MMGM and #IMWAYR: The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor
Update (12/13/2021): I have decided to take my first blogging break in quite a long time! I will not be posting reviews on Monday 12/20 or Monday 12/27—I will return on Monday 1/3 in the new year. In the meantime, my hope is to post a Thursday Thoughts post every Thursday from 12/16 to 1/6—I hope to see you there! (And you're welcome to subscribe using the options on the sidebar if you'd like to keep up with those posts.) Happy holidays!
I hope everyone is doing well! I need to finish up a relatively easy essay today, and then I will be officially done with my college semester—I can't wait! For my creative writing course, part of my final assignment was to revise one of my short stories, which I have never actually done before—I discovered that revisions aren't as unpleasant as I thought, but I also discovered that wondering if you are actually making things worse is also part of the revision process, which is...intriguing!
Also, I need to clean out my bookshelves once again—I did so almost a year ago now (details here), but I have since absorbed so many new books that I need to make room before I get even more new books for Christmas. I think it will actually be nice to get rid of some of the books that I don't need anymore but that I know other people in the world might actually enjoy—although I am definitely still keeping quite a few things, don't get me wrong. (See: blog title.)
OK! Now for the review. Today I am recommending the graphic novel The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor!
(I have misspelled auntie as aunite a million times while writing this review, so please have some sympathy for me.)
|Preview the illustrations on Amazon
When Crystal Brunelle at Reading Through Life recommended this book back in August, I figured I should read it. And then when it was selected as a National Book Award finalist this year, I seriously figured I should read it. And yet, it wasn't until I literally read a graphic short story by Shing Yin Khor in This Is Our Rainbow two weeks ago that I finally resolved to read this book. And I am so glad I did, because it was absolutely fantastic!
I imagine most of us are familiar with the myth of the lumberjack Paul Bunyan, but what about Auntie Po? You know, Po Pan Yin, the elderly Chinese woman whose crew of lumberjacks could cut down twice the wood of Paul Bunyan's crew? Ringing a bell yet? Well, if not, for once it's not because your history classes were completely whitewashed—it might actually be because, to my knowledge, Auntie Po isn't a real myth. But that doesn't mean you should discount her quite so quickly. The Legend of Auntie Po revolves around thirteen-year-old Mei, who lives on a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885, where she helps her father Hao cook the camp's meals—after all, you can imagine how much food an entire camp of lumberjacks could go through. Mei has several things going for her—she has a good friend in Bee, the daughter of the camp's foreman; she knows how to bake a delicious pie; and she knows how to tell a good story, specifically about Auntie Po. So why is Mei telling stories of Auntie Po? Well, things aren't perfect at the logging camp. Although Bee and her father who runs the camp, Mister Andersen, are accepting of the diverse workforce there, the rest of the world isn't quite as thrilled, and racial tensions begin to rise, especially after the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed. And also, Mei just-might-maybe be developing a crush on Bee, which would be fine except for the part where it's 1885. So Mei has a lot of challenges to navigate, and although she and those around her are impressively good at keeping their hopes up for the future in spite of the struggles ahead, there's still struggles ahead. But with the help of Auntie Po and her giant blue buffalo Pei Pei (both of whom just-might-maybe come to life), Mei learns that she still has reasons to be hopeful...and that everyone benefits when the myths and traditions of different cultures begin to intermingle.
This is a truly brilliant graphic novel, and I am embarrassed that it took me so long to get it read! I think I need to spend two paragraphs talking about the premise and themes of The Legend of Auntie Po, because they are where the true National-Book-Award-finalist brilliance of this book lies. For a book that is about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and people of color in 1885, of all years, this book is surprisingly upbeat. Characters' senses of humor, acceptance of each other within the logging camp at least, and meaningful relationships keep this a fast-paced, enjoyable read. And that, indeed, is part of the power of The Legend of Auntie Po, because this book is every bit as fun and fascinating and delightfully-old-timey as the kinds of Western-prairie-1800s-life-logging kinds of books from which it draws inspiration. And yet its inclusivity means that this fun old-fashioned archetype of a story is now accessible to the audiences that would previously have been alienated from it. It reminds me a lot of what The Magic Fish did for fairy tales—both of these books bring the joy of a certain type of story (whether that's the mysterious, glamorous tales of royalty in The Magic Fish or the camaraderie-filled, blissfully-simple adventures of the West in The Legend of Auntie Po) to readers who would have felt too excluded to participate in that joy. But also...thinking of the value of The Legend of Auntie Po (or The Magic Fish, for that matter, but that's not the point of this post) as only what I just said is actually really reductive in some ways too. Because I think what you're getting from what I just said is that The Legend of Auntie Po is an enjoyable but unrealistic story where a bunch of diverse characters are shoehorned into a time that wasn't at all diverse or accepting. And that is totally, completely not what this book does. You know how I mentioned our whitewashed history education in the paragraph above? Well, Shing Yin Khor discusses in the author's note and interviews how the history of people of color in the West (including in logging camps like the one in this book) has pretty much been totally erased. They were actually there, we just don't even realize it because we haven't been taught about it. And if you don't believe me, read the author's note and bibliography—yes, bibliography—at the back of this book. (Quite a few details in the story are actually pulled from the real world!) I do imagine some of the acceptance within the logging camp in this story is, at the very least, not true of most camps in the real world—but the presence of diverse characters making the camp function is actually quite realistic. (One quick aside to finish off this paragraph: this book actually reminds me a lot of the book that actually went one step further to win the National Book Award for Young People's Literature this year, Last Night at the Telegraph Club, which is also wildly research-backed in its depictions of its own time period.)
So now I want to take a minute to talk about the positive and negative themes that The Legend of Auntie Po is able to include because of how it is structured, as I explained in the previous paragraph. Auntie Po is a fascinating element in the story—she comes to life, but she's not actually that important in her living form to the plot of the story (which isn't a bad thing at all—it's just not what I was expecting). But if you take a few minutes to think more critically about the story, then Auntie Po's relevance becomes a lot clearer. This book's publisher's description says that it examines "who gets to own a myth," and ... It's easy to say that Auntie Po is made up for this story, but really, what about Auntie Po is made up? I mean, she's pretty much true to all of the themes of the actual Paul Bunyan myth—the only thing "made up" is her being representative of Mei's culture. And yes, even if that still makes her "made up" in a sense, are we really going to sit around say that Auntie Po is "invalid" because she commits the audacious crime (sarcasm) of making someone else feel seen? Shing Yin Khor points out that if the entire point of myths is for people to see themselves, and make sense of themselves, and gain hope in the face of hardship, then it is a harmful mindset to say that only these people get to see themselves in a certain myth. (And you might be starting to see how that comment applies both to Auntie Po, the myth, and to The Legend of Auntie Po, the book—another way this book reminds me of The Magic Fish is how it has stories within a story, and then comments on the nature of stories with regards both to the full story and the stories within a story—in short, both books are very "meta," and I love it.) The Legend of Auntie Po broadens its message of pulling from the myths of other cultures to pulling from the traditions of other cultures too, and although I won't say what happens, I will say that it's really powerful to see how one culture might have the answers to the existential questions of someone from another culture. It makes me think of all kinds of real-world applications unrelated to the story itself, like how cultural traditions like Día de los Muertos can give us a different perspective on grief, or how individualistic cultures like ours can learn from collectivistic ones to be a little less self-centered (as a psychology major, that distinction comes up again and again in my classes)—really, there's all kinds of real-world applications of the attitude exemplified in this story, although my personal favorite applications are the ones within the story itself (which I will resist the urge to spoil). And it's important to note that these "transactions" between cultures occur both ways in the story—marginalized cultures pull from non-marginalized cultures, and non-marginalized cultures pull from marginalized cultures. The Legend of Auntie Po isn't saying that one group should do this or that, it's saying that we all benefit when we share our cultures and learn from others. And one final point regarding themes—I really appreciated this book's message that antiracism, or working against injustice and discrimination, requires being uncomfortable. It's not about being a savior and having a bunch of glory—it's about learning about other people's painful experiences, acknowledging the unpleasant ways in which you intentionally or unintentionally contributed, and putting yourself in their shoes to truly understand how they feel. There's one scene where a character has a bit of a "walk of shame" and faces the kind of prejudice that their race inflicts on others, and I thought that kind of temporary but impactful discomfort was really valuable to depict. I will say, I am not 100% positive that middle-grade readers will pick up on all of the amazing themes in this book, but I think quite a few of them do come through subconsciously. And because they're not explicitly stated, the book itself reads as a perfectly fun, enjoyable, and engaging story even if you don't understand them (or if it takes you a while to switch into critical-thinking mode and engage with them—I spent a little bit of time just aggravated that the entire story wasn't being spoon-fed to me before I finally started thinking more deeply about it all).
I was hoping to take some time to discuss the characters in this story, but honestly, I feel like the discussion above is probably what will persuade you to read this book if anything does, so just know that the characters in this book are all well-fleshed-out and likable and brilliantly executed! I will make one quick point, before moving on, though: Mei's father Hao (who actually gets a lot of time in the spotlight, again in a similar manner as The Magic Fish) doesn't speak in perfect English, and yet we see... And I think that's just a really important reminder that it's not the depiction of someone who doesn't speak English that well that is offensive (after all, this language is mind-boggling—native speakers still can't distinguish between your and you're)—rather, what is offensive is the deeply harmful conscious-or-subconscious assumptions many of us possess that not speaking English well is indicative of a lack of intelligence or even worth as a human being. So we need to work on that. Anyway, so much for a "quick point before moving on"—that could be a paragraph all on its own. But now, we do need to talk about what I really wanted to discuss here, and that is the art. The ART!! Oh, the art in this book is brilliant! And it's funny, too, because I feel like the cover of this book does not do a good job of actually giving the audience a sense of what the art is like—in fact, I think the cover is part of why I avoided this book for so many months before finally picking it up. Besides the fact that the cover's shade of yellow will never appear within the pages of the story, the cover is also missing perhaps the most striking element of the illustrations—the watercolors. You read that right—watercolors! In a similar vein to another book I reviewed recently, Marshmallow & Jordan, the illustrations in this book are all in watercolor, but unlike that book, the illustrations in The Legend of Auntie Po are a lot more varied. The backgrounds of different pages have gorgeous, vivid colors that all flow into one another (some of the sunsets are just wow), while the characters and objects tend to be a little more tightly controlled than you would think is possible with watercolors (which is definitely a good thing—if everyone's heads were dripping down the page, that would be weird). The layouts of different pages are totally unique—there are full-page spreads, there are pages with tons of different panels, and there's pretty much everything in between. And Shing Yin Khor does some totally unique and clever things with the panel layouts—on some pages, characters or objects actually stretch across several different panels at once, while the rest of the contents change from panel to panel, which makes for a way-cooler effect than it sounds. There are also a few pages where tiny silhouettes of the characters actually stand on top of one of the panels, making for a hidden little mini-panel that is fun to discover (speaking of that, click on the cover above to see it a little larger...). And the chapter divider pages have drawings and blurbs of the real-life tools used by lumberjacks during this time period, which is a fascinating little way to pull readers further into the story and make the chapter dividers worth spending time on! And because the colors are clear, the characters are easily distinguishable, and the fonts for speech bubbles and occasional narration are easy to read, this book is a great graphic novel for those newer to the medium! If I had one complaint about the art, it would be that some of the characters' head shapes vary widely from panel to panel—it's still super-easy to tell them apart (via hairstyle, hair color, facial hair, skin color, etc.), but the inconsistency is just a teensy bit attention-grabbing at times. But that's a small quibble within this visually gorgeous and original graphic novel!
Have I blithered enough yet? I think so, so I will conclude my review here. The Legend of Auntie Po isn't perfect—in particular, the ending doesn't tie everything up neatly, which is fine, but then I would have preferred a little more exploration of how it didn't tie things up neatly. Instead, it just felt like the ending snuck up on me—I was waiting for more things to happen in the story! But again, that is a small quibble within this absolutely brilliant book. The Legend of Auntie Po reclaims a type of story that has been inaccessible to diverse audiences, and it uses it both to create a fun, fast-paced story of the past and to explore meaningful themes of cultural exchange and interaction. I can imagine this book being one that MG readers will grow with—they can read it while they're young and appreciate the entertaining, heartwarming plot, and then they can get older and appreciate the immensely deep themes that I imagine are what sold the National Book Award committee on designating this as a finalist. If you can stand graphic novels and are looking for an enjoyable, gorgeously illustrated story that also goes above and beyond with real-world depth, look no further—The Legend of Auntie Po is the book for you!
(P.S. I'm rating this book as "Really good!," but that's mostly because I feel like I've been overusing the "Stunning!" label lately—I feel like this book is of similar, if not even higher [depending on the audience reading it], quality to recently-reviewed graphic novels like The Girl From the Sea, or even the fellow National Book Award finalist from years past, Nimona. So do keep that in mind! [And maybe one day, I'll figure out a rating system that actually works.])
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 4!