MMGM and #IMWAYR: Marshmallow & Jordan by Alina Chau (plus the Holiday Picture Book Giveaway!)
I hope everyone is doing well! We spent an hour on Saturday doing that most wretched of tasks: changing the smoke detector batteries. I envy everyone who buys those new smoke detectors where you don't have to replace the battery for 10 years.
Today I am looking at an intriguing new MG graphic novel: Marshmallow & Jordan by Alina Chau. And I'm also hosting the Holiday Picture Book Giveaway with details at the end of this post!
Review of Marshmallow & Jordan:
|Preview the illustrations on the publisher's website
A few weeks ago, I scoured the website of First Second, the massive graphic novel imprint from Macmillan, for new MG/YA graphic novels to pre-order, and this book, which debuted on October 26, was the one I was most excited for (besides Other Boys)! (I mean, just look at that cover.) I haven't seen anyone talking about this book yet, and although it is not a perfect read, I am still excited to be bringing it to y'all's attention today!
Our protagonist, Jordan, is the captain of the basketball team at her multicultural school in Indonesia, and she'd still be playing in the team games and making amazing shots if it wasn't for an accident that left her needing to use a wheelchair. Both Jordan and her kind friends on the basketball team assume her sports days are behind her...that is, until Marshmallow arrives. Marshmallow is an unreasonably cute baby white elephant (see the cover), and not only does he become a good friend to Jordan and her basketball friends (yes, it's slightly unreasonable—just go with it), but he also helps Jordan discover the sport of water polo, which doesn't require the use of her legs. Jordan excitedly joins her school's water polo team, but with her new teammates acting critical and getting in the way of her old friendships, Jordan has to try to carve out space both for her friends and herself. And it seems like something else might be going on with Marshmallow too...
It took me a while to warm up to this book, and I definitely still have some complaints with it that I will intersperse through the review. But by the end of the book, my feelings were definitely more positive, and I will try to take a balanced perspective on this story's merits and flaws. Let's start by talking about Jordan, the protagonist of the story. Jordan is a delightful character—she maintains a good attitude even as she deals with struggles in her life, she tries hard to be there for her friends, she cares deeply about Marshmallow, and she also has a side that sometimes expresses as mischief, and sometimes expresses as just a drive to succeed. When Jordan discovers water polo, dedicates herself to it, and is prepared to help her team win, her enthusiasm, hard work, and courage are on full display—you can interpret it as a reminder of the value of kids' sports (a reminder I still needed even after reading A Map to the Sun), but you can also interpret it as just Jordan being the totally awesome kid that she is! I do also want to take a second to discuss Jordan being in a wheelchair. Alina Chau has (correctly) pointed out that children with different abilities are underrepresented in children's literature, but whether she (who is able-bodied) is the right person to be bringing that representation to readers is a difficult question to answer. But I will say, after reading Marshmallow & Jordan, I do believe that Chau indeed has done a skillful, sensitive job depicting Jordan's abilities, and even if the representation is not #ownvoices, I do think it will at least add to the collection of books normalizing these experiences. Jordan's different abilities do not define her, nor do they ultimately get in her way—she is just as much of a star athlete after the accident as before. Also, I greatly appreciate that we never find out what the accident that paralyzed Jordan's lower body actually is—I think including those details would have been a little too sensationalistic and would have made Jordan into some kind of spectacle, so keeping that out is helpful. My one critique of how Jordan is depicted is that, particularly on the water polo team, she faces some ableist assumptions from others that they never do specifically apologize for—even if the situation changes, I think a more obvious apology would further hammer home the message that ableism is never OK. But overall, I think the depiction of Jordan in this book is at the very least inoffensive, and might possibly even be valuable to young readers who can relate to her experience.
Now let's take a moment to discuss Marshmallow. For a character who doesn't actually speak, Chau characterizes Marshmallow impressively well. He shares Jordan's peaceful, positive demeanor (which, honestly, is the demeanor of this entire story), and although he needs help from Jordan and others in the story, he is also able to give back and help Jordan as well by helping her discover water polo. You can tell that he and Jordan share a deep, meaningful bond. Oh, and did I mention that he is SO CUTE?! (Almost cute enough to convince me that everyone would just let him wander loose through the city and enter the school building and go to the ice-cream shop without totally freaking out. Almost.) And I will also say, we learn things about Marshmallow as the story goes on that are utterly brilliant—and incredibly well-foreshadowed too! But I must make the critique that the actual scenes in which those details are revealed feel like they move too quickly—and there is also a minor choice made regarding Marshmallow that didn't bother me hugely but felt out of place. Still, the fact that this story has an adorable and lovable elephant companion in the first place is a major plus!
Now I'm going to discuss the basketball and water polo teams (although really, I'm going to use this paragraph as a catchall for all kinds of random stuff). Although it would have been helpful to know which character was which earlier on (there is concept art in the back matter that has all the characters labeled—why didn't we get that in the actual story?), I eventually figured out which names to put to which surprisingly-well-developed characters! The contrast of the basketball players, who are Jordan's wonderful friends, and the water polo players, who take a while to warm up to Jordan, adds a much-needed bit of conflict to a story that honestly felt a little too upbeat for the first 100-150 pages. And I particularly was intrigued by the character of Kemala, the leader of the water polo team—not only does Jordan have a good reason for becoming distant from her friends (pressure from Kemala to do better on the team), but Kemala actually also has a good reason for pressuring Jordan so much—and there's another good reason behind that good reason! Considering that smaller things like dialogue in the story felt off-kilter at times (we don't need quite that much all-caps or exclamation points for a normal conversation), I appreciated that the major logic of the story was pretty rock-solid! And of course, it's also wonderful to see that both teams are so diverse (as makes sense for a multicultural school), without the story making a big deal of it. My one major complaint is, again, the last few scenes involving the water polo team move too quickly, with scenes that I was expecting to see actually being quite abbreviated, and one scene appearing to be hypothetical until you realize at the end that it was literally happening the whole time (it would have been clever if I didn't go through the whole thing with no tension at all because I thought it was all hypothetical!). Also, this has nothing to do with the teams, but I will say that Marshmallow & Jordan has some delightful back matter—beautiful concept art, a few pages of real-world facts about Indonesia, some recommendations for Indonesian food (food), a glossary of Indonesian terms from the story, an author's note, and some adorably illustrated acknowledgements!
Now for the art! I can’t lie, when I saw this book on the First Second website, I didn’t really buy it because of its plot—I bought it because of the art. So let’s talk about it! Alina Chau illustrated this entire graphic novel in watercolor—and considering that it is 384 pages long, that is an almost-superhuman feat (and explains why the book is releasing 3 years after the intended date of "winter 2018" listed in this interview). Chau’s art is vividly colored and detailed, mirroring the blend of peacefulness and energy that we get from the story’s plot itself. Landscapes, city streets, and even the water that Jordan plays water polo in are brought to life with varied colors and shading, which also makes each scene easy to parse at a glance—although you might find yourself pausing anyway to take in the beauty from time to time. And Chau has a knack for page layouts as well—she uses fewer and larger panels than most graphic novels, which makes things easier to follow, and there are a ton of lovely full-page or double-page spreads, as well as clever “chapter” dividers that have their own inset illustration tangentially related to the story (almost like a TV show camera panning across the scene before settling on our characters). Although the dark black speech bubble outlines and text contrast a little weirdly with the lack of rigid boundaries in the illustrations, they do aid greatly with making the text readable, making them a nice example of function over form. I will say, I found some of the facial expressions in the illustrations to look a little bit strange—characters who were supposed to look jokingly angry looked genuinely ready to strangle someone else, and characters who were supposed to be grinning sheepishly instead just looked kind of creepy. And I will make another complaint about the art, although it is also a compliment—I wanted to see even more varied scenes in Chau’s lovely illustration style, since there is a surprising amount of visual repetition in what we do see. But I wouldn’t be asking that if I didn’t think the art was this good! (I encourage you all to click the link under the book cover and preview the illustrations for yourself.)
So that's what I have to say about Marshmallow & Jordan! Sometimes, it felt like there was a clumsily executed thing for every good thing in this story, and it really did get on my nerves in the beginning/middle of the story. But by the end, I had warmed up to this story quite a bit. This book has gorgeous art, delightful characters, and an overarching plot with some truly clever ideas and foreshadowing—and it's also valuable representation for individuals of other races, nationalities, and abilities! If your TBR list is already feeling a little full, I probably wouldn't move this book to the very top—I'm afraid it's a little too awkwardly written at times to bring it into the best of the best of graphic novels. But if sports, adorable elephants, or meaningful representation strike your fancy or that of a young reader you know, pick up a copy of this uplifting, meaningful, and visually striking story—it's worth your time!
My rating is: Pretty good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 4!
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