The Tryout

Finding your identity is easier said than done. You can try a variety of clothes, hobbies, sports, etc. and still be unclear on who you are and where you fit in. In the end you may find your place but you may also realize that it doesn’t matter where you stand, as long as you stay you.  Newbery Honoree Christina Soontornvat relates her troubles with identity in her new book The Tryout. Partnering with illustrator Joanna Cacao, Soontornvat narrates her journey to become a middle school cheerleader and finding where she fits within her group of peers.

Christina and Megan have been best friends since grammar school. The duo had spent countless hours swapping secrets, playing with dolls, and chatting on the phone. But as they enter the seventh grade, Christina fears that their friendship will never be the same. Not only that, Christina has been feeling out of place. She needs to find something that will guarantee her a place within her middle school population, so why not the cheerleading squad? They are popular, adored, and amazing at performing different tricks and keeping the audience pumped. So when tryouts begin for new students, Christina and Megan jump at the chance. But will joining the squad change their middle school status and still keep their friendship intact?

The creative partnership of Christina Soontornvat and Joanna Cacao is a success in this coming of age story. Soontornvat does not hold anything back in her narration. There are scenes of stereotyping and racist comments witnessed by Christina and Megan. Moments of distress and anxiety are shown, with characters’ letting their emotions come out through actions or words. But after these scenes of distress, instead of letting hateful words keep her down, Christina is able to fight back in her own way. Readers will appreciate her devotion to her faith and identity, as well. Joanna Cacao includes scenes of pray within Christina’s Thai temple and her Presbyterian church, with Soontornvat’s explanation on Thai culture and comparisons between the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha. Cacao’s illustrations also include a diverse community being able to thrive within a mostly Caucasian town. Cheerleading stunts and tricks are shown from panel to panel, allowing the action to flow without interruptions.

Public and school libraries (especially those who have students in grades 4-8) need to have The Tryout on their shelves. It’s a great choice for any young reader who enjoys being on the pep squad or is on the path of trying to find their place in middle school. Place it right next to other coming of age comics, such as Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, Kayla Miller’s Click and Kathryn Ormsbee’s Growing Pangs.

The Tryout
By Christina Soontornvat
Art by Joanna Cacao
Scholastic GRAPHIX, 2022
ISBN: 9781338741261

Publisher Age Rating: 8-12:

NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation:  Thai-American,  ,  Character Representation: Thai-American, Buddhist ,

Manga Yokai Stories: Ghostly Tales from Japan

Up front I must admit that I have been a long-time fan of Lafcadio Hearn’s writing on Japanese folklore especially Kwaidan(1904), the final short story collection published during his life time. Through his writing, based on research, oral tales from neighbors, and tales read to him by his wife, he became the first non-Japanese author to retell the folklore for readers of the English language.

Three of the retellings in this compilation are from Hearn’s final collection of “ghostly sketches”: “Nuki-kubi,”” Riki-Baka,” and “A Dead Secret”.  An earlier work, Shadowings (1900), is also represented by three tales: “Reconciliation,” “Corpse Rider,” and “Screen Maiden.” The seventh tale, “Before the Supreme Court”, is from A Japanese Miscellany (1901). Author Sean Michael Wilson states in his brief source note that he has attempted to retain Hearn’s original wording as much as possible while adapting them to the manga format and I am happy to report that he has done what he had set out to accomplish. The source notes are adequate offering basic background information about Hearn and the retellers as well as information for finding the original tales and discovering more on your own.

The illustrations are evocative and heart breaking, focusing on facial expressions and emotions of all the characters, spectral and human. The large format of the publication and the simplicity of the backgrounds and panel arrangement add to the accessibility of the tales. It also reads right to left in traditional manga format. All seven folktales are about the complex interactions between the living and dead and while they are indeed ghostly, they are not all inescapably terrifying. But rather, they are instructive in offering glimpses of the beliefs and practices of Japanese society at the time Hearn collected and retold the tales.

I am not sure which one of the retellings is my favorite. The first tale, “A Dead Secret” is primarily about the return of a mother as a ghost but the underlying layers uncover hidden truths, love stories, and preserved secrets. “The Screen Maiden” tells the passionate and alarming tale of a young man who is almost fatally obsessed with a woman in a painting. As for the painting, “The space that she had occupied upon it remained a blank.” It is followed by a much darker tale of a masterless samurai and his adventures with deadly headless goblins. The images and antics in “Nuke-kubi” of the exasperated severed heads remained vivid long after I finished reading the story. “The Corpse Rider” is equally as visual, horrific, and memorable as it tells the story of a wife’s revenge on her ex-husband. The following entry, “Riki-Babka,” while horrifying did not leave this reader with a heavy heart, a ghost story with a more satisfying outcome, so to speak, reminiscent of one of my favorite clay figures, the golem of Jewish folklore. Hearn indicated that this tale was a personal experience narrative written exactly as it happened with only the names changed. And, if you can assert a ghost story as cheerful and redeeming, the penultimate tale “Before the Supreme Court” is exactly that. The initial horror is massaged by the very sensible conclusion. The compilation is completed by the eerie story of “Reconciliation” which leaves the reader contemplating the juxtaposition of justice and remorse.

This compilation was a refreshing read and highly recommended for those who appreciate exploring folklore and the genres of horror and ghost stories.

Manga Yokai Stories: Ghostly Tales from Japan
By Lafcadio Hearn Sean Michael Wilson
Art by Inko Ai Takita
ISBN: 9784805315668
Tuttle, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: 14+
Series ISBNS and Order

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

Maison Ikkoku Collector’s Edition, Vol. 1

The first word that comes to mind with Maison Ikkoku is grounded. Rumiko Takahashi’s reputation precedes her, including in the west, where series like Lum Urusei Yatsura, Ranma ½, and Inuyasha served as gateway series into anime and manga. Where those series used an alien visitor, kung-fu slapstick, and fantasy tropes, respectively, Maison Ikkoku uses ordinary people. Being a product of the turn of the 80s, everyone has fairly realistic, dark hair. As another example of grounded visuals, moments of exaggerated humor only slightly distort characters’ faces or figures compared to more modern series’ chibi figures and razor-sharp hairstyles. The two main characters are Godai, a frustrated college applicant, and Kyoko, the manager of the boarding house where he lives. He falls for her at first sight, with a string of misunderstandings, rivalries, and personal revelations in their journey toward ending up together. “It must be nice to be so simple,” a neighbor says about Godai, and it’s true of this manga, too.

Takahashi’s got plenty of gags to keep the pages turning, though. The other residents of Maison Ikkoku interfere with Godai and Kyoko’s affections at every turn, to the point that Godai imagines them as antagonists in the sky laughing down at him and his ambitions. Godai’s neighbor Yotsuya is a peeping tom who blackmails Godai over his stash of porno magazines and hole in the wall that allows him to see into the room of his other neighbor, the bar hostess Akemi.

It is at this point I should mention that this series was serialized from 1980 to 1987, complete with sexual humor that makes light of men’s overwhelming desire for visual stimulation. Some chapters go several steps further, with characters accidentally or purposefully grabbing and groping Kyoko, often resulting in a hard slap that leaves a hand print. There is a daydream scene of a topless Kyoko embracing her dog as her lover (she named the dog after her late husband, which leads to misunderstandings). One night, a drunken Godai carries Kyoko to his room but passes out before any sexual assault can happen – meanwhile, Kyoko apologizes to her late husband in her mind while outwardly shouting for help. As much as Kyoko is objectified, including scenes on a tennis court that look up her skirt, Takahashi deserves credit for swapping to her perspective every so often. She is a young woman in mourning who sees the potential in Godai but isn’t committed, either. She has her own life beyond her tenants, even if they butt into her business all the time. Still, compared to Takahashi’s later works, this one leans disappointingly hard on a “boys will be boys” attitude.

Your mileage may vary, but I don’t think the misogynist humor completely ruins the overall effect of the book. Takahashi renders an incredibly sweet Japan, complete with changing seasons and weather that give the boarding house plenty of character. Rain causes leaks, howling winds keep people up at night, and on a sunny day, the road seems to curve in around people walking along. Time passes using outdoor imagery, always inviting the reader to start fresh with the cast for another chapter. A mother and young son who also live in the boarding house contribute to a feeling of nostalgia, as the son has a childhood crush that mirrors Godai’s spellbound behavior around Kyoko. The mother provides a seen-it-before perspective, one that the other tenants echo as they play peanut gallery for the would-be lovebirds. These are events that the characters will clearly remember fondly, even if they tended to get on each other’s nerves and criticize each other. This is the strength of the slice of life genre, which could be likened to a sitcom show here. Godai is always attempting to declare his love for Kyoko, but as soon as she says yes the series would lose its dramatic tension, so poor timing and alternative suitors keep them apart.

It’s great to see this series in print again as collector’s editions, having been collected before in thinner volumes in the early 2000s. Takahashi is a one of a kind talent, and there’s a satisfaction to tracing how her humor and characterization evolved from one series to the next. Not everything about this series has aged well, especially its sexual politics, but its humor and heart earn it a recommendation for older teens and adults.

Maison Ikkoku Collector’s Edition, Vol. 1
By Rumiko Takahashi
ISBN: 9781974711871
Viz, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: Teen Plus (16+)
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian Straight
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator

Classic Fantastic: Blade of the Immortal

What It’s About?
It is the mid-Tokugawa era in Japan, and wandering samurai Manji’s body is infested with healing worms that make him extremely difficult to kill. This “gift” of immortality is actually a curse for his bloody history of killing 100 men, including his sister’s husband. He has been told by a mystic that the cure is to kill 1,000 evil men, so when a young woman by the name of Rin begs him for protection and vengeance against an upstart martial combat school, Manji and Rin’s paths become one. For the first omnibus or so, this is the gist of the series, but the cast, setting, and motivations blossom and take on lives of their own, and blessedly so.

By the end of the series, there are several perspectives separately driving the narrative, each applying different moral standards to the problems at hand. As the body count rises, cycles of vengeance are set in motion and allowed to drive characters to the point of obsession and mutilation. The initial “villain” of the series, Anotsu, seeks to break the established, relatively coddled order of peacetime sword discipline, attracting a motley crew of anything-goes killers. The Japanese government, in turn, hires agents and assassins to counter their movement, leading to Manji and Rin stumbling into conflicts far greater than they imagined. Selfishness, duty, ambiguity, ambition – watching characters clash as they pursue and escape one another is a perpetual highlight of the series. The story’s heights often involve pushing a conflict to its absolute boiling point then swapping to another scene and letting the reader’s dramatic irony detector in their brain go off like fireworks as the scenarios converge. The effect is downright Proustian and never gets old.

As the series goes on, there is a kind of a meta element in tracking Hiroaki Samura’s storytelling style and observing how he breaks out of his own conventions. Really cool sword fights as dramatic climaxes go a long way—Samura takes “swordsman passes by an opponent at the moment of evisceration” to a whole new level. As that effect becomes regular to the point of predictable, Samura sidelines the immortal Manji in order to focus on the motives and checkered pasts of ambitiously doomed characters, elevating the series to something admirable. Just about everyone is participating in a suicide squad of sorts for different reasons, and readers might find themselves rooting against Manji by the end. Shonen tropes like “fighting for my friends” or “proving I’m the best” sometimes apply, but character arcs also delve into how to let go of hatred or commit oneself to selfless acts.

Notable Notes
Samura’s style is one of a kind, and tracking its evolution throughout the series is another joy. He dropped out of art school to make Blade of the Immortal, and he cites classic art in interviews about his inspirations.There are pages that set a scene just so, that are more exhilarating than the standout duels and close calls. Samura and his team are masters of using touches of white to create highlights across landscapes, rooms, and faces that will stop you in your tracks. A spot of moonlight in a starless sky, a slice of brightness on the edge of someone’s cheek, a glowing torch advertising safety off in the distance – the fights are fast and heavy, but the quiet moments know how to command attention, too.

Consider this series rated M with good reason, and it’s not just lopped limbs and four-letter words. Characters have sex, including with prostitutes, and one long-running sadistic antagonist in particular derives pleasure from raping while murdering. Women are not strictly victims in this series—several are skilled, principled fighters who absolutely hold their own—but there are nonetheless a lot of violated women.

Having said that, the drama and carnage sometimes serve as a backdrop that makes the chapters of traveling and humor utter delights. The series earns big laughs whenever it slows down to show characters commenting on their journeys thus far or airing rumors about characters they haven’t seen in a while. Manji, Rin, and the rest are prone to exclaiming out loud when a situation gets out of control or downright weird (such as having to retrieve Manji’s body parts following a fight), which is another humorous highlight.

The “Demon Lair” arc is one of the greatest sustained combinations of setup, confrontation, and payoff I’ve ever read in action manga. It’s the culmination of Blade of the Immortal’s unique mixture of realism, anachronisms, sci-fi, and horror. It will spoil your expectations for arcs to come, for slow-burn schemes in other manga, and even for D&D campaigns.

Blade of the Immortal has been adapted into two different anime series, a live-action movie, and a novel.
The series won Japan’s Media Arts Award in 1997 and an Eisner Award for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material in 2000.

Blade of the Immortal influenced Naruto’s creator, Masashi Kishimoto, in a number of ways, including his style, plotting, and character design.

As if you needed more proof this series came about in the 90s, the English release reads left to right! This is no simple mirror flip – a “cut and paste” method was used to manually move panels around. Each volume contains a deeper explanation of this as well as Samura’s sound effects and anachronistic dialog.
Manji wears a giant Buddhist swastika on his back, and every volume of the series includes a lengthy disclaimer explaining the honorable history of the symbol and how it’s different from the Nazi swastika.

Uninitiated readers may gravitate toward the bloody sword action and Manji’s cocky attitude, but the picaresque plotting and elegant dramatic build-ups are what usher this manga into the Classic Fantastic.

Why Should You Own This?
Each three-in-one omnibus is $22, which is a great deal for one of the best samurai manga ever made. And for the dedicated collector or librarian with money to spend, Dark Horse will be releasing a deluxe, hardcover omnibus edition in October of 2020, which will retail for $49.00.

Classic Fantastic: Blade of the Immortal
By Hiroaki Samura

Omnibus I9781506701240
Omnibus II9781506701325
Omnibus III9781506701721
Omnibus IV9781506705699
Omnibus V9781506705675
Omnibus VI9781506705682
Omnibus VII9781506706559
Omnibus VIII9781506708171
Omnibus IX9781506708188
Omnibus X9781506708195

Dark Horse, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)
Series Reading Order: (Wikipedia or Goodreads)

Browse for more like this title
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Japanese
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator
Related to…: Comic to Movie, Comic to TV

Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts

The frame story of Hungry Ghosts, reminiscent of the Tales of the Crypt anthologies, begins with a ghoulish Russian host inviting a assembly of international chefs to play the samurai game of 100 Candles: “As night fell the warriors came together. In an adjoining room, the [one hundred] candles, or andon, were lit. On a table was placed a single mirror. The men sat in a circle. One by one, they told stories of Yokai, Yurei, and Obake. Monsters, ghosts, and shapeshifters. Tales of eerie, supernatural encounters and unexplained meaning, vengeance and karma, meant to bring fear into the hearts of their fellow warriors. Upon the end of each tale, the storyteller would extinguish one and on, look in the mirror to ensure he had not himself been possessed and then return to re-join his fellows. With each passing tale, the room slowly grew darker and darker, the tales scarier, more frightening. But as the telling of the one hundredth tale of horror approached, fearful participants would invariably stop, too terrified of invoking the wrath of the formidable spirits they had been summoning.”

The nine stories in the anthology are illustrated by different artists: Sebastian Cabrol, Vanesa Del Rey, Francesco Francavilla, Irene Koh, Leo Manco, Alberto Ponticelli, Paul Pope, and Mateus Santolouco. All of the illustrations are effective in vividly bringing the humanity, the horror, and the death and destruction, pardon the pun, alive for the reader. As in most anthologies, not all of the storylines and illustrations are equally mesmerizing, but taken as a total package, the book deserves a great deal of praise, including the eye-catching cover art by Paul Pope.

Substituting chefs for the samurai warriors who would be participating in such a storytelling endeavor highlights the potentiality of the kitchen crime scene where dangerous implements are utilized to prepare the food and, perhaps, the consumers of varied nourishment.

The first story, “The Starving Skeleton,” sets the theme of hungry ghosts, Gashadokuro, and that of horrific endings for those who lack kindness, generosity, and compassion. This is followed by “The Pirates,” narrated by an explicit and bawdy female storyteller who is chided, rather unfairly in my opinion, that her tale did not involve food. Her protester becomes the next storyteller and his story, “Salty Horse,” definitely focuses on food—and horror, of course. “The Heads” begins as a foil to the gluttony of the previous tale with a cook threatened with starvation because of poverty. The horror, however, is stepped up a notch as was promised from the onset with the instructions of the game. “Deep” explores the bullying practices in an elegant and formal French kitchen through the eyes of one of the chefs. The appearance and practices of a Kappa in that kitchen unquestionably evens the playing field. “Boil in the Belly,” also focuses on body parts of inspiring chefs and the horrendous remedies that the hosts must endure to get rid of their hungry ghosts, or at least, getting rid of them in the short term. “The Snow Woman” is a familiar and rewarding reworking of a traditional Japanese folktale and not, in my opinion, as frightening as some of the other tales. It could be that my familiarity with the story left me with admiration at the retelling rather than a reaction to the ghostly presence. The final story of the collection, “The Cow Head,” begins with threats of starvation and ends with the horrific consequences of cannibalism, and ultimately, the act of accepting the dare of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai [100 hundred candles] storytelling. This tale also completes the frame story established at the start. Bon Appetit!

Co-author Joel Rose made this storyteller’s heart sing with his concise and chatty background essay, complete with source notes, regarding the long legacy of Japanese haunting tales. I was also very pleased to find recipes to make some of the more palatable dishes mentioned in this book honoring Japanese food and the brief but informative “Handy Guide to the Legendary Ghostly Spirits behind our Terrifying Tales.” Completing the anthology is a cover gallery from the individual comic book issues of the series followed by two pages of biographies for the numerous illustrators involved in the creation of this attractive hard cover tribute to Bourdain’s vision, Japanese folklore, food, and EC Comics.

Intended for an adult reading audience, some of the language and imagery may be off putting for a teen collection but, for this fan of Japanese horror and food, the collection has a place of honor on my book shelves.

Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts
By Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose
Art by Paul Pope, Sebastian Cabrol, Vanesa Del Rey, Francesco Francavilla, Irene Koh, Leo Manco, Alberto Ponticelli, Mateus Santolouco, Jose Villarrubia
ISBN: 9781506706696
Dark Horse, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 18+

A Girl in the Himalayas

Complexity and simplicity seem at odds with each other, but David Jesus Vignolli seamlessly weaves together complex themes with simple, expressive art to create a charming and thoughtful story in his debut graphic novel, A Girl in the Himalayas.

The story opens with young Vijaya’s house in flames, and she flees her home alone, wandering into the snow of the Himalayas. When she collapses, Prasad, a supernatural being, sees her and decides to give up his immortality to preserve her life. Prasad takes her to the Sanctuary, a place he and another immortal, Vasu, have created as a shelter from humanity. Prasad and Vasu introduce Vijaya to the Elementals who travel to the Sanctuary to recover from the choking “Illusion” of humanity that threatens to kill them. While Vijaya is quick to befriend a group of Elementals, not all of them are pleased by her presence in the Sanctuary. After all, she is a human, and humans are the source of the Illusion. She must prove to herself and to the Sanctuary that not all humans are ruled by Illusion and that she can honor the values of the Earth and the Elementals.

The novel is in part reminiscent of the mythology of ancient religions. Vignolli incorporates the Indian concepts of maya (Illusion) and yoga to describe energies at war with each other, addressing the heights of humanity found in the innocence and curiosity of a child, versus the depths displayed by the greed and cruelty that some men reach. The story questions what it takes to change the minds of people (or creatures) who are entrenched in one viewpoint. The answer? Love. Hope. Sacrifice. Forgiveness. Curiosity.

Vignolli relies on black, white, and soft orange to color his novel. I found myself examining and appreciating the details of each panel more closely than I often do in a full-color spread. Vignolli depicts the greed, insecurity, and self-centeredness of humanity in a black roiling cloud, in contrast to the softer whites and creams of the Sanctuary. The Elementals are whimsical shapes born of Vignolli’s imagination, representing energies of the Earth that wish to heal the world and live harmoniously. The style of art aligns perfectly with the spirit of the story and its characters.

Lovers of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, KiKi’s Delivery Service) will enjoy this graphic novel and its mix of reality and whimsy. This graphic novel appeals to a spectrum of ages and backgrounds. Young readers are able to identify with Vijaya’s eagerness to explore and befriend the world around her, and older readers able to appreciate the more complex themes of sacrifice, hope, and the heights and depths of humanity. As a wonderful story with simple, expressive art and an underlying homage to mythology and ancient belief systems, this graphic novel is a strong addition to any collection.

A Girl in the Himalayas
by David Jesus Vignolli
ISBN: 9781684151295
Archaia / BOOM! Studios, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12