MMGM and #IMWAYR (1/4/2021): Almost American Girl by Robin Ha
Welcome to 2021! I've been trying to write something profound or at least funny to say before we begin, but I have nothing. Except that, since 2020 is in the past, I guess you could say that hindsight is 2020. Ha, ha...groan. I do want to mention that my plans to organize my bookcases hit a snag when the perfect bookcase I ordered showed up damaged in several places because the box had basically no padding. I got a refund, but I'm waiting now for different bookcases to show up. Sigh.
OK, on with the review! For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending the graphic memoir Almost American Girl by Robin Ha.
FYI, there is cursing in this book, which doesn't concern me at all, but I'm still telling you regardless.
magically algorithmically showed up in my Amazon suggestions a few months ago, so I bought it, and I loved it (though I'm not the first one—check out #IMWAYR blogger Cheriee Weichel's recommendation of it as well on Library Matters)! Almost American Girl is the memoir of author/illustrator Robin Ha. As a child in Seoul, South Korea, Robin has a pretty good life: she has many good friends who share her love of reading Korean and Japanese comics, and although her single mother draws some glares in South Korea's conservative society at the time, she and Robin have a close bond that is hard to break. But it gets tested when Robin's mother decides to upend her and Robin's lives by moving them from South Korea...to Alabama. Robin's mother gets remarried, and Robin finds herself with a new family she struggles to bond with, a predominantly-White school where she is an outcast (especially considering she barely speaks English), and a mother who she can barely look at. But with the help of a few kids, a comic-drawing class, and further family upheaval (it's good this time, I promise), Robin starts to find both herself and her place in America.
My brain is functioning as if someone ran it through a blender and poured the liquid back into my skull, so I'm having trouble composing any thoughts about this book, which is a shame, because it is wonderful!!! One of the striking things about Almost American Girl is how nuanced its depiction of culture is. We've all seen the book where the one non-White kid is an outcast in the sea of White kids and desperately wants to fit in. What we probably haven't seen is the book where the one non-White kid is an outcast in the sea of White kids but ends up not bothering with them and finds their place elsewhere. Almost American Girl is that latter type of book. Try as she might (and just walking in those school doors every morning must have required so much effort that I have no idea how Robin managed it), Robin cannot find her place in Alabama. Family's no good—Robin's mother's new marriage falls apart as quickly as it starts, and her stepfamily is not exactly welcoming. School's awful, too—it's really hard to make friends when you are the first non-White person most of your classmates have ever witnessed, and it's not like Robin is going to magically turn an entire school into some multicultural antiracist haven—this is reality, not some ridiculous fairy tale. So Robin doesn't bother with that. Almost American Girl dares to have Robin find her place somewhere else—a place where she isn't the first immigrant known to man, a place where ESL classes exist, a place that reflects the true diversity of this melting pot of a nation. And in this place, where Robin isn't having to bear the load of introducing the entire concept of race to an entire school, she starts to realize that America might actually be better than South Korea in some ways. In South Korea, at the time of the story, single mothers were judged even more deeply than they are here, women were expected to submit to men in so many ways that it is positively ridiculous, and getting a job meant also getting a nose job so that employers could see on your headshots that you weren't ugly. America is a hard place to get used to, and it has its own bucketful of flaws, but Robin finds over the course of the story that she might have left South Korea right before her own life would have gotten hard there too. I found all of this detail to be incredibly nuanced, especially for an MG book, which is just one of many things that makes Almost American Girl so good!
What else makes Almost American Girl so good? Well, Robin is a truly delightful protagonist. She's obviously a real person, so everything about her is incredibly true-to-life, and readers really see how she is not the outcast who cannot speak that America makes her out to be, but a smart and kindhearted kid with a passion/talent for drawing and an unbreakable will to make the best of a
bad nightmarishly awful situation. Also, Almost American Girl's depiction of Robin's relationship with her mother is incredibly nuanced as well; Robin's mother is far from perfect, but her drive to help her daughter succeed both in South Korea and in America is truly incredible, and the story has a series of anecdotes (and one entire chapter) that really explore the lengths Robin's mother would go to for her daughter. I would say it's incredibly nuanced, but I just used that exact phrase to describe this exact attribute, so I'll say instead that it is truly multifaceted and just beautiful! There aren't really any other important characters in Almost American Girl, so we really get to explore Robin and her mother and get to know them, which is just fantastic!
Almost American Girl is labeled an "illustrated memoir" on its cover, but I would call it a graphic memoir—really, though, neither term is accurate. Essentially, this book has comic panels on every page, just like any graphic novel would, but it also has a ton of narration. Like, almost as much as in Relish by Lucy Knisley (which borders on just being a book with a lot of illustrations). Almost American Girl reads quite a bit like a written novel, which would make it a great graphic novel to start with if you've never really gotten into the genre before. For graphic novel fans like me, the amount of text was a bit shocking (and a bit pedantic at times), but I quickly settled into the rhythm, and I appreciated how the words added the nuance and depth that drawings would likely have struggled to convey in the book. Still, though, Almost American Girl has wonderful art! The style is detailed and in full color, and it really helps to put you in Robin's shoes and feel exactly what she is feeling. (Also, I love the chapter divider pages, which feature watercolor illustrations posing as Polaroids on top of real comics Robin Ha drew as a kid—which are stunningly beautiful!) Almost American Girl has a different word-illustration balance than most graphic novels, but that is in no way a bad thing, and for readers of traditional books, it's a great thing!
Speed round! I'm just going to throw out random details, because my aforementioned brain smoothie seems to be evaporating right out of my head. Almost American Girl does a great job showing readers exactly what parts of South Korea Robin misses so much—anecdotes of Robin's mother's salon or of Robin and her friends reading comics help to set the scene very well. In America, you probably know that many Asian people are expected to pick names that sound more American, which is obviously super-racist, so I was delighted to find that even that viewpoint misses the full story: Robin was actually thrilled to get rid of her Korean name, Chuna, which she compares to American names like Bertha or Myrtle in its old-fashionedness. Almost American Girl discreetly throws in quite a bit of exploration about Robin's mother's failing relationships with her first husband and with her new husband (with him, it doesn't help that her in-laws want her to drop everything and pour more time and effort into his failing business venture). Despite this story sounding incredibly depressing, it moves so fast and with so many details and anecdotes that you don't have too much time to dwell on the sorrow, which makes it a much more manageable read. One more detail: I barely talked about the comic-drawing class, but it definitely helps Robin find kids who are actually like her and share her interests—go extracurriculars!
This review is really not the one Almost American Girl deserves. I finished this book several days before I got around to writing this review, so my thoughts are dreadfully incoherent. I hope I am still conveying to you how impressed I was by Almost American Girl, though! This book is a thoughtful, introspective, and nuanced look at how a girl and the mother she relies on leave a nation that seems to reject them at every turn and find their place in a new nation that also seems to reject them at every turn. This book takes the best powers of words and drawings to create a story with countless details and features that I don't want to give away. Thus, I hope you'll pick up a copy of Almost American Girl and see for yourself how, no matter how many books you read about middle-graders, or immigrants, or comic artists, you always have more to learn, especially from a book this insightful!
(Update: I just saw that Almost American Girl is a finalist in the Cybils' YA Graphic Novel category! So really, get a copy of this book!)
My rating is: Really good!
Update (2/6/2021): My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 4!