In virtually every culture, food connects families across generations and bridges gaps between diverse communities. In Lily LaMotte and Ann Xu’s Measuring Up, not only does food play a key role in the plot, but the art of cooking serves as a mirror into one’s identity and a window into other cultures.
The story begins when twelve-year-old Cici moves from Taiwan to America to start life anew in Seattle. Cici misses her grandmother A-Má dearly and longs to have her come visit so they can spend her 70th birthday together. Cici decides to enter a cooking contest to win a grand prize to raise money for A-Má’s plane ticket. Thus begins her culinary quest to create the best dishes ever in hopes of helping her grandmother. As a native of Taiwan, Cici is familiar with how to cook Taiwanese food such as minced pork over rice and sticky rice dumplings. But can she possibly learn the intricacies of American cuisine to win the contest?
In this debut graphic novel, LaMotte delves into the culinary arts and centers the story around how a young Taiwanese girl adapts to a new country, depicting the challenges of reconciling two cultural worlds while honoring one’s heritage and traditions. LaMotte paces the plot with a steady momentum, raising the stakes each time when Cici and her competitors must invent creative ways to prepare a dish using a designated ingredient. Along the way, Cici grapples with twin forces of passion and duty. While she yearns to follow her heart in cooking, she must also obey her father’s wishes that she pursue an education. Furthermore, she wrestles with her identity as an immigrant adapting to American society while preserving her cultural roots, all the while navigating the intricacies of growing up and finding acceptance among her friends.
Ignatz nominated cartoonist Xu peppers the story with adorable illustrations. Selected panels spotlight visual lists of ingredients much like a recipe in a cookbook. Quarter to full-page sized panels highlight the nurturing, rich colors of vegetables, fruits, condiments, and culinary staples seen on familiar tv cooking shows reminiscent of Julia Child and other cooking personalities. Whether capturing Cici’s anxiety at a failed food experiment, displaying the appropriate kitchen gadgets for her next experiment, or highlighting her fervor in stir-frying rice noodles, Xu’s panels exude with wonder and pride at every turn as Cici persists at her craft, her unfailing passion fueled by an adventurous spirit.
Measuring Up serves up more than just a culinary feast of food competitions played out in a lively episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. The heart of the story lies in Cici’s intimate connection with her A-Má, for Cici yearns to overcome a plethora of obstacles to reunite with her. Food and cooking illuminate the traditions and values that empower her to discover who she really is. While this story may seem like a gastronomic food fest, conflicting situations such as Cici bringing her mom’s homemade pickled cucumbers to school only to be taunted by her classmates accentuate the growing sensibility of her dual identity in America. By weaving the art of cooking into her story, LaMotte masterfully probes the deeper relationships that connect adolescent readers to unique cultural communities, thereby enriching the increasing selection of works from diverse voices for all library collections.
By Lily LaMotte
Art by Ann Xu
Harper Alley, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12