#IMWAYR: A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong
Not to be a week behind on traumatic national events (sigh), but today (Monday) is the last day to enter in the 2021 Books by Asian-American Voices Giveaway, which I am holding as a response to the hate crimes committed recently against Asian-Americans. The linked page also has a set of valuable resources, so check it out! With that, today, I am recommending the YA graphic novel A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong.
As usual, a reminder that this book is young adult (YA), not middle grade (MG), and contains some mature content. Also, TRIGGER WARNING for arson and relationships between adults and minors. (I feel like the trigger warning really does set a certain tone for the rest of the post, but I certainly don't want people reliving any trauma, so here we are.)
As we all know by now, I love graphic novels, so I was thrilled to see a recommendation for a new one from the wonderful #IMWAYR blogger Sue Jackson, who blogs about an impressively varied selection of MG/YA/adult books (as well as movies and TV shows) over at Book by Book. I had previously seen a negative review of this book, so I had stayed away for a while, but after my mental idea of this book went from "criticized" to "criticized by the few," I bought a copy! A Map to the Sun looks at the lives of five high school girls, Ren, Luna, Nell, Jetta, and So-Young, who live in an impoverished beachside town that tends to be marred by pain more than lit up with beauty. Ren, the de facto protagonist of the story, finds solace in playing basketball alone on a court by the beach...and in a new, quickly-deepening friendship with Luna. When Luna, dealing with her own struggles, drops off the face of the Earth, Ren closes herself off from others. Fast-forward several years, and Luna has returned...and she, along with Ren and the three other girls, find themselves (almost by accident) on the school's new girls' basketball team, run by an optimistic teacher, Marisol Weylan. Each of the five girls has their own demons in life to deal with, and spectators look on at the basketball team as a waste of resources spent on five underprivileged girls who won't amount to anything. But these girls want to win, and every practice, every game, every conflict and open emotional wound leads them toward a surprising future...one in which they, not those around them, decide what they value and what they are capable of.
This book is truly incredible, and also soul-crushing, and also uplifting, and I have so many thoughts that are all racing to get out at once! I am a pretty young and very privileged person, and I am very fortunate to have lived a life sheltered from a lot of the pain that others go through. Both by intent and by accident (with the latter being the case here), I have been picking up books that have been educating me about some of the true, hidden agonies of our world. And I have to say, I think we get this idea in our minds that educating ourselves about the world is some kind of delightful, wonderful thing—we see these fabulous people and grassroots organizations in magazines, with smiling photographs and florid fonts and inspiring blurbs, and we see everyone tweeting their hearts out about everything and calling for justice, and it all looks great. And then you actually peel up that ridiculous veneer and feel the pain that people in our world feel, and it is excruciating. Excruciating. Not exactly the sort of thing the magazines can reasonably put on the page before their self-care and mindfulness articles. And you wonder, how in the world can people deal with this kind of excruciating pain every waking moment of their lives??? And the answer, as A Map to the Sun so deftly lays bare, is that, when the pain comes back again and again and again, you shut it out. And you do that by not feeling at all. These five girls, Ren, Luna, Nell, Jetta, So-Young, they don't dream. I don't mean while they're asleep. I mean, they don't sit down and wonder about all the wonderful things they could become. We have the luxury of getting to sit down and envision ourselves as writers, doctors, architects, professors, parents, whatever we can come up with. These girls? Well, why dream, if the only result is sorrow and disappointment? Everything around these girls, everything, from the side-eyes of spectators to the peeling paint to far, far worse, screams, "You will never amount to anything." And that is the true tragedy of this book—and at least one of the true tragedies of our world.
So A Map to the Sun tore that wound open wide for me. And I'm sure you're asking, "What is the solution? How do we fix this? How do we tell these girls that, no matter how much everything around them says otherwise, they have potential?" Well, according to Sloane Leong, the solution is basketball. Well, to be more precise, the solution is many different things, all of which basketball conveniently includes. What are those things? One of them is teamwork (sorry for such treacle, but it's true here). These girls are used to facing everything on their own—Ren isn't ready to let Luna back in after feeling betrayed, Nell wants somebody to love but is fat-shamed at every turn, So-Young's online relationship is unsurprisingly unfulfilling, you get the idea. When the girls first get out on the court, they steal the ball from each other, they let drama get in the way of teamwork, and they often break out into fights afterward. But, in the messiest of ways, the team grows and changes and develops into just that—a team. And suddenly these five girls are there for each other, whether in the face of peeping Toms, or drug-addicted siblings who keep coming back for money, or creepy pedophile teachers (it's a The Perks of Being a Wallflower-style abundance of horrors). Another thing that basketball gives these girls is an outlet. Jumping, throwing, exercising, focusing, homing in on the perfect shot—all of these things distract these girls from the awfulness and allow them to channel their anger and sorrow into a productive outlet. And perhaps the most surprisingly helpful thing that basketball gives the girls...is winning. As I'm sure you can imagine from the previous paragraphs, Ren, Luna, Nell, Jetta, and So-Young are not terribly accustomed to winning, to deciding how they want things to go and their decision actually coming true. But as the girls improve and improve, suddenly they have one little bit of control in their lives. Suddenly they aren't the ones being pushed around anymore. Suddenly they get to bask in a kind of glory they've never had the good fortune to know before. And suddenly they get to know that they, and what they can bring to the table, are actually enough.
So how does this story come together? In an impressive way, let me tell you that, though not without some small hiccups here and there. Let's talk art, because it's ridiculous that I've gone this long without discussing the art. Sloane Leong's art for this book is immensely detailed, and energetic, and expressive, but unequivocally the most shocking part of it is the colors. Leong uses the brightest, most shocking neon shades she can find, and she blends them with darkness and shadows to create a color scheme that is bright, but feels almost suffocating (by design, I believe). Note that I said color scheme there, but that's not really true—it should be plural. Every few pages, Leong flips the colors on their head. Blacks and vibrant reds give way to pale blues fading into acid greens, which turn into sunset pinks and yellows, which morph into discordant oranges and purples...and that sort of shift could all be in the span of around 20 pages. It's an uncomfortable style at first, but in the same way that these girls become so immersed in misery that it turns into a dull sort of beautiful agony, you quickly become accustomed to that small sensation of unease mixed in with so much energy that you can't help but turn and turn the pages (at least toward the second half of the book). I will say, Leong's art isn't the most practical—the basketball scenes in particular are so full of flailing arms and legs that I had no clue what was going on, and the changing color schemes mean telling characters apart can be difficult (Luna and Jetta look similar except for Luna's freckles, so of course there are tons of panels when she has no freckles and looks just like Jetta). (Also, I did find the random moments of artistic nudity to be, well, random—I'm not opposed to them particularly, but they didn't add much.) Despite these flaws, though, there's no denying that Leong's art is utterly on point, and, combined with her excellent plotting and determination to let each girl have a bit of the spotlight, this book makes its points so perfectly that it hurts.
I won't lie—reading this right after Fighting Words and in the midst of national tragedy was perhaps not the best decision. It's never fun to realize how much pain other people are in...and how ignorant you were of it for so long. And I must say that, if you aren't in the best emotional state right now (as if anyone is), I don't know that I'd tell you to read this book right away. But when you do feel like understanding more of the lives of underprivileged kids (particularly girls of color), even if it means utterly ripping your heart into small bits, there's not a more effective way to accomplish either task than A Map to the Sun. The things these girls have been through are horrifying, and their resolve is something no one should ever have to muster up, but their willingness to keep going and to be there for each other is enough to get you through this truly spectacular journey...and to learn that what seems like a frivolous sports team can blossom into so, so much more.
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 1!