MMGM and #IMWAYR: Parachute Kids, Gender Queer, and more!
I'm feeling pretty good as of Saturday morning, writing this! Two stressful things in the past week went better than I expected, and I've been totally enjoying a new-to-me album by one of my favorite artists (Close It Quietly by Frankie Cosmos).
I've got two books to share today! Just a heads-up, if you're short on time, my review of Parachute Kids is long and conflicted, while my review of Gender Queer is shorter and unequivocally positive, so I suggest you skip ahead to that one if you have to choose.
Let's dive into some books!
This is probably going to be a long review. And that's because I have a lot of thoughts about this book, running the gamut from positive to negative, and I hope I can turn them all into something thoughtful and constructive!
I want to start with an anecdote. My small high school had several parachute kids like the ones in this story—students from primarily Asian countries who came to the United States in search of opportunity (especially getting an American college education), while their parents stayed behind in their home country to work and support the family. I regret not learning more about these students' experience when I had the chance, and I remember immediately buying the first book I ever saw discussing these experiences: the YA novel Parachutes by Kelly Yang, which is an amazing read. Fast-forward to now, when I stumbled upon this book—only the second one I've ever seen to discuss this experience—and knew I needed to read it.
And I want to be very intentional in acknowledging that Parachute Kids is ambitious, crafted with care and love, and drawn from Betty C. Tang's own personal experience as a parachute kid at age 10 in a way that I can't imagine was easy or painless. I want to give her a lot of credit in writing this story at all, and doing it in a way that, despite its flaws, is clearly an attempt to write a meaningful or even life-changing story.
Before I review the book itself, I do want to bring up one guiding question. As far as I know, the parachute kids I knew in real life were all in the U.S. legally, and they lived with host families (basically strangers, which is alarming but perhaps not as alarming as being alone). And in Kelly Yang's Parachutes, protagonist Claire seems to be in the same situation. Whereas in Parachute Kids—this book—the three kids are living in the U.S. illegally and without guardians (which I imagine is in and of itself illegal)—their mom attempted to stay with them but has run into major visa trouble, while their dad is working back in Taiwan. Tang herself implies in her author's note that she too lived only with her siblings and no one else. I have no idea if this kind of seemingly-illegal setup is commonplace for parachute kids, or if it is more unique to Tang's own experience, and I want to throw this disclaimer out there before people make generalizations about the parachute experience that may be incorrect.
All right—disclaimer over, now for the book! I want to start with what I really loved in Parachute Kids, before transitioning into my concerns with this book. One thing I loved was how incredibly well-traced the family dynamics underpinning this story are. Oldest sister Jia-Xi, age 16, is under a ton of internalized pressure (not necessarily from her parents, it bears noting) to be perfect, whether on SAT scores or on becoming the de facto guardian of her two younger siblings. She's frustrated with middle sibling Ke-Gāng, age 14, who seemingly gets away with anything because he's the son in the family (Jia-Xi references the common preference for sons in Taiwanese culture)—but Ke-Gāng is facing pressures of his own, albeit quieter ones. And youngest sister and protagonist Feng-Li, age 10, is a firecracker of a kid and also the glue of the family, intentionally or unintentionally holding her siblings together, but sometimes getting pigeonholed as immature in the process. That's obviously a lot going on, and it's really fascinating to explore these characters and how they interact with one another. I also appreciated the richness of the mother's character—she makes some alarmingly bad decisions at times, but she so clearly loves her kids and is trying to do right by them.
And the challenges Feng-Li and her siblings face are quite realistic and rich as well. Jia-Xi struggles to maintain order in a house with an incorrigible 14-year-old (Ke-Gāng finds consistently alarming ways to cope with his situation) and a, shall we say, dynamic 10-year-old. There's everyday snapping and full-on arguments, all of which feel true to life. And there's a lot of exploration of the culture shock that comes with moving from Taiwan to the United States. We see micro- and macroaggressions alike (this book is set in 1981, so things are even worse than they are now), we see language barriers, and we see the confusion of navigating an entirely new culture—there's one scene I loved with the family visiting a Chinese restaurant in the United States that they quickly realize isn't exactly authentic. Above all else, we see the three kids being forced to find maturity within themselves as they live on their own, at a young age, in a country that wasn't designed for them and doesn't welcome them.
One more thing I really want to praise is the strength of this book's craft elements. Truly meaningful scenes are sprinkled throughout, the dialogue feels realistic and snappy, and characters' facial expressions are energetic without being hard to interpret (you'd be surprised how often that happens in graphic novels). Like I said, it is clear that this book is a labor of love.
Now I do want to talk about the flaws of this book, which I do find concerning. First, I feel that combining the plot lines of all three siblings into a single book is problematic, for two reasons. One reason is that the book's target age is confusing—Feng-Li feels too young to be an MG protagonist (and indeed, she is only in fifth grade), while Jia-Xi and Ke-Gāng feel too old (being high schoolers). The ages seem to have been averaged into a book marketed as MG, but I'm concerned that MG readers will find Feng-Li immature (as I'll discuss) and may not connect to Jia-Xi and Ke-Gāng's more mature (albeit not inappropriate) experiences. The other reason this setup is clunky is that no character gets enough attention. I described the psychological richness of these three siblings, and I would love to see each one get their own book (maybe YA graphic novels for Jia-Xi and Ke-Gāng, and an early reader/MG graphic novel for Feng-Li), focused on their own issues. Even if you did want to keep the stories merged, adding more scenes with the characters on their own (and even letting characters narrate their own chapters) would be helpful for digging into the psychology of these kids.
I also think some characters were troublesome in and of themselves. Ke-Gāng in particular drove me up the wall. His struggles are truly valid, but he consistently, without fail, puts his own needs and complaints ahead of caring for his siblings. And here's the thing—there is no chance that Ke-Gāng can effectively support Jia-Xi and Feng-Li through this clustermess of a situation (I'll get to that too), but he doesn't even try, which I think is the crucial difference. I also want to switch gears to Feng-Li, who I really liked, except that she had a habit of throwing temper tantrums that seemed really childish—I don't think fifth graders would act this way, and although I can imagine a world where Feng-Li regresses amidst the challenge of her situation, that doesn't seem to be the case here, especially since she is our primary POV character. It was hard to get in her shoes during the tantrum moments and understand what exactly was making her so frustrated. Finally, Jia-Xi was the most easily likable character, which I think is why I wished for more development of her in particular than we get here.
Unfortunately, I have a few more concerns. I think this book falls into the trap of "gratuitous trauma" that MG books so often veer towards (see: the dead-parent books, the dead-dog books, the parent-with-cancer books, etc.). I don't think it's gratuitous in Parachute Kids for things to go as wrong for the three siblings as they end up going—because (and I'll get to this too) there's inherent problems with the idea of letting three kids fend for themselves in a foreign country, unsurprisingly. But besides the challenges of being parachute kids, the book then unfortunately adds the challenge of one character getting hospitalized, primarily as a plot device to catalyze the characters' maturity. And I think that particular moment is the straw that breaks the camel's back, and makes me worry this story is simply too much emotionally for MG readers.
My big final concern with this book is how a lot of the moments in the story that are portrayed as problematic are never addressed or resolved. These range from racist microaggressions, to internalized parental pressures, to being forced to stay in the closet. These all happen in the book, and the book clearly isn't endorsing them, but I think MG readers could use a more explicit acknowledgment that these things are not OK. (And then the fact that they still happen, despite not being OK, seems like a theme better suited for YA.) I'm not saying the resolution of this book is bad—in fact, Parachute Kids is very intentional about repairing rifts between characters and restoring the family unit that helps these three siblings thrive. But the resolution prioritizes these relationships while often ignoring the individual struggles that all three kids seem to be facing. I was especially frustrated regarding an instance of queer representation in the story (which I was really excited to see) that didn't end with any characters being challenged to accept and make space for this individual. Honestly, I think the topic of coming out in a culture that often emphasizes family reputation over individual expression is enough for an entire book, and needs way more space to breathe than it gets here.
OK, to be honest, that's a lot of critiques. It makes me sad to see that I've written so many of them, because I really want to like this book, and I honestly do like so much of this story. Because this is a real experience that kids are going through that is wild at best, and alarming at worst—and there's a shocking dearth of books helping these kids feel seen and showing other kids what their experience is like. For those reasons, I'm so grateful to Betty C. Tang for writing this book and giving it her all, even if I think there are ways it could be adjusted that would ultimately make for a stronger story.
I think ultimately—and this is neither praise nor critique—this book makes me wonder about the validity of the parachute-kid system in the first place. When I knew parachute kids back in high school, I didn't realize how this system can actually be a form of immigration. There's certainly more privilege involved, in terms of being wealthy enough to fund your kids' lives overseas, than we see in stories of immigration across the border or in a refugee ship. But it's still immigration—in the case of Taiwan, as this book reminded me, China considers Taiwan its own territory, and if they decided to invade Taiwan and reclaim it (which they well could, considering their military might), who would stop them? Probably not any of the powers that also fail to recognize Taiwan's independence—including the United States. I don't think it's invalid to say that Taiwan is a ticking time bomb, and I can understand why parents make the decision to get their kids out of there, as happened for both Betty C. Tang and the characters she created. At the same time, though, it is clear that this system is immensely damaging to families and kids. When I was a little kid, I was terrified at the prospect of spending an afternoon without my parents—I would have been inconsolable if I was asked to live indefinitely in a foreign country without them. To be honest, I think Parachute Kids goes light on the pain of this seeming abandonment, and that's really the thing that catches my attention most. I guess the ultimate question this book brings up for me is: How much opportunity is worth a childhood full of trauma?
I don't have the answer, but I'm glad books like this are helping us to ask the question.
So you might know this book as the absolute political lightning rod it is—I feel like it's become the literal poster child of book banning. And I am certain that is not what Maia Kobabe was going for when e decided to write such a courageous narrative, only a few years after declaring e would never write something autobiographical again (as noted in the publisher's description above).
What politicians want you to think is that this book is some kind of mind-manipulating calculated propaganda written by an evil genius—and what this actually is, is a sensitive, thoughtful, quietly joyous, and personal book that aims to make people's lives better, one at a time. And of course, there's power implicit in the discreet courage of Kobabe sharing so vulnerably about eir own life—and that power scares the kind of people who want to convince you and your children not to explore and express your own selves.
In short, of course this book is powerful, because what's more powerful than storytelling?
This book doesn't have a plot arc per se, because as we all know, real life rarely proceeds in a nice five-act structure. Instead, Maia Kobabe weaves seemingly disparate moments together with the help of eir clear and anchoring narration on every page. The narration is essential here, because there is complexity in Kobabe's human experience that illustration alone can't quite get at—and yet, the illustrations are essential for conveying the emotion that sometimes seems too intense or tender to put into words.
Kobabe has written this book almost entirely from the perspective that sharing about eir own experience will result in readers feeling seen too—e doesn't need to explicitly acknowledge the audience, because that acknowledgment is implicit in the bravery of putting it all on the page. I think there will be a spectrum of reader familiarity with what Kobabe describes—some readers will be starting from scratch and getting a substantial crash course in LGBTQ+ identity, some readers will be familiar with ideas like dysphoria or asexuality and will see how they look outside of a vacuum, and some readers will feel like virtually every single page is a reflection of their own experience.
Without ever being preachy or didactic, Kobabe explores countless topics including gender expression, crushes, relationships, menstruation-related dysphoria, sex drive, binding, TERFs, and more. We see little brutal moments of hurt amidst an experience of coming out that nevertheless still could have gone worse, and we see big brutal moments of hurt amidst Kobabe's traumatic (and heartrendingly rendered) experience with pap smears. There's so much in here, and the reason it all fits so seamlessly into such a small book is Kobabe's concision—e can convey so much emotion, and so much reality, in just a few words and some deceptively simple illustrations.
We need to talk about this book's exploration of sexuality. I shouldn't make light of something this serious, but also, I can't really get over the sheer irony that the book being lambasted for having too much sexual content is written by someone who is literally asexual and describes having a markedly lower sex drive than eir peers. Like, Congressman _____, if you're this disturbed by how much sexual content is inside Maia Kobabe's head, you should see how much sexual content is inside your own head.
My sense is that people keep equating this book with pornography, and it is a correct fact to say that there are multiple sexually explicit illustrations throughout this book's narrative. But they are not pornography, because the intent of pornography is to cause sexual arousal, whereas the intent of Gender Queer is to depict a person's experience with sexual arousal—and thereby, to normalize sexual arousal—but not to cause it.
I think we as a society are engaged in an impressively thorough act of delusion regarding how much young readers know and understand about sex and sexuality. People literally have sexual impulses as toddlers, y'all. And there's nothing wrong with being aware of the sexual content in this book so you can process it healthily with readers in your life—but the idea that the sexual content in this book is going to corrupt young readers is untrue. Listen—your child is thinking about sex, and will continue to think about sex, and isn't going to die or go to hell because of it, or even suffer because of it unless you make them feel bad about it. Maia Kobabe thought about sex—just like me, and you, and everyone. But unlike everyone, e talked about it, in a published book, in a thoroughly brave attempt to deconstruct the absurd web of weirdness that is our society's understanding of sex.
None of the sexual content in this book is going to hurt anyone, ever. Period.
I love this book. I love it so much, with my whole heart. I really hope people understand how much of a gift it is, a literal gift, a kindness given to us when people like Maia Kobabe choose to chronicle their human experience for us to learn from. Can you imagine the courage it took for Kobabe to study eir own life under a microscope and create this coherent, impactful, smart narrative? Can you imagine the courage it took to push through the attention, positive and negative alike, that came from how this book was treated by literal politicians?
The story of this book's existence is as complicated as the story inside this book—and both matter. And I hope that the story of this book's existence involves yet another person—you—pushing through the narrative you've been told about it, and picking it up, and discovering the story inside it, and realizing that this book isn't a work of propaganda. It's a work of kindness.
Maia Kobabe, thank you for this book. We stand with you. ✊