I don’t often fully review graphic novels; I tend to wait until I get a few of them under my belt and do a multiple-book review post, but this one definitely needs its own review. For the 2023 PopSugar Reading Challenge, I needed to read a book about an athlete or sport, and since I’d read all the hockey romances on my TBR, I went searching for a selection and came across Check Please by Ngozi Ukazu (First Second, 2018), a graphic novel about a college hockey team. I’d seen this around and have heard good things about it, so onto the list it went, and I grabbed it during my last library trip.
Eric Bittle, known affectionately as Bitty, is a former figure skater-turned-hockey player. He’s small, gay, loves baking, and is terrified of being checked (the term for taking hits in a hockey game). He fits right in with the rest of his ragtag teammates, but there’s something special about the captain, Jack, son of a professional hockey player.
As the seasons and years progress, Bitty grows as a player, a baker, and a friend. The team grows together, becoming closer and racking up wins (and some losses). All leading up to the dramatic conclusion of the book – a cliffhanger that will have even those of us who aren’t normally into series itching to pick up the next book!
Okay, I really liked this. Each character has their own well-formed, distinct personality that shines so clearly on every page. Most characters are known by their hockey nicknames (if you’re a hockey fan, you’re aware of this phenomenon), and that just adds to the fun. The characters are all in their late teens and early 20’s and they’re all fun, accepting, and supportive of each other, putting this book in not-quite-comfort-read territory, but almost. Bitty is sweet, fun, and unashamed of who he is, baking up a storm, constantly Tweeting, and vlogging his way through life. He’s absolutely charming, and I loved his enthusiasm. I read the copy of this book that includes Bitty’s freshman and sophomore years; my library also has his junior and senior years in another book, so I’ll be grabbing that in some future trip, because I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!!!
To no one’s surprise (EYEROLL), knuckle-dragging morons have tried to ban this book because it contains gay characters and people who swear. Those people can fuck off into the sun, because Check Please is an incredibly fun and inclusive graphic novel, and I’m entirely invested in this story, its characters, and the world Ngozi Ukazu has created.
More graphic novels! I swear, this year, I’ve read more graphic novels than I ever have before. For one, there are just more out there; they’re getting more and more popular, which I love. For two, I’m wandering over by the graphic novel section more, at least the middle grade section, thanks to my daughter. I love how quick they are to read, but how fully they tell a story. I’ll never stop being in awe of all the work that goes into creating them! (Seriously, one drawing takes me hours upon hours to do. I would die if I tried to create a graphic novel.)
First up is Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations by Mira Jacob (One World, 2019). Ms. Jacobs is Indian (born here to immigrant parents); her husband is Jewish; their son, Z, is mixed-race and is full of a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world during the time period where this book takes place, which is the rise and election of Donald Trump. He’s struggling to understand why people are so fearful of and angry at people who look like him and his mother, and how his beloved grandparents can support a man who says such awful things but still profess to love Z. The book also delves into Ms. Jacobs’ experiences with racism throughout her life.
This is a really wonderful graphic novel; the art blends drawings, cut-outs, and photographs, and they all blend together in a way that looks really fresh and fits the story well. Her son is introspective and hilarious in the random way that small children are, interjecting their weird little kid thoughts about superheroes and other non-sequiturs into the middle of important conversations. The book provides an excellent perspective that shouldn’t be missed, especially if you’re white. It’s so important to understand what our privilege looks like for those who don’t have it, and what it looks like to exist in this society without it and how those parents explain it to their kids. If you’re unable to get that from friends in real life (whether that’s because you lack a diverse friend group or you don’t know where to start asking those friends), this book is a thoughtful explanation of it all. I’d love to read more graphic novels from Ms. Jacobs and know how things are going with her in-laws these days…
Button Pusher by Tyler Page (First Second, 2022) is a graphic novel I picked up off the new shelves in the children’s section of the library. The title called out to me immediately, and I barely had to glance at the back to know that I needed to read this. Button Pusher is a graphic memoir, describing Mr. Page’s experiences growing up with ADHD, a subject that has turned really important to me with my own daughter’s diagnosis (which, believe me, explained SO MUCH). He details his impulsivity, his inability to focus in class, his hyperfocus on areas that interested him, and the behavioral problems that ensued. He also goes into detail about the problems in his family: his father’s anger problems, his parents’ turbulent marriage.
It really helps me to read accounts of ADHD like this so I can get a little bit of an understanding about what it’s like being in my daughter’s head. It doesn’t explain all her behavior – we’re still working on dealing with her anger and her tendency to lash out at me – but it helps to hear, again and again, that so much of this behavior isn’t controllable, at least not at first, and not at this age. That her brain works a little differently, and that she will eventually learn how to work with her unique brain, instead of it working against her. There are some heavy parts of this; Tyler’s dad gets physically abusive multiple times throughout the book, so I’d recommend this one for the mature middle grade reader, and all parents who are looking to gain an understanding of what growing up with ADHD looks and feels like.
And then we have Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy by Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler (Princeton University Press, 2017). This was a cool little graphic nonfiction book about, obviously, some of the European philosophers who got modern Western philosophy off the ground. SO much of it was over my head – I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to really get into philosophy – but I enjoyed the quick journey into the past, the history, and trying to bend my mind around the deep thoughts of the historical figures portrayed in the book (I especially enjoyed the section on Baruch Spinoza, whom I’ve read about in several other books).
And finally, Flamer by Mike Curato (Henry Holt and Co, 2020), which tells the story of Aiden, a teenager at Boy Scout camp, worrying about starting high school in the fall, his parents (who fight all the time), and who he is. A lot of the other boys have sensed there’s something different about him; Aiden’s been the victim of bullying for years in school, but he’s trying to figure it all out. Is he gay? What does that mean for his life, his Catholic faith? Who is he, really?
I checked this out because it made a few lists of idiot people trying to get it banned from libraries, and…yeah, it’s just bigoted idiots. There’s absolutely nothing controversial here, just a teenage boy trying to figure out who he is. It’s a really well-done graphic novel, with great art and a sympathetic hero whose journey I think most kids will be able to identify with (the message, if not the exact content, and that’s likely the issue. The people who want books with gay characters banned don’t want us to be able to emphasize with them. All the more reason to pick these books up!).
And that’s it for now! Have you read any great graphic novels lately?
My daughter has gotten super into graphic novels, which I love. My library has a so-so collection of these, but there’s a library in the next town over that has an absolutely fabulous collection of graphic novels for the middle grade set, so I was browsing through there one day, trying to find her new books to fall in love with, when I came across When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (Dial Books, 2020). A quick glance at the premise had me immediately tossing it into my bag…for me. (My daughter got like four other books that trip, so it’s all good!)
Omar Mohamed and his brother Hassan are growing up in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya, because their native Somalia hasn’t been safe for years. Their father was killed there; they became separated from their mother when they were fleeing and haven’t seen her since. Hassan is nonverbal; Omar spends his days taking care of him. A fellow refugee serves as a foster mother, but really, the boys are on their own, dreaming of a better life in America, Europe, or Canada.
When Omar finally gets the chance to go to school, he hesitates; what about Hassan? When his friends and foster mother encourage him, he nervously takes his first step towards a better life and finds out he’s actually an amazing student. But school is not without its challenges, and for his female friends, the odds are stacked even higher. And even when prayers are answered, those answers may not always be what Omar anticipated, nor are they easy. Life as a refugee is a struggle everywhere, but there are some refugees who manage to use that struggle to better life for everyone, and Omar Mohamed does just that.
What a beautiful, remarkable, soul-tugging book. This would be an excellent introduction to life in a refugee camp for the younger crowd. It’s a thick book, but as it’s a graphic novel, it’s easy to read and the pages fly by quickly. Omar’s story is tragic, though it does have a happy – or at least a happier ending than most. The hunger he and his brother experience, due to their meager rations, is constant; the images of the two of them sleeping alone in a tent their entire childhoods is one that will likely make an impression on even the most internet-jaded of middle grade readers, as will the images of Omar’s pregnant schoolmate who has been forced to leave her education behind and get married while still a child herself.
This book doesn’t sugarcoat the refugee experience, but it’s not a super-harsh book. It cuts off when Omar and Hassan are able to leave Kenya behind to be resettled in the US (though it does give an update on what their lives were like after they came here); I’d love to see a follow-up of a more fleshed-out version of their stories, because I’m always interested to know what life is like for the immigrants and refugees who come here, and what I can do to make life easier for them. Omar has started an organization called Refugee Strong, which aids refugees in places like Dadaab, providing them with support and educational materials, which is something I find remarkable. It would’ve been entirely understandable if he couldn’t face the trauma he’d been through there and just focused on building a life in the US for himself and his brother; instead, he turned back and works to make a better life for all the people still there. Amazing.
If you’re looking for a beautifully illustrated graphic novel that tells a remarkable story of resilience, When Stars Are Scattered is a great choice.
I love graphic novels and memoirs, and I’ve been having fun enjoying the ones that have come up on my TBR lately. They’re a quick read, but the art makes the story really come alive. I find it difficult to review them, though; I’m not much on the technical parts of art, so I can’t really discuss those, and it feels like a huge omission to leave that out. But I was able to grab a few graphic novels from the library lately, and I figured I’d give them a quick mention here.
First up is the creepy true story, Did You Hear What Eddie Gein Done? by Harold Schechter and Eric Powell (Albatross Funnybooks, 2021). Most of us are familiar with the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho; the character Norman Bates and his crimes were based on Ed Gein, a native of Plainfield, Wisconsin. His crimes changed the face of American horror forever; in the years before Gein’s crimes were discovered, scary movies in the US usually centered around creatures from other planets. Gein’s house of horrors launched the birth of slasher films, an era that’s still ongoing.
Schechter and Powell tell the story of Ed Gein’s life: his abusive, controlling, overpowering, hyper-religious mother, who worked hard to create him exactly how she wanted him; his inability to become a fully independent adult; the town’s basic acceptance of the man they considered a little odd; the shocking discovery of what he’d been doing in that house all those years after his mother had died. Even if you think you know the full story, odds are there’s something in here you didn’t, and the two authors base their telling almost entirely on primary sources. This is creepy, but fascinating!
Next up, It’s All Absolutely Fine by Ruby Elliot (Orion, 2016). A funny book about depression? A funny illustrated book about depression? Whaaaaaaaaaaaat??? It exists, and it’s so worth the read.
Ruby Elliot has struggled for years with depression, the kind that makes it hard to even get up off the crumb-filled couch you have your face mashed into. The kind where your brain is constantly telling you what a worthless toad you are, so why bother. And in this graphic memoir, she illustrates exactly what her depression looks and feels like. And somehow, she manages to not only do it, but do it with a sense of humor.
I laughed out loud so many times, both from genuinely finding Ms. Elliot’s writing and illustrations funny, and because she just gets it so well. I’ve dealt with depression and anxiety my whole life, and I was able to relate to so much of this book. It was a truly enjoyable read and a gentle, yet strong treatment of what’s normally a tough subject.
And then there’s Trashed by Derf Backderf (Harry N. Abrams, 2015). I really enjoyed Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer, and this was no different. While this graphic novel is indeed fiction, it’s based on his experiences as a garbageman. The story follows a young man who’s been hired on with his city’s sanitation department and gets into all aspects of the job (how disgusting it is, what complete jerks the ‘customers’ are, the pranks and hijinks between the workers). Interspersed with the story are facts and information about trash, trash collection, and the massive problem that is trash, both in the US and around the world. Totally enjoyable read that will make you think about not only what you dispose of, but HOW you dispose of it.
And that’s it! What are some great graphic novels that you’ve read recently???
At some point, I learned about the existence of White Bird by R.J. Palacio (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2019) and looked for it at the library, but it never seemed to be in, and since I never formally added the book to my TBR, I kind of forgot about it. But my daughter has discovered a love for graphic novels, and on our last trip to the library, I finally found that elusive copy of White Bird. Into my bag it went.
It’s been quite a few years since I read Ms. Palacio’s Wonder, so I didn’t quite remember Julian, Auggie’s bully, but he’s back in White Bird, interviewing his grandmother Sara, who survived the Holocaust thanks to the kindness of a local family. (The story stands alone, so reading Wonder beforehand isn’t necessary.) Julien is the boy who sits next to Sara at school. He’s survived polio and uses crutches, making him a target of many of the other students, but Sara’s never really spoken to him. The day that the Nazis come to take away the Jewish students, Julien helps Sara to hide, then takes her to his home, where her parents stash her in the barn.
As the war rages on, the two children grow, mature, and establish a firm friendship, and Sara comes to understand her prior selfishness and immaturity. But there are few Holocaust stories without loss, and through Sara’s story of survival, her grandson Julian learns what true friendship is, and how we can’t change the past, but we can move on as better people.
A beautifully drawn graphic novel, White Bird would make for a gentle introduction to an emotionally charged subject. The Holocaust and all its devastation and atrocities isn’t easy to introduce to children, but it’s a vital part of history that needs to be taught. Parents, you wouldn’t be remiss in checking this out of the library and just leaving it around the house. Odds are your kids will spot it and dive in. There’s nothing graphic or too overtly scary, but there are mentions of death; I’d put this as okay for mature fourth grade and up. Be prepared to have some discussions with your kids about the book afterwards; they’ll likely have a lot of big feelings when they turn the last page.
This is a fast read, but the story, though fiction, will stay with you. The drawings are simple, allowing Sara and Julien’s story to take center stage, and placing the reader in its various settings: running from the Nazis at school, hiding in a bale of hay in a barn, struggling to keep terror and an overwhelming sense of loss at bay. I’m glad I finally came across a copy on my library’s shelves, and I’m glad that it’s such a popular choice that I did struggle to find it. White Bird shouldn’t be missed. Especially not now that it’s being released in movie format on October 14, 2022.
I needed a graphic novel for my parenting group’s reading challenge. My TBR list had a graphic novel on it. Coincidence? Nah. I like graphic novels; I just kind of tend to forget about them until I hear about one that sounds really awesome. Mostly because they’re tucked away in a corner of the library where I rarely have any reason to go. I do hope that when our new library is built next year (or, let’s be fair, combine Covid and the regular hassles of construction and I’m sure we’re looking at longer than that, but that’s okay with me, IT’S COMING!!!!), they’ll have a more accessible, more prominent place to display the graphic novels. Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada (Iron Circus Comics, 2020) came to my list from either a book list or another blogger, and it was definitely worth the wait- there were quite a few people on the waiting list before me at my library!
It’s 1983, and all new South Korean college student Hyun Sook wants to do is bury herself in her studies. But almost immediately she gets pulled into an underground world at school, one full of fellow students who have been arrested, books and writings that the government has banned, and newfound information on things she never expected to be true about her own country. Her extracurricular activities extend to participating in the protests her mother warned her about, and Hyun Sook learns she’s smarter and stronger than she thought. Braver, too, as she finds the government has her and her friends in their sites.
This is a true story of what Hyun Sook experienced as a college freshman in Korea during those years. Truth be told, my ideas of South Korea have mostly been shaped by survivors who fled North Korea’s murderous regimes (to them, it was a glorious bastion of utopian freedom, and any criticism was left out of the commentary); it’s not a country I know much about on its own, so this was a surprise to read. I had no idea that South Korea had this kind of recent history of censorship, of heavy-handedness, hiding the truth and imprisoning its people for political reasons. Hyun Sook’s awakening to the reality of what’s happening around her kicks off a story centered on growth, change, bravery, friendship, and the courage to take a stand for what’s right.
The drawings are more of a manga style than I’m used to seeing in graphic novels, so if you’re a manga fan, this should definitely be on your list. I usually prefer the more cartoony-style of drawings, but it’s always nice to switch things up, right? Reading this did make me want to browse the shelf where the graphic novels are kept at our library, but I’m not doing a lot of shelf wandering these days, so that’ll have to wait.
Anyway. Banned Book Club is a really fascinating introduction to some modern South Korean history that I knew nothing about, and about which I realize I should know more. We’ve been lucky so far in the US; nothing has *really* been banned…yet…but like Hyun Sook and her friends, we’ll have to fight to keep it that way.
I stumbled upon The Drawing Lesson: A Graphic Novel That Teaches You How to Draw by Mark Crilley (Watson-Guptill, 2016) a few weeks ago while looking for books on how to draw. My daughter is fully remote at school and everyone does art remotely, and at the beginning of the year, she expressed anxiety over having to do art by herself. So, not having done art since I was a kid, I decided to jump in there with her and bought myself a sketch book and some colored pencils. It’s been…interesting. I enjoy the process, though I definitely need more practice, but I’ve been looking for some help, and I definitely found it in this sweet little graphic novel.
David is a young kid who wants nothing more than to draw better than his school nemesis when he stumbles upon illustrator Becky drawing in the park. He pesters her enough to give him a drawing lesson, and with that, she becomes his somewhat reluctant mentor, giving advice on perspective, shading, background, and more. As David’s art skills develop, so does Becky’s affection for him, and by the end of the book, they’ve both grown and benefitted from these art lessons.
What a sweet, sweet little book. I read it all in one setting but absorbed a lot of the advice Mark Crilley gave in the pages. David is an eager, somewhat pestery little character, and Becky’s mild (most of the time!) irritation is well-deserved, but they work together well and David is receptive to Becky’s criticism, providing an excellent example for younger (and heck, even older) readers. Aspiring artists would do well to follow this book for some awesome do-it-at-home art lessons. I wish I had time to do exactly that, but even just reading it, I feel as though I’ve learned a lot. (Some of the instruction echoes what I’ve heard from my daughter’s art teacher, which is neat!) We’ll see if my art improves this week! If you’re learning to draw, or would like to draw better, you shouldn’t miss this one.
Apparently Mark Crilley has a YouTube channel as well; I definitely need to find time to check out his drawing lessons there!
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.
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.
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.