of the comic states that it is intended for a young adult audience, but, due to its themes, setting, and moving afterward message from the author, I think it would appeal most to the middle school crowd or specifically kids ages 10-13. Librarians and educators who are interested in purchasing more horror titles, as well as those that exhibit impactful emotional storytelling, should consider purchasing this title.
Fearbook Club By Richard Hamilton Art by Marco Matrone Seismic Press, 2022 ISBN: 9781949028768
Publisher Age Rating: 13-16
NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13) Character Representation: Korean-American
Being one of seven children isn’t easy. Everyday is another day of chaos in the Lee household. It’s even more stressful when all you want is a little space of your own, but it’s always just out of reach. That’s the dilemma facing Avery Lee in Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter’s Squished.
It’s the summer before sixth grade (middle school!) and 11-year-old Avery is determined to make the most of it. When her parents inform her that her older brother Theo will be getting his own room, she becomes set on getting the thing she wants the most: her own private space. That’s right, somewhere without her younger siblings climbing all over everything, somewhere where she can work on her art, and where she can spend solo time with Miss Kitty, her beloved cat. Things reach a tipping point when her younger brother Max decides to make himself the center of attention and rush the stage at Avery’s fifth grade graduation. Between that and Theo getting his own room, her goal for summer is doing what she can to get her very own bedroom.
Avery’s attempts at making money to fund her bedroom are a bust; she can’t seem to do anything without her siblings involving themselves and turning every situation into a disaster. Then her best friend meets another friend, one who has her own pool! Just when things seem like they can’t get any more hectic, Avery’s parents inform her they’re considering a cross-country move. Sure, she might be her dad’s helper extraordinaire, but how can she trust her parents when they want to leave Hickory Valley, the only place she’s ever lived, her home?
Squished is the story of a summer of change. Avery is an immediately likable protagonist, one who kids will find relatable, especially ones struggling to find their place in their own family. She acts impulsively and is often quite selfish at multiple times throughout the book. She is not a perfect daughter, sister, or friend, and these qualities only make her more appealing as a main character. She acts on emotions and doesn’t always think of how her actions affect the people she cares about. Readers around Avery’s age who find themselves struggling with how to handle big emotions may find a sense of solidarity with her.
The book’s art is warm and realistic, with individual character’s personalities shining through in their depictions. Readers see the frustration and the stress, along with their joy and familiarity, in the character’s faces. With so many kids in the house, there’s often action happening behind the scenes in the busier panels. It’s hard not to feel the stress Avery is facing with so much happening right in front of you on the page.
With its emphasis on life in a big family, readers who enjoy The Baby-Sitters Club graphic novels, as well as readers who liked the delightful Allergic, Lloyd and Nutter’s first graphic novel collaboration, also for middle grade readers, may find Squished up their alley Readers outside of the intended age range may also find themselves drawn to the Lee family; there’s someone and something for nearly everyone to relate to in Avery’s story.
Squished By Megan Wagner Lloyd Art by Michelle Mee Nutter Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2023 ISBN: 9781338568936
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13) Character Representation: Korean-American
Robin Ha writes in the Acknowledgements page at the end of her graphic novel, Almost American Girl: “So you can only imagine how thrilled Mom was when I finally told her I had been working on this memoir for over a year and found a publisher for it. After realizing there was no turning back on this project, Mom insisted that I at least leave her out of my story completely. I told her that would be impossible. She was the driving force behind it. If she hadn’t wanted me to write this story, she shouldn’t have brought me to America in the first place. Mom was so upset with me that she avoided me for months.”
This acknowledgement is a bittersweet moment for this reader after spending time with Ha’s journey as a young teen, first in South Korea and then in the southern United States, powerless and bewildered and, at that time, totally dependent upon her single mother. Ha could not have articulated, in print and illustration, her story without her mother’s presence whom, at the beginning of Ha’s tale, was considered a superhero to her daughter. This memoir effectively and beautifully illuminates Ha’s early experiences as well as contemporary issues of immigration, the sense of belonging, parent and child relationships, the stress resulting from social hostility toward single parenthood, bullying, and, in balance, highlights the power and impact of art in determining self.
Ha’s artistic ability is the grounding for her as she presses forward counter to new step siblings that are obstructive at every junction, not understanding much of the language at school or the school culture, and being able to make friends. She also no longer has access to the volumes of manga and manhwa she and her friends devoured. This is a time of extreme tribulation and only subsides when circumstances allow her and her mother to move to a more accommodating part of the country where she finally connects with others who are much more compatible with her. Ha’s command of the written word is a testimony to this blossoming journey of self awareness and growth as an individual and artist. The comic drawing class she is encouraged to join becomes her escape from her seclusion and gloom.
Ha’s art illuminates the locations in both Korea and the United States, her realistic characters are actualized and individualized, and is permeated with a soft color palate with splashes of bright color when she is experiencing excitement or other strong emotions. Ha’s illustrations extend a glimpse into the frustrations and alienation caused by the paucity of comprehension of unfamiliar language and society. The varied employment of panels successfully carries the transitions the reader experiences from Ha’s ordinary life to that of her fictional world and back again. The chapters are all delineated by a solo snapshot page filled with dense colours that offer a glimpse to the episode to follow. This is an emotional ride for all those involved, characters and reader.
Almost American Girl By Robin Ha ISBN: 9780062685094 Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020 Publisher Age Rating: Young Adult
Browse for more like this title NFNT Age Recommendation: Tween (10-13), Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+) Character Traits: Korean American Creator Highlights: Own Voices
The Jake Maddox Graphic Novels feature young people competing in a variety of team and individual sports. In each story, the central character is involved in a major event in his or her sport while facing a personal challenge, moral dilemma, or conflict with friends. The two titles reviewed here address winter sports and would be good additions to youth libraries looking to enhance their offerings with a greater variety of graphic novels and sports-related literature.
In Faceoff Fall Out, Jackson “Jax” Kingsford is nervous about facing his former best friend in a hockey tournament. Ever since Archer Foss left Jax’s team and moved across town to play for a rival team, things have not been the same. Will Jax learn to move past his feelings of betrayal? What will happen when his team plays Archer’s team? Readers follow Jax on this journey and learn some things about hockey, friendship, and resilience along the way. While the text for this volume is quite heavy on narration, the storyline is uplifting and affirming for young readers. The lesson to not take a decision made by another person as a personal betrayal is one that every child needs to learn at some point, and this story conveys that message well. Lessons about teamwork and good sportsmanship are abundant. The end matter helps readers learn about literary conventions such as flashbacks and helps build visual literacy through encouraging the reader to consider the meaning of artistic devices used in the story, as well.
In Half-Pipe Panic, Payton Park is having trouble regaining his confidence after an embarrassing fall on the half-pipe. Even worse is the fact that his sister’s friend posted the video of Park’s fall online, and now everyone is laughing about it. With a big competition coming up, Park isn’t sure he even has the courage to snowboard again, much less the guts to win. This volume in the series explores themes of confidence and mental toughness, as well as the pitfalls of social media and cyber bullying. Park must learn that how he views himself is more important than the opinions of others and that his true friends will support him no matter what. Questions in the end matter help readers learn to identify character traits and emotions from the illustrations in the book.
Each volume in the series presents readers with information about the basics of a particular sport as well as ideas about friendship, character, and overcoming obstacles. The books are relatively brief in length at 65 pages each, plus end matter which includes visual questions to aid comprehension and develop visual literacy skills, facts about the rules and history of the sport addressed in the book, and a glossary of terms related to the sport. Each book features ethnically diverse characters, which are previewed visually at beginning of each title, and the vivid, full-color artwork is accessible to young readers with a simple panel structure.
Reluctant or developing readers interested in sports will be drawn to these stories. Each volume is kept brief through summarizing much of the expository material that might be shown in more detail in a longer novel. Much of the backstory in Half-Pipe Panic is related in the format of a video blog narrated by Park, which works well as a method of exposition since it is likely to hold readers’ attention. The straightforward narration used to provide exposition in Faceoff Fall Out could have been improved. Still, as an introduction to graphic novels, these books work well. They are accessible and provide instruction to help readers grow in their understanding of the medium. Further, the characters are authentic and relatable to young readers, and the conflicts they face are true-to-life while providing good examples of how to respond to challenges with character and class. This series makes a good addition to youth and elementary graphic novel collections.
Jake Maddox Graphic Novels by Jake Maddox, Brandon Terrell Art by Eduardo Garcia, Benny Terrell, Jaymes Reed Faceoff Fall-Out ISBN: 9781496560438 Half-Pipe Panic ISBN: 9781496560445 Capstone, 2018 Publisher Age Rating: 8-14
Our actions affect those around us, though we may not realize this at the time, and quite often this leads us to have our fair share of regrets about things we did in the past. Back when Simon was in high school, he made up a lie about going out of town so that he wouldn’t have to attend a dance with his friend Irene. Though Irene was beautiful and a close friend, she was blind and Simon was worried about what this fact would do for his social reputation. Almost a decade later, Simon is enjoying lunch with his friends when he looks out the window and sees Irene sitting at a bus stop, bringing forth a flood of suppressed guilt.
Meanwhile, Simon’s friend Nancy has been keeping busy by posing as another woman and sending fake love letters to a man who is obsessed with the previous occupant in her apartment. When Nancy learns that the man she has been corresponding with lives in Simon’s hometown, she convinces Simon to drive her there so she can spy on the object of her mischief and learn more about him. However, the trip turns out to be a humbling yet awakening experience as both Simon and Nancy come face-to-face with the reality of their actions, causing them to reflect deeply upon their own lives.
It’s hard not to be immediately impressed with Same Difference’s artwork. It is stunning and manages to effortlessly straddle the line between realism and caricature, all the while packing in a remarkable amount of detail from panel-to-panel without ever becoming distractingly busy. Working strictly with black ink on white paper, Derek Kirk Kim successfully breathes life into the books world by coloring it with tangible believability instead of a variety of hues.
However, the visuals are not what make Same Difference so special. Rather, what stands out is the delicate, restrained manner in which the story unfolds and the openness by which it allows readers to make connections to the protagonists. Simon and Nancy are directionless, potty-mouthed, post-collegiate twenty-somethings, having little more to do with their time than ponder their past mistakes and engage in monkey business such as sending phony love notes to an unknown person. But for all their foibles, it is easy for readers to sympathize with these characters because they are clearly not bad people at all, but instead they are simply looking to find bearing and meaning in a confusing, overwhelming world— a situation we all go through during our lifetimes. Watching Simon and Nancy embrace their blossoming maturity as they move further into the realm of adulthood provides a touching and meaningful payoff.
Originally published in 2003, Same Difference received a number of accolades, most notably the Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz Awards—all of which are well deserved. This new edition adds a humorous introduction by Gene Yang, some intriguing behind-the-scenes material by Derek Kirk Kim, and a hefty hardback format featuring a striking cover design. The story won’t hold much significance to children and younger teens—and given the plethora of profanity, they should probably keep away—but it’s really not meant for them, anyway. Instead, Same Difference is a message for older teens and adults trying to find direction and sense in their lives, serving as a gentle reminder that even if we all feel remorseful and disconnected on occasion, we share a stronger bond with the world around us than we may realize.
Same Difference by Derek Kirk Kim ISBN: 9781596436572 First Second, 2011 Publisher Age Rating: 14