graphic novel · memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker

On my last trip to the library for books for me, I had grabbed all the books from my list, and then I turned around and caught sight of a display of books behind the teen hangout part of the library. And there in that stack of books was the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf Productions, 2019). It was obvious that this book told of George Takei’s family’s unjust incarceration in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and despite already clutching a stack of books, I added it to my pile. I knew I couldn’t miss this one.

George wasn’t even in kindergarten yet when his family was rounded up with all the other Americans of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were sent to live in an American concentration camp (remember, concentration camps and death camps aren’t the same thing; technically, the US did have its own concentration camps). You can see a map of these camps here; he and his family were first sent to Rohwer, then later Tule Lake. His parents worked hard to keep the horrors of the situation from affecting George and his siblings too much, but occasionally the racism, the food shortages, and the injustice of being incarcerated for simply having the wrong ethnic background crept in. George spent years processing the injustices visited upon his family and community and is still working today to right the wrongs the United States committed and speaking out about the atrocities the United States still continues to commit against Mexicans, South Americans, Muslims, and various other populations.

The art is simple, in black and white, which adds to the stark horror of the US incarcerating its own citizens (and those to whom they refused citizenship outright) because of their genetics. George has some fond memories of the time in the camps, simply because his parents worked so hard to make that true and also because children are remarkably adaptable and will find ways to be children even as their countries incarcerate them in concentration camps. His experiences are slightly less stark than those illustrated in Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Ms. Wakatsuki Houston goes into greater detail about the terrible conditions and lack of food in the camps she was forced into, and the terrible reality of leaving the camps- having nowhere to go, with former neighbors having stolen all of the possessions the family had been forced to leave behind. George Takei does go into the family’s post-camp experience; they were homeless for a time and had to rebuild their lives from absolutely nothing.

I’m glad this graphic novel exists. They Called Us Enemy and Farewell to Manzanar are the only two books I’ve read on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, and I know I need to read more (I welcome your recommendations in the comments, as always). I wish this were better taught in schools- my school did a surprisingly good job when it came to teaching about things like race and injustice, but while these concentration camps were mentioned, the subject was kind of glossed over, and I feel like I wasn’t properly educated on this when I was younger. It’s something I’ll make sure that my daughter knows about more fully as she grows; it’s shameful and disgusting that this even happened, but it’s worse that we apparently learned nothing from it and continue to perpetuate similar horrors.

They Called Us Enemy is a quick read, but it’ll stay with you, and hopefully it’ll inspire you to speak out against injustice. We’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Visit George Takei’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Book Review: Bingo Love by Tee Franklin and Jenn St-Onge

I think Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, Joy San, and Cardinal Rae (Inclusive Press, 2017) came to my TBR via a suggestion from a reading challenge that I’m no longer participating in, but it looked so sweet that I couldn’t pass it up! Plus I’m always up for a good love story, and in graphic novel form? LOVE IT. My library had a copy on the teen shelves, so I bustled on over and added it to my stack of books during my latest trip (the library is now open for regular browsing, though the number of people allowed in at one time is limited and you can only stay an hour. Not a problem for me, as I always go in with a list and am usually out by the time 30 minutes has passed).

Hazel Johnson’s life changes the day Mari McCray moves to town. Quickly becoming best friends, Hazel soon realizes she feels more than friendship for Mari, but it’s 1963 and these things just aren’t talked about, especially in their Black community. It doesn’t take long after their first shared kisses before their secret is discovered and their families tear them apart. Years later, after both women have spent a lifetime being married and raising families, a chance reunification brings them right back to the love they discovered years ago, forcing them and everyone they know to examine what they believe love really is.

SWEEEEEEEEEET story with an awful, awful lot of heartbreak in it. Bingo Love tells the story of (I believe) the authors’ grandmothers, how they found, lost, then found each other again. At 92 pages, it’s a quick read, but it’s the kind of story that sticks with you, of love that never forgets, never dies, no matter who tries to snuff it out. It’s the story of the kind of courage it takes to upend your life in order to be true to who you are and to live with conviction and purpose. It’s history, the kind that we’re, hopefully, beginning to move past, with the hope that Hazel and Mari’s pain doesn’t need to be repeated again and again among other couples. What should be repeated, however, is their joy in one another.

Utterly lovely read.

Follow Tee Franklin on Twitter and visit her website here.

Follow Jenn St-Onge on Twitter and visit her website here.

graphic novel · memoir

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea- Guy Delisle

Another one down for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue progress on my reading challenges, even in captivity. *grin* The prompt here was to read a graphic memoir, which is actually a genre I love, so pretty much everything on the list of suggestions looked good to me. But I’m always trying to keep my TBR at a manageable level (*nervous laughter* let’s not discuss that right now…), so I went through my want-to-read list on Goodreads and found Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003). I’d read and enjoyed Burma Chronicles by the same author (before mailing it off to a friend!), and I was fascinated to learn that he’d spent time in North Korea and had written another book about his experiences. Onto the list it went!

I had no idea before reading this that North Korea has an animation industry. At one point, it was apparently pretty bustling, although it seems to have slowed down a bit since then. But animator and graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who has a sense of adventure that I seem to be lacking, was invited to work there and jumped at the offer. Upon arrival, he confronts a bizarre country where everyone spouts the party line, shortages of everything are commonplace, pictures of the leaders plaster nearly every surface, and he’s rarely left alone.

North Korea really is the upside-down, even by 2020 bizarro-world standards, even in the capital city of Pyongyang which is meant to be shown off to foreigners. Mr. Delisle’s stripped-down illustration style lends well to the bleakness of the regime and the stark realities of life in a country where an admission of doubt of the President’s nearly supernatural status can get a resident killed, or thrown into a reeducation camp for life. Even the restaurants seem to fall well short of basic health and cleanliness standards, and the museums and ‘tourist’ destination he’s taken to are nothing more than state-created propaganda tools designed to further the myth of North Korean greatness and world domination. The entire experience is bizarre and creepy and leaves the reader with a both a sense of relief to know that Mr. Delisle survived his time in country and a deep feeling of sadness that what he showcased in this graphic memoir is the best it gets there.

I don’t know that this is the best Delisle book to start with. I got a better sense of who he is as a person in Burma Chronicles and I don’t think I would have necessarily been inspired to read more from him if this is where I started. Part of that is because of the stark nature of the subject, I think; a sojourn in such an oppressive regime doesn’t necessarily lend for warm and fuzzy feelings about much of anything. I’d start with another one of his books first. Nor do I think this is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn anything about North Korea. Pyongyang is their show city, and although it comes off as a run-down communist-era Soviet nightmare, it’s still far beyond anything else the country has to offer in terms of, say, their citizens not dying in the streets of starvation and lack of medical care. If you’re looking to learn more about the hideous wasteland that North Korea truly is, start with some personal memoirs of escapees, such as In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park or The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, or for a more journalistic account that covers both the history and the horrors of the country, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

What Guy Delisle does offer here, though, is a fascinating perspective on a foreigner’s view of North Korea’s capital city. In the memoirs I’ve read, escapees have talked about the absolute splendor and privilege of a visit to Pyongyang, and to them, this city absolutely was the pinnacle of creation, leagues above and beyond what their daily lives offered. But to an outsider, it’s run-down, lacking in basics such as electricity and teeming with North Koreans doing forced ‘volunteer’ work. It’s absolutely worth your time if North Korea is a subject that fascinates you; it s a perspective that my reading has been lacking and I’m glad to have been able to ‘see’ Pyongyang from a non-North Korean’s viewpoint.

I’m in more than a bit in awe at Guy Delisle’s sense of adventure. Had I received the offer to work in or travel to North Korea, accepting wouldn’t even occur to me as a possibility. There’s no way I would ever feel comfortable traveling there, not as long as the country is in the state it is, with its leadership the way it is (*glances around, laughs nervously*). Its own citizens aren’t safe; I wouldn’t labor under the delusion that I’d be safe, either. But I’m grateful that Mr. Delisle has written and illustrated his experiences in this book. His story does beg the question of how his story would have differed had it been a woman traveling there for work, but it’s fascinating to see North Korea through an outsider’s eyes.

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En français!)

Follow him on Twitter here.

Uncategorized

Burma Chronicles- Guy Delisle

Another book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a bit. I found this copy of Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle (Jonathan Cape, 2007) at a thrift store a few years ago. It had all sorts of paper clips marking different pages. I never did figure out what those clips were marking, but it intrigued me enough to pick the book up, leaf through it, and say, “A graphic novel for a quarter? Heck yeah!” I have major thrift store privilege; the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store near me has tons of books and their prices are amaaaaaaazing.

Guy Delisle followed his wife, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to Burma/Myanmar (he covers the discrepancy between the names right away; if you’re interested, check out the Etymology section in the Wikipedia article on the country), along with their infant son. He chronicles his adventures in the country, pushing his son’s stroller along the streets, in markets, taking him to playgroups with other foreign parents, sending him to some sort of school, visiting a monastery, shopping for food, interacting with the locals and the local people they’ve hired to work for them. Occasionally Delisle and his wife travel within the country; he also writes of living within walking distance from Aung San Suu Kyi but, as she was on house arrest at the time, he was never able to approach her house.

Burma Chronicles is a graphic memoir and doesn’t have a plot or overarching structure to it; it’s a portrayal of one man’s experiences in the country in his time there. It’s not comprehensive enough to give the reader a good feel for the country, but it did whet my appetite to learn more (which is good, because I have another book on Myanmar on my TBR). His drawings are simple; it’s a style that meshes well with the complexities of the country and the difficulties his wife deals with at work, red tape for miles and miles and miles.

This is a bit difficult to review, since there’s no story to recount, no plot to pick apart, no characters to ponder, but I enjoyed the book. I was impressed by Mr. Delisle’s constant wanderings around town with his son; I’m pretty anxious and wouldn’t really feel comfortable pushing a stroller around an unfamiliar place where I didn’t speak the language (and most locals didn’t speak mine). That’s either serious courage or brash foolhardiness right there; I’m a little envious and wish I were more adventurous, although unfortunately, the stakes are probably a little different for me as a woman than they would be for Mr. Delisle.

I’m deeply curious about his other books, however. Guy Delisle has also written a book about the time he spent in Pyongyang, North Korea, appropriately titled Pyongyang, and I absolutely smashed the Want-to-Read button on that. He’s also lived in China and Jerusalem that I can see; what a fascinating life! If I can’t live in all those places, traveling there through books is the next best way, so I’m looking forward to more travels with Guy Delisle.

Do you have any graphic memoir recommendations for me? I love memoirs, so graphic memoirs are nice way to get my memoir on and add a little art into my life. 🙂

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En français!)

graphic novel · middle grade

Awkward- Svetlana Chmakova

Fun story about this book.

A year or so ago, my daughter and I were cleaning out the car, and she pulls a copy of Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova (JY, 2015) out of the pockets on the back of one of the front seats. “Mama!” she gasped. “Is this Brother’s book???” (Even looking at the screen right now, she said, “Hey, Brother has that book!”)

“Probably,” I said, and tossed it in the bag. Apparently my son had left it stuffed in the seat pocket at some point. It looked new-ish; in 2015, he would’ve been 12/13, so this book would’ve been perfect for him back then. Since he’d already read it (we asked him about it later on), it went on my shelf, and I picked it up one night after I’d run out of library books. (*horror music*)

Peppi’s the new girl in town, and right away, she makes a major flub, tripping and falling into a nerdy guy in the hallway, earning herself the nickname of “nerder girlfriend.” And how does she handle it? By shoving the nerdy guy so hard that he falls. NOT one of her finest moments, and Peppi feels terrible about it, so terrible, in fact, that she can’t figure out how to apologize, even after Jaime- that’s the nerdy guy- is assigned as her science tutor.

But Peppi’s got bigger problems. Her school home is Art Club, and the problem is that this year, Art Club isn’t being allowed a table at the school’s club fair because, the principal said, they haven’t contributed enough to the school. SO not fair, especially since Science Club, Art Club’s arch rivals, will be getting a table. Or, uh, they would have been getting a table, until the Art Club/Science Club shenanigans got Science Club booted, too. A competition to regain a table gets heated in ways that Peppi never expected, and along with learning about friendship, hard work, and support, she and the other members of Art Club will learn a lot about compromise.

Awkward is an adorable graphic novel that captures the weirdness that is middle school and places it in a not-so-likely-but-still-fun-to-read scenario. Svetlana Chmakova’s style is reminiscent of Raina Telgemeier, so if you enjoy her books (and I do!), this is definitely in your wheelhouse. Peppi is a typical middle schooler, making wrong decisions, feeling terrible about it, and then having no clue how to remedy the situation. She’s scared, she’s brave, she’s terrified, she’s outgoing, she’s all of us at that age, a million different people in one ever-changing body. The lessons she learns aren’t necessarily ones that most middle schoolers are often ready to take to heart in their own lives (it’s really, really not easy having to be the odd man out in order to stand up for a friend or a stranger, for example), but reading them in entertaining graphic novels like Awkward that aren’t at all preachy certainly helps foment better understanding of the consequences and outcomes.

The Art Club/Science Club rivalry was fun to read, although not all that realistic in terms of the club rivalry (at least in any school I’ve ever been to), but who says that needs to be a thing? Kids form all sorts of rivalries in school and take just about any chance to ‘other’ kids for any reason- cool kids verses the losers, jocks verses nerds, etc- maybe this rivalry will mean something to a reader who sees themselves on one side or the other.

(Very small content warning for a secondary character whose father calls said character’s mother a bitch in front of the child, without the mother present. There’s some marital fighting spoken about, I believe- I don’t have the book in front of me right now. I don’t *think* the fighting is depicted, but I very well may be misremembering- and the character and her mother end up leaving. I mention this not as a spoiler, but if you’re passing this book along to a younger child to read, you may want to read that section first- the name-calling is somewhere around halfway-ish through, and the fighting and leaving is towards the end- so that you’re prepared for any questions, or to bring it up and discuss with your child.)

Awkward is primarily written for middle schoolers, but this really works for all ages. Ms. Chmakova really captures that awkward middle school feeling, when you’re responsible for so much but in control of so little, and the future seems both blossoming with possibility and like something out a horror movie, all at the same time. Super fun book, and I’m glad I spent an evening curled up with it.

Visit Svetlana Chmakova’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Flocks- L. Nichols

I’m back with another pick from Book Riot’s 2019 Read Harder Challenge! For the comic by a LGBTQIA creator, I chose Flocks by L. Nichols, a transgender man, engineer, father, and artist. I’m trying to think back if I’ve ever read anything by an author that I knew was transgender, and I can’t think of anything (so I’m glad to have finally remedied that and will hopefully do better in the future). I’ve read multiple books featuring transgender characters, however; Julie Anne Peters’ Luna was the first and really opened my eyes to what being transgender is back in the mid-2000’s, and Kirstin Cronn-Mills continued my education in 2014 with Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. I’m happy to add a trans voice to my reading list.

Flocks is a memoir in graphic novel format about Mr. Nichols’s childhood growing up in a Christian family in Louisiana. By age eight or nine, he was fervently praying for God to change him, because his community had already taught him that he deserved to burn in hell forever, and I absolutely lost it by about the fifth page. This message is hammered home over and over throughout Mr. Nichols’s youth, and despite his fervent prayers, his constant attendance at church and acts of service toward others, he’s still the same person he was born, and because of this message, he never feels good enough.

It’s not just his sexuality; being intellectually gifted doesn’t help Mr. Nichols fit in, either. It’s not until he attends a gifted camp and then spends his final two years of high school at a school for kids talented in math and science that he begins to find his tribe and hears for the first time that he’s okay and that he matters. And although there’s still plenty of adjustments to make, his time at MIT is when things truly begin to fall into place and his identity as a man solidifies.

Above all, this is a message of hope, and a warning of all the harm that words and absolutes can cause. Mr. Nichols’s journey is a painful one, one that ultimately concludes in relief and happiness; not all transgender people are as fortunate. The murder rate for people who identify as transgender is horrific (2018 was the worst year on record); the suicide and attempted suicide rate is abysmal as well. Mr. Nichols was able to rise above the pain caused by those who demanded he change all through his childhood; he’s become far more than many people ever even attempt. What if we stopped demanding change and instead just appreciated people for who they are? What could everyone accomplish with all that extra energy not spent hurting? Think of all the ways humanity could benefit. I think it’s beyond time for this to happen.

Flocks is another book that’s easy to read, but not at all an easy read, and I hope it falls into the hands of the people who could stand to learn a little more about compassion and how their stances and ideals hurt the people behind the labels. I enjoy graphic novels, but I never seem to get around to reading them without being prompted by an outside source, so I’m glad Book Riot motivated me to read this.

Check out L. Nichols’s Tumblr here.

Follow him on Twitter here.