Dasha’s Year Without Her Mom: A Review

A Year Without Mom

Dasha Tolstikova

Groundwood Books, 2015

The Story: Dasha is twelve years old, and lives in Moscow with her mom and her grandparents. Dasha’s mother gets into graduate school in America, which results in Dasha being left behind in Russia with her grandparents for a year. The graphic novel follows the highs and lows of Dasha’s year without her mom, in which she largely takes care of herself and must learn to live with the constant sadness of being separated from her mother.

What Wallace and I Think: This is illustrator Tolstikova’s first book, and is a memoir of a year in Tolstikova’s childhood. The graphic novel does not follow a standard narrative structure, but instead reads somewhat like Dasha’s journal detailing the significant incidents that happened the year her mother was away. There is a child-like quality to the style of Tolstikova’s illustrations, which lends to the feel that it is twelve-year-old Dasha describing this year to the reader.

I found the character of Dasha extremely appealing. She is strong in her sadness, self-reliant, and creative. Apart from her mother leaving, there are several events which are emotionally taxing for Dasha: she develops her first crush on an older boy who is already dating an impossibly sophisticated and cool girl (she wears black nail polish AND smokes in the school hallways! How is Dasha supposed to compete with that?!); she is ignored by her two best friends due to their jealousy over Dasha being placed in an advanced math class; she decides to apply to a better school, and undertakes the application process (studying for the exams, taking the exams, developing her extracurricular resume) without any help from her grandparents (indeed she doesn’t even think to tell her grandparents what she is undertaking); and she must navigate a visit from her absentee father. Dasha traverses these landmines largely all on her own, not because there is no one to help her, but because she is so self-reliant she doesn’t think to ask for help (both her strength and weakness). She is a strong character, and though there are blacked out pages with the words “Dark Days,” and sometimes Dasha only has the energy and strength to hide in her bed, she is never defeated and shows her strength in being able to continue on in the midst of sadness.

Dasha’s family is equally as engaging, and presents strong female characters. I found it inspiring to have a mother character who follows her dreams. Though Dasha is sad to be separated from her mother for a year, she does not begrudge her mom’s attempt to pursue her passions. Likewise, her mother does all she can to stay present in Dasha’s life when away, and after her year away, decides she cannot be separated from her daughter any longer and takes Dasha back to American with her. Dasha’s grandmother is another interesting character: she’s a writer who takes Dasha to writers’ retreats; she has cool journalist, writer, artist and intellectual friends that live all over the world; and she encourages Dasha’s creativity by putting her in art classes. When Dasha finally opens up to her grandmother about her impossible first-love, her grandmother does not belittle her feelings (by saying something like, oh it’s just puppy love, you’ll get over it) but takes Dasha’s experience seriously and offers comfort.

Though this book is marketed as young adult, I think the graphic novel would be enjoyed by readers in elementary school as well. The graphic novel is beautiful and offers a narrative style and story that is refreshing so that, like so many good children’s and YA books, I believe it could be read and enjoyed by a vast age range.

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Review: SuperMutant Magic Academy

SuperMutant Magic Academy (2015)

Jillian Tamaki

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Warning: This graphic novel includes sexual content, has references to drug and alcohol use, and is geared towards high school students. So, if you’re not yet a high school student, please ask your guardians’ permission before reading.

The Book: SuperMutant Magic Academy is a collected anthology of some of the most popular comics from Jillian Tamaki’s comic blog of the same name (checked out mutantmagic.com here) Due to its being a collection of short, stand-alone comics, there is not a traditional narrative plot (until the last fifty or so pages), though the more you read the more you learn about the individual students.  The story is set at a boarding school, but less attention is paid to the magical mutant classes than to the students navigating their external (zits!) and inner (what does it mean to be alive!) crises. So do not expect a Harry Potter-esc book. If anything, this is a fantastic distortion of Harry Potter created expectations.

What Wallace and I Think: First, a little information on Jillian Tamaki. Not only is she Canadian, and grew up in the same city as me, but she was once the center of a debate that helped to change how we look at comic artists. The graphic novel Skim (2008) was written by Jillian’s cousin, Mariko Tamaki, and illustrated by Jillian (another school story, and it is an amazing book  you should check it out, especially if you find you like Magic Academy). Skim was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, but only Mariko Tamaki was listed in the nomination. The comic community was outraged (and rightly so). A graphic novel’s images are just as important, if not more so, as the text, and leaving Jillian out of the nomination was ignoring her important and imperative contribution to what made the graphic novel so wonderful. An open letter was circulated and sent to the Award committee, and was successful in including Jillian as a nominee.

Back to Magic Academy! This collection is weird, wacky and wonderful. The humour is dark and touches on subjects such as the students’ existential, romantic, and technological crises. Some of the jokes fall flat, but due to the short narratives of the individual comics, if one comic isn’t your taste you can quickly move along. I also wonder if some of the humour is aimed more at adults reminiscing about their teenage years, than at actual teenagers. Though, the majority of strips can be easily relatable to young and old, such as one of my favorites. During an assembly two main character have this conversation:

Marsha: When I was a little kid, I thought I’d be free when I could go to school. Then I thought I’d be free when I learned how to fly a broom. THEN I thought I’d be free when they stopped forcing us to take gym class. But then you just get use to it. And you find something else to chafe against. I guess you’re always gonna be unsatisfied with something. That is so depressing.

Wendy: Well we do graduate next semester.

Marsha: WHAT? WE GRADUATE?

Wendy: Haha! What? Did you forget?

Marsha: I guess I just figured we’d be stuck in here forever . . . (153)

The feeling of being trapped in an never ending school cycle seems easily relatable to both an adult looking back on their school experience, as well as a teen still stuck in that cycle.

However, there are others, such as when a group of girls start freaking out because Wendy has a grey hair (“OH MY GOD, pull it out!”), and their completely white-haired teacher tells them “Okay girls, that’s enough. Back to work” (100). This appears more aimed to the adult obeserving their younger selves through teenagers/children in relation to their current older status. There is also a lot of jokes surronding teachers, and students asking them if teaching is really what they wanted to do with their lives, that would hit home more with an older reader than I expect it would with a teen who has yet to really feel the pain of upset expectations.

Tamaki gives us a plethora of interesting characters who struggle through high school, and with the thought of leaving it. My favorite may be Everlasting Boy. Most of the strips centering on him show him dying and returning to the earth. He often seems sad and lonely. We discover he has been around since the beginning of time, has lived as other organisms, and has not just called earth home. Yet, he is humble about his vast experience, for example: “Everlasting Boy, do you thinking this is the best time to be alive?” “You mean, throughout the course of history?” “Yeah.” “Depends on who you ask, really.” (165).

Though I enjoyed the anthology, I found the characters so engaging I longed for more of a cohesive plot-centered narrative that would develop these interesting characters more fully. I know this is asking too much of an anthology of collected comic strips, but I found I loved the last section of the book because it offered more of a traditional narrative.

I recommend this book to high school students, as well as adults with a good sense of humour 🙂 (especially teachers) and give it a 4/5

Review of American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang

Published in 2006 by First Second

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The Story: The graphic novel American Born Chinese tells three seemingly unconnected tales:

  1. Jin Wang’s family moves from San Francisco’s Chinatown to a new neighbourhood, and Jin finds he’s one of the only Chinese-American students at his school. He and his other Chinese friends are picked on constantly, and to make things even worse, Jin falls in love with a stereotypical All-American, blonde haired, blued eye girl in his class.
  2. The Monkey King was born from a rock, and soon after establishes his monkey kingdom. He’s mastered the Arts of Kung-Fu, the Four Major Disciplines of Invulnerability, and has achieved the Four Major Disciplines of Bodily Form. However, even with power and adoring subjects, the gods, goddesses, demons and spirits of heaven only see the Monkey King as . . . a Monkey. The Monkey King yearns for the respect he deserves.
  3. Chin-Kee is the accumulation of every negative Chinese stereotype. Once a year he visits his cousin Danny in America and RUINS HIS LIFE. After every visit Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the ridicule his cousin brings. This year’s visit is worse than ever.

What Wallace and I Think: A review on the back cover of my edition compares American Born Chinese with Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (a wonderful comparison in my opinion) in that they both explore “the impact of the American Dream on those outside the dominant culture” (School Library Journal). This is a story as old as the American Dream itself, but with the current success of ABC’s sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, nearly ten years after it was first published American Born Chinese’s continues to be significant. Yang’s graphic novel tackles stereotypes, as well as the effects these stereotypes have on first-generation Chinese-American children. At its core, the graphic novel is a coming of age story for Jin who must learn to integrate himself in American culture while also maintaining his Chinese roots. Because of the constant teasing and racist assumptions Jin’s peers make, Jin thinks the only way to be accepted into American society is to erase his “Chineseness”. But, as a wise woman tells a young Jin (after learning he wants to be a Transformer when he grows up), “It’s easy to become anything you wish . . . so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul” (29). What Jin must determine is whether forfeiting his soul to become what he thinks he wants is worth the price.

The Monkey King’s story is a delight and a gateway to further exploration of Chinese fables. The Monkey King is tied into Jin’s story-line in a surprising way, and also introducing readers to a traditional Chinese story. The Monkey King is a main character is the Chinese Classical novel Journey to the West, and is also found in later stories and adaptations. The Monkey King’s section loosely follows the story line of Journey to the West. Like the classical novel, Yang’s Monkey King is imprisoned under a mountain after rebelling against heaven, and is only released from the mountain when he agrees to accompany a Monk, Xuanzang (who also appears in the graphic novel), on a journey. Yang updates the fable, for the Monkey King’s mission intersects with the story lines of Jin and Chin-Kee. Comparing the Monkey King’s protrayal in American Born Chinese to his classical protrayals could make for interesting discussions.

The Monkey King shows those heavenly snobs who's boss!

The Monkey King shows those heavenly snobs who’s boss!

Chin-Kee’s story line should make you feel uncomfortable. Blatantly a racist depiction of Chinese stereotypes, Chin-Kee forces American-Chinese characters to confront fears of how they’re being perceived. Chin-Kee is the conscience of the graphic novel and acts as a “signpost” to Jin’s “Soul” (221). He also acts as the signpost and conscience of readers who may be to blame for acting similar to Jin and Danny’s bullies in the graphic novels; to those who are to blame for naming the stereotypes and bringing them into being. Mary Roche argues a main benefit of reading literature is that it opens us up to the lived experience of others, deepening our sympathies and understanding beyond our own lived experience. Given the chance, this is what American Born Chinese can accomplish, especially through the depiction of Chin-Kee and how he links up to the two other story lines. And to those that already identify with Jin’s experience, the graphic novel functions as a friend, who will warmly put his arm around your shoulder and say “you are not alone. You matter.”

This is a young adult graphic novel, and I would recommend it to grade seven readers at the youngest.

I give this novel a 5/5

Flora & Ulysses!

Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo and illustrated by K. G. Campbell

Published by Candlewick Press in 2013

I’m lucky to be studying children’s literature. When I’m asked what my favorite books are it’s impossible to narrow a list down because I LOVE so much of what I read. Usually I just name the most recent things I’ve read, because I’m weekly finding a new favorite.

However, if some cruel person forced me to actually put together a list, Flora and Ulysses would be on it. No question. It’s been nearly a year since I first read it, and after returning to it again this week, I was renewed with affection for it.

It was the winner of the 2014 Newbery Award, generally received raving reviews, and spent weeks on many bestsellers lists. So I’m not the only one who loves it. The narrative is told through both text and comics, which I argue makes for a broad potential reading audience.

Flora is “a natural born cynic” who loves to read comic books, especially The Illuminated Adventures of the Amazing Incandesto! and TERRIBLE THINGS CAN HAPPEN TO YOU!

Ulysses is a squirrel. He starts out as an ordinary squirrel who mostly thinks and cares about food. But one fateful day the squirrel is sucked up by Mrs. Tickham’s Ulysses 2000x powered vacuum. Due to quick thinking on the part of Flora, who gives the seemingly dead squirrel mouth to mouth, the squirrel is reborn as Ulysses who can do things he’d never been able to do before. Like think about more than food. Like fly. Like . . . other things I won’t spoil.

Could Flora have possibly found a REAL LIFE SUPERHERO?

Ulysses is the most enchanting animal character I have read in years. I always appreciate a good animal character, as I am an animal lover (if you haven’t already noticed through my irrational love of my dog Wallace). Animal characters often pull the strongest on my heart strings, and I (confession) am often more attached to the animal than human characters.

Toto from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of my favorite animal characters. In gray Kansas, Toto is what brings Dorothy joy. Toto is also the driving force for most of the plot. Dorothy is transported to Oz because she runs into her house, instead of the storm shelter, to get Toto. Dorothy misses the air balloon ride back to Kansas with the Wizard because Toto jumps out and Dorothy jumps out after him. So basically, Toto is the most important character. My favorite quote from the whole book is: “Toto did not really care whether he was in Kansas or the Land of Oz so long as Dorothy was with him.” Wallace is 100% my Toto.

Another favorite is Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. I have read this book over and over, and watched the film version over and over. Each time I cry my eyes out over my love of Wilbur, and decide to give up bacon (which usually only lasts a few weeks). My favorite quote about Wilbur’s love for Fern is: “he planned to stand perfectly still and think of what it was like to be alive, and to wait for Fern.” Wallace is totally my Wilbur.

Why is Ulysses as loveable as Toto and Wilbur? Because he ADORES Flora. Like Toto, Ulysses doesn’t really care about the plans Flora makes, just that Flora is happy and that he gets to be with her. And like Wilbur, when Ulysses is separated from Flora, all he can think about is getting back to her. Again, I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises that make reading this book so fun, but the friendship between Flora and Ulysses is what makes this book so incredibly lovely.

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The narrative is also filled with hilariously odd characters that electrify the book. For example:

  • Eleven year old William Spiver is doing such a good job of pretending to be blind he actually believes he is, and says things like “Flora Belle? What a lovely, melodious name” and “Surely you jest!”
  • There’s old Dr. Meescham who listens to opera, misses her lately passed husband the other Dr. Meescham, talks about life as a girl in Blundermeecen.
  • Flora’s mother, and villain to the story for she cannot understand why Flora keeps sneaking a squirrel into the house, writes romance novels, irrationally loves her shepherdess lamp, and is struggling to navigate recently being divorced.

The whole cast of characters (including those I don’t mention) are vibrant, allowing DiCamillo to create a complex and exciting world.

The back cover suggests reading ages for Flora and Ulysses of 11 to 13 years old. I think this books can appeal to readers both under 11 and over 13. Being part comic, the images allows the book to be accessible to younger readers. The writing is straight forward enough that early elementary aged children could read it on their own, or it could read with parents. I imagine this would be a fun book for parents to read to their children (I would have LOVED for my mom to have read this to me. She would have done an awesome job with the voices).

The book ends with the possibility of there being more adventures of Flora and Ulysses. After reading (click here if I’ve inspired you), I’m sure you, like me will be wishing on every shooting star that this happens sooner rather than later.