#IMWAYR (2/22/2021): Mooncakes by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker
On today's episode of "They Thought It Couldn't Get Any Worse...And Then It Got So Much Worse," Texas has basically been in an apocalypse since Monday, with a winter storm spiraling out of control into complete losses of electricity and even running water. I was looking at these horrifying pictures on BuzzFeed, and people's homes have literally fallen into the 40s INSIDE. Good thing I totally lost faith in 2021 being a better year, because it's not. At least Ted Cruz is having a blast in Cancún.
I do want to mention a few good things in the world. First of all, I need to make everyone fully aware that Julie Murphy has THREE books coming out this year: Pumpkin on May 25, If the Shoe Fits on August 3, and Faith: Greater Heights on November 2. So that's awesome! Also, the North Texas Teen Book Festival is holding a completely online and free book festival this year on March 5/6, and the list of panels is truly star-studded with MG and YA authors: Katherine Applegate, Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds, Elizabeth Acevedo, Jennifer L. Holm, Chrystal D. Giles, Ibi Zoboi, Hena Khan, David Levithan, Jerry Craft, Christina Soontornvat, Shannon Messenger, Becky Albertalli, Julie Murphy, Angie Thomas, Stuart Gibbs, Gordon Korman, Soman Chainani, and way more that I won't bother to list here. Go check it out!
Moving on from that, all good things must come to an end (at least temporarily), and so it is with a heavy heart that I must draw our Four Weeks of Witches adventure to a close today. We took a look at a number of wonderful MG graphic novels over the past few weeks: first Snapdragon, then Beetle & the Hollowbones, then The Witch Boy and its two sequels! Today's final review in this saga is a bit different, because it is actually my first YA review in several months! (Weirdly, my last YA review was also a witch graphic novel—I did not know I had this reading tendency in my subconscious.) Today, we are taking a look at the graphic novel Mooncakes, written by Wendy Xu and Suzanne Walker.
A word of caution to any young readers: this is a YA (young adult) book, not an MG (middle grade) book, and it contains slightly mature content.
My sibling provided me with a number of nudges to read this book, and I feel like some other bloggers have enjoyed it as well, but I honestly have no clue who they are. Sigh. Anyway, Mooncakes is a graphic novel based on a webcomic written by Suzanne Walker and illustrated by Wendy Xu (though it sounds like both Xu and Walker created the general story and plot together—this isn't one of those books where the writer writes it and then just ships it off to the illustrator). The protagonist here is Nova Huang, a teenage witch who lives with her witch grandmothers and helps them run a small bookstore (complete with plenty of scholarly witch books) called the Black Cat. Nova's life is pretty regular (at least as far as a witch's life goes)...until Tam Lang returns. Tam is a werewolf and a childhood friend (and OK, crush) of Nova's, and they've come back to down to deal with demons...some internal, but the primary one unfortunately-not-internal. Nova and Tam quickly reconnect and find themselves falling in love...but with literal demons on the loose, they've got to act fast if they want the fairy-tale ending to their fairy-tale story.
My reviews the last two weeks have been startlingly simple to write: these books are amazing, here's why, please read them, etc. Mooncakes is throwing me for a loop, though, because this book is so utterly delightful and fantastic...and yet, there are so many things that could have been done just a smidge better...and yet, this book is great in spite of them...and yet, it's not...etc. My thoughts feel like they are trailing off in my own head. So confusing. I suppose we can just start dissecting elements piece by piece and rating them. First off, I want to mention that Mooncakes, if nothing else (although there is quite a bit else), is wonderful #ownvoices representation in so many ways! Both Nova and Tam are Chinese-American, and with Nova being bi, her grandmothers being a couple, and Tam using they/them pronouns (though I don't believe that last part is #ownvoices), there's a lot of great LGBT+ representation here as well. If I'm being honest, though, the most exciting representation here (which is #ownvoices) is that Nova uses hearing aids. Disability representation in general tends to be crickets and tumbleweeds (I've declared that a saying now), and #ownvoices disability representation is even rarer. Also, I haven't heard about much disability representation in the world of escapist fantasy in particular, which is a shame—we can't expect that every person with a disability wants to read some often-depressing realistic fiction or memoir, even if they see themselves in it. Thus, I was excited to see such well-executed representation in Mooncakes—Nova's experience both as a witch with hearing aids and as a regular person with hearing aids is explored, but this aspect of her also fades into the background for much of the story, ensuring that it does not define her. If all of this sounds interesting, I suggest hearing it straight from writer Suzanne Walker at this link.
I need to talk about Nova and Tam next. I'm going to start with Tam, because I am really stumped about them. I think one of Mooncakes's biggest flaws is that it chooses fun over depth so often that it becomes detrimental to the actual meaning of the story, and that is evident with Tam. We see bits and pieces of Tam's inner world in the story, and they are clearly not in a good place. I mean, they've basically learned not to trust anyone, because literally everyone has always been out to get them. There's a lot to explore there, and while it would have been somewhat clichéd, I think it would have been a better option than what was ultimately picked, which was that Tam gets over their inner strife way too fast and opens up to Nova. I get that Tam and Nova already know each other and have a backstory we don't see (which I'll mention again later), but still, I felt like Tam's development here was unrealistic. There was one scene where Tam had to choose to believe a figure from their childhood who was exceedingly kind to them, or Nova, and while I was almost sure they wouldn't believe Nova, they did without hesitation. I felt like, in general, we don't see enough of Tam's true feelings, which is a shame, because they are an immensely lovable character—between their terrible puns at inopportune times and willingness to support Nova through anything, you definitely get on their side early on. But that just makes their lack of exploration all the more frustrating—in the end, I feel like I can barely tell you anything about who they really are. Nova is similarly frustrating, if I'm really being honest. I felt like Nova was kind of the quieter, more sensitive of the two kids, and I grew to love her as well, but I really don't understand why, because there isn't much to her either. There's a twist about halfway through the book regarding her that...well, if she had been characterized better, it wouldn't have been a twist at all, because it would literally have been a core facet of her character from the get-go. But no, she's totally fine until halfway through the book, and then it comes up, and I'm like, What?! Nova gets a bit more character exploration than Tam does, but still, I felt like her depth gets sacrificed (or scarficed, as I almost spelled it and now wish I had) in the name of fun. I am going to talk about the fun, I swear, but I might as well get my last few grouchy points in before we continue. First, I really wish Nova and Tam had gotten to know each other at the beginning of the book instead of already having done so as children offscreen; it just felt like a way to avoid exploring these characters further. (Plus, especially considering Nova already has a delightful friend named Tatyana, it felt a bit like I was looking at an Instagram page where someone was just showing off their fabulous life—look at all my friends and how all my relationships are flawless immediately! Though I think that says more about my own inner longings than it does about Nova.) And one last thing: considering how this book generally avoids tension, the final, dramatic-conclusion scenes are awfully tension-filled and grim—I feel like the tonal shift was a bit much, but it's very possible that I'm just grasping at straws here for whatever reason.
And now for about 800,000 caveats to the previous paragraph. (Accurate numeric estimates—check.) First of all, I feel like it bears mentioning that at least some of this book's flaws may owe to its nature as a former webcomic. I feel like seeing one page a week of this book would have meant that issues that, well, had one page would have given you an entire week's worth of thought and contemplation before you returned to the story. But with everything combined, reading quickly means you miss more of the depth than one might like. And then the other thing, which is that this book is actually really, really, really fun. I swear, it makes no sense, considering how bitter I apparently am about it. But it's also true—I think it is pretty much impossible to not have fun reading Mooncakes. First of all, the worldbuilding in Mooncakes, while not exactly comprehensive, is definitely inventive. Nova and her grandmothers run a little bookstore called the Black Cat (complete with plenty of black cats running around) which sells plenty of books regarding witches and magic—some of them even have wings or terrifying pointy fangs. Little details like a table labeled "Nova's YA Picks" make the bookstore seem even more true-to-life. There's lots of other fun to be had in Mooncakes's world as well—holiday celebrations, comically adorable magic animals, Nova's delightful grandmothers (who really deserve their own sequel—oh, the stories they could tell), Nova's snarky non-magic friend Tatyana, and more! And as much as I've criticized Nova and Tam, they really are delightful kids, which is precisely why you want to know more about them. And I have to say, they really are adorable together—I don't read many romances, but I imagine there are some where the characters have zero chemistry, and that couldn't be further from the truth with Mooncakes. Wendy Xu's exceedingly fabulous art certainly helps in that regard—not only is there gorgeous scenery and plenty of little details, but there's also plenty of on-point facial expressions, blushing, and general bashfulness that definitely helps in depicting Nova and Tam together. Mooncakes has a pretty clear art style and makes use of plenty of words to help readers get inside the minds of the characters, contributing to its rating for the graphic novel-averse below!
In conclusion: I don't know! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Seriously, though, I do not have a good verdict for Mooncakes. It's taken me a few days to get my review together, and I must say that the allure of this book faded after I finished it—I don't think I'll be sitting around remembering anything from this book. But I have to say, while I was in the midst of this book, I had a blast reading it! It really is clear that Xu and Walker put in an enormous amount of work to create this book, and I expect that their future work (such as the three books Xu has coming out by 2023) will be excellent, especially since they won't be juggling the constraints of a webcomic-turned-graphic-novel. But until then, you'll have to decide for yourself if Mooncakes is worth the time. If it sounds like it isn't, then feel free to take a pass. But if it sounds like it's worth your while, then go for it!
And that brings Four Weeks of Witches to a close! I'm sad to see it go, but I look forward to bringing you more rambling reviews (including some of actual prose books—gasp!) starting next week as always!
My rating is: Pretty good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 3!