#IMWAYR: Himawari House by Harmony Becker
Happy New Year's, everyone! I hope every one of you enjoyed your holidays, and I wish all of you a happy, healthy new year—I'm mildly petrified to see what 2022 has in store (considering our hope for 2021 lasted exactly 6 days), but I know we'll all be able to handle whatever's in store!
By the way, January 1 is an important day in the kidlit world—it's the day the finalists in the Cybils Awards are announced! You can view all of the finalists here—it's truly overwhelming how many great books were selected. And now that Round 1 is over and the finalists have been announced, Round 2 begins, which means I start my term as a Round 2 Judge for Elementary/Middle-Grade Nonfiction! (If you're curious, you can see which books I'll be reading here.) I encourage you to go check out the finalists—some of them were nominated by bloggers I know, so make sure to see if your nominee was selected!
Moving into my review, I have been so spoiled lately, because I have just picked up one fantastic book after another. And yet, this book still might be one of the very best! Today's book is the YA graphic novel Himawari House by Harmony Becker.
This is a young adult (YA) book, not a middle grade (MG) book, and it contains mature content.
(And also, I am aware that this review is almost comically long, and so I will mention if you missed my Thursday Thoughts post that, starting not next week but the week after, I will be beta-testing a shorter review format. Not much shorter, mind you, but definitely shorter than this post.)
|Preview the illustrations on the publisher's website|
FYI, the characters (left to right) are Nao, Hyejung, and Tina.
(A note on names: If you've read manga before, you know that
in Japan, it is customary to use terms like "chan," "san," or "kun"
at the end of people's names as a form of respect or affection. So,
for example, Naochan isn't another person—she's just Nao. And
Hyechan is just "chan" tacked onto an abbreviated form of Hyejung.)
You'll recall from reviews past that I blindly pre-ordered a ton of graphic novels from First Second (the extremely prolific comic/graphic novel imprint of Macmillan). This is the third I have had the chance to read, following Other Boys, which was fantastic, and Marshmallow & Jordan, which was imperfect but ultimately sweet. Well, this book fell into the Other Boys-OMG-this-is-so-good category, and I am so excited to tell you about it today!
Nao has been waiting for this moment. She's withstood endless microaggressions and belittling from her classmates in the United States, holding onto the one thing left from her home country of Japan: her memories. But now, they'll be memories no longer, because Nao is taking a gap year before college and returning to Japan, where she'll be living in Himawari House (a sharehouse, which is basically just a house you live in with roommates you've never met). When Nao arrives at Himawari House, she quickly becomes friends with the two other girls who live there, calm, glamorous Hyejung and peppy, outgoing Tina. But things aren't quite so simple. Nao doesn't speak Japanese as well as she used to, and navigating the complexities of language barriers is just one of many things that leaves Nao wondering if she doesn't fit in not just in America, but in Japan too. And it's not just that. Hyejung and Tina have their own backstories that have brought them to Japan, and neither the change of scenery nor their attempts to bottle everything up erases their pasts. And the girls' other relationships, including those with the two boys who also live at Himawari House, Shinichi and Masaki, throw a few wrenches into the mix as well. And yet, even as Nao, Hyejung, and Tina try to avoid talking about their pasts, their lighthearted relationship can't help but deepen, and it soon becomes clear that, with each other's help, they just might be able to find their places in the world.
I said it before, and I'll say it again: this book is SO GOOD!!! There are so many things I want to talk about, but to save time and not give literally everything away, I will only discuss so much. So I'm going to separate my thoughts into three broad categories, starting with language. Most of us readers would say we appreciate language, but really, what we mean is that we appreciate our language. We enjoy putting words together to make beautiful sentences, but I'll speak for myself if not everyone when I say that I know next to nothing about other languages, beyond random traces from my mediocre high school Spanish classes. (If someone wants to explain to me why the only Spanish word I remember well is las zanahorias—carrots—I'd appreciate it.) Himawari House made me think about other languages and how they connect to one another in a way I never really had before. As I explained a little bit earlier, Nao speaks English well, having lived in the United States for most of her life, but her Japanese, which used to be quite strong, has weakened over time due to a lack of use. As Nao realizes this fact upon arriving in Japan, she begins to realize just how distant she might actually be from the country and culture she loves so much. But it's when Hyejung and Tina's own languages are added into the mix that things become incredibly nuanced. Most of this nuance comes from important but small moments, of Hyejung expressing an idea in her native Korean because she can't find the words otherwise; of the girls gently correcting each other as words don't quite switch over from one language to another; of instinctively switching to the "other" language when someone doesn't understand you, forgetting they don't understand that language either. The interaction between languages isn't just between English and Japanese—other languages are relevant as well—and it's not one-directional either. We see moments where characters fluent in Japanese find themselves completely lost among characters speaking English! Himawari House is obviously far from the first book to explore language barriers, but the sheer level of nuance that Harmony Becker intentionally includes on every page sets this book apart from others. She takes the time to actually write non-English dialogue in its native language, with the English translation underneath, and there is something profoundly impactful about knowing that only individuals who speak languages besides English can understand the full depth of this book—for the rest of us, there's just enough we can presume was lost in translation to leave us wanting more. Himawari House made me realize just how much we lose when we can only understand—or even think—in the limited ways of a single language. And one other thing, which reminds me of my review of The Legend of Auntie Po from before my blogging break: Harmony Becker chooses to have characters like Hyejung and Tina speak English with accents, but before we think this is an attempt to mock or make fun of these characters (which, again, we would only even think in the first place because we idiotically base people's worth on their ability to speak one language in a certain way), Becker leaves us with this brilliant insight in her authors' note:
...I hope that this book can be a contribution to a different kind of legacy for Asian characters, one in which our accents are not a point of shame but a point of pride, because after all, what is an accent but proof of the ability to speak more than one language?
1 topic down, 2 to go! Now I want to talk about the art, but I want to do it while talking about a bunch of other stuff too, because I feel like it's all seriously interrelated. But we can put it under the umbrella topic of "manga." As you already know if you're not brand-new to my blog, I absolutely devour graphic novels, and yet I've never really been a reader of manga. And it's not necessarily because I don't like it—I've read two series of manga that, while flawed, were both absolutely addictive. But I had this perception in my head (which was somewhat supported by the admittedly-limited sample of manga that I had read) that manga tended to be a little too zany and unrealistic (even the ones that aren't straight-up fantasy) and also tended to go in some truly toxic directions (I read all 12 volumes of Fruits Basket, but...it went a little haywire in a few places, I have to say). I'm mentioning all this because (a) I didn't outline this post very well, so I'm blithering and (b) I feel like Himawari House combines the best aspects of manga and the graphic novels I tend to read. As the previous and subsequent paragraphs show, this book doesn't shy away from meaningful, realistic topics, but I also want to hammer home that it is a fun, comforting, and often-hilarious read, in large part due to its similarities to manga. Like most manga, Himawari House features black-and-white illustrations—which, for the record, are absolutely gorgeous and detailed and emotionally expressive. There are usually several panels per page, with slightly unconventional shapes, but nothing too crazy—again, very similar to most other manga. But I think the most important connection to manga is the sense of humor in the illustrations. Manga has this interesting mix of respecting its characters in dramatic, full-scale illustrations and making fun of them a little bit in silly smaller doodles, and Himawari House does exactly this, only with an unusual amount of skill. Part of what makes Nao, Hyejung, and Tina's relationship so compelling is the ways in which Harmony Becker depicts the banter and humor in the relationship through little doodles off to the side (there are some great ones comparing the thoughts in different people's minds like a chart), or amusingly oversimplified drawings of the characters that allude to just one emotion for comedic effect, or even some hilariously overdramatized drawings that add a sense of humor to important moments. But the important thing is that Himawari House never uses humor to the detriment of its depth—instead, it finds ways to delicately combine them, knowing exactly when a bit of levity is necessary (even in important moments) and when it needs to step back and let the moment unfold. Basically, in case I didn't make it clear (which I probably didn't, seeing as how I'm rambling semi-incoherently), the manga-style illustrations of Himawari House are integral to the book's lightheartedness and sense of humor—very few books can laugh at themselves, and even fewer can laugh at themselves in the moments where it is fitting but then become serious when it's necessary, but somehow, this book does it. It's extremely impressive.
I have one final topic to discuss. I'm not sure if everything I say in this paragraph will neatly fall under this topic, but I nevertheless think it's important with Himawari House to talk about respect. As I already discussed, this book is an uplifting, positive, and fun story, but it somehow simultaneously manages to take a deep dive into its characters' psyches and struggles—it helps that Hyejung and Tina get to narrate several chapters and reveal their own backstories to the reader (so the perspective is broader than just Nao's). And that's where respect comes in. A few months ago, I read another graphic novel (also published by First Second) called A Map to the Sun, which explored the lives of five girls of color on a high school basketball team. And two things about that book surprised me: one, that it explored not just racism, but sexism too (and the intersection between them), and two, that so few other books had. Himawari House reminds me of A Map to the Sun because it, too, is a YA book with a main cast comprised entirely of girls of color, and it is also not reticent to tackle issues that relate to misogyny inflicted and internalized alike. There's a startling and yet unfortunately unsurprising scene involving the casual yet severe harassment and dehumanization that one character faces while working as a waitress. Another character grapples with memories of being hopelessly devoted to a relationship with a smooth-talking boyfriend who ultimately sees her as disposable. One character transitions from discussing the unrealistic love stories she's been exposed to in the media all her life to talking about her connection to the music of a singer who she now feels an almost-desperate love for. Not every one of these issues is resolved in the story, which I would say is realistic, considering how slowly people tend to develop in real life (although there was one scene of disrespect that went a bit too far to not be brought up again). But I will say, the extremely small sample of manga that I've read was filled with predatory men who went completely un-reprimanded, so Himawari House's exploration of how the messages men force women to internalize push women into painful, almost-hopeless situations was surprising, impactful, and most of all, right. That brings me to the other thing I wanted to mention regarding respect, which is about race/culture rather than gender. It's a quote from Nao that is further explored later in the story, but on its own is still an ingenious summary of the pain White people inflict when they blindly decide they "like" someone else's culture and want to emulate it. Here's the quote:
Imagine if someone came into your house uninvited and then put on all your clothes and pretended to be like you, but, like...
...they didn't actually know you, so they just made up a fake personality, and then went around and told everyone they were you.
I know many of my readers will not actually read this book, but I think that quote is worth seeing regardless. I don't know that I've ever seen a single sentence so effortlessly explain...well, anything, really, but in this case, the infuriation that microaggressions and cultural appropriation can cause.
In case the ranting above wasn't sufficiently clear, Himawari House is a truly special book. Harmony Becker is bold enough and thoughtful enough to explore topics in this book, from language barriers to the experiences of women, that are rarely even mentioned in other books, much less thoroughly explored as they are here. And yet, for a story that so thoroughly and poignantly captures the pain and loss in this world, this story, perhaps most shockingly of all, is not a sad story. It is a joyous story, a story of banter and jokes and learning to laugh at oneself, a story of comfort and peace and home, a story of three friends who do not share every last shred of sorrow with one another, but who are nevertheless there for each other every step of the way. Himawari House doesn't inflict so much sadness on you that you cannot turn the pages—rather, it discreetly plants seeds of reality to be considered later, saving its pages for so much excitement and joy and squee-worthiness that, if you're like me, you will read it in two days flat. We've been taught that books can be either realistic or fun, but never both—perhaps we've lost so much hope in this world that we cannot fathom there is anything good and fun left in reality. Himawari House proves us wrong. It is a comfort read through and through, and the pain it contains does not contradict that. This book shows us that some pain can be overcome. This book shows us that some pain may linger, but it does not have to rule over every waking moment of our lives. And this book shows us that pain still allows us to love, to laugh, to wish we could enter a world as wonderful as that in this story—until we realize that maybe, we've been in that world this whole time.
My rating is: Stunning!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 1!