MMGM and #IMWAYR: Freestyle, American Born Chinese, My Last Summer with Cass, and more!

My grandfather passed away this week—he was a voracious reader of books and a loyal follower of this blog since its beginning, so I wanted to take a moment to honor and remember him here. He will be missed. ❤️

If you're reading this on Monday, this also happens to be the seven-year anniversary of this blog, and I think this is a good time for me to remember (and share!) how this blog has been a source of joy and connection for such a big chunk of my life. I'm grateful to all of you, whether I regularly comment on your blog or don't know yet who you are, for supporting me on this journey of thinking about the stories I love so deeply!

You might recall from last week that I was recently out of town and read 10 graphic novels, and I still have 5 reviews remaining that I'd like to share today. Then next week, I'll catch you up on what I've been reading during the time that this backlog of vacation reviews has been going up.

Let's dive in!

Middle Grade:

Bad Sister

Written by Charise Mericle Harper and illustrated by Rory Lucey
Graphic memoir · 2021
Recommended by Cheriee Weichel

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

Meet Charise.

She’s energetic, helpful, a model pet owner and full of inventions.

But she’s also a bad sister. When she goes too far and breaks little brother Daniel’s tooth, can she redeem herself? Is an accident really an accident if you could have stopped it? 

But most importantly... What does it mean to be a good sister?

· · · · · ·

Sibling and family relationships are one of those things that should be discussed way more in kidlit than they are, considering how important they are to kids' lives (or at least mine). Luckily, Charise Mericle Harper has a knack for seeing right into the heart of the childhood experience, as I already knew from binging her Just Grace chapter books like crazy when I was a young reader myself.

Here, Harper has crafted an immensely brave and scarily relatable memoir of the challenges that come with sibling relationships. Bad Sister brings to life how siblings—the ones who are stuck with you forever—end up becoming the perfect place to channel all your worst and most difficult impulses, of anger and jealousy and overcontrol and impulsivity. And it also brings to life how hard it is to get out of those cycles when (a) you're a kid with an underdeveloped frontal lobe, (b) your sibling will keep on forgiving you (or so it seems), and (c) you're dealing with actual frustrations of your own that are so hard to navigate. (One of Charise's includes prosopagnosia, or an inability to recognize faces.)

As an older brother myself, this hit so close to home—I may not have permanently injured my younger brother, but I can recall a temporary injury! (Thankfully, we're really close now.) I feel like these kinds of behaviors can inspire so much shame later on, and seeing that I'm not the only kid who was a little bit evil to their sibling is honestly so reassuring. And I'm sure kids in this situation will appreciate having a kind of guidebook to process their difficult feelings in new ways so they can, hopefully, treat their siblings with kindness!

Harper's writing in this book is startlingly brilliant. She manages to write from the perspective of an adult and a kid at once, bringing to life the train of thought that caused her childhood self to do what she did (and trust me, you've thought these thoughts too) while also lending the perspective of someone who gets it, and who deeply appreciates her sibling as an adult too. She intermingles childhood Charise's narration with the dialogue in a way that feels like an eerie countdown to seemingly-inevitable events. I'm really not exaggerating when I say that the actual words in a graphic novel are rarely as well done as they are here.

And Rory Lucey's art is gorgeous, full of rich colors and expressive faces and all the good things you hope for in graphic novel art—he has brought this narrative to life!

I love how clearly Daniel is shown to be the wonderful kid Charise is both jealous of and, ultimately, hoping to do better by. And yet, I also wished for a little bit more love for Charise (maybe it's the older sibling in me). I sensed there was a reason Daniel kept on forgiving her, and she had moments of truly good sisterhood even when she was convinced she was bad. And it certainly seemed like her parents, who ranged from a bit absentee to full-on frightening, weren't helping her self-esteem all that much.

Overall, Bad Sister has a unique and fully brilliant premise, and it's been realized pretty much flawlessly by Harper and Lucey. This book hurts to read at times, but it's one of the rare pieces of kidlit that truly brings to life what it's like to think and act as a kid. Young readers will learn so much about themselves (and their siblings, older or younger!) from this one-of-a-kind graphic novel!

Freestyle

Written and illustrated by Gale Galligan
Graphic novel · 2022
Recommended by Lisa Maucione

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

From New York Times bestselling author Gale Galligan, a fun, high-energy graphic novel about friendship, family, and the last hurrahs of middle school.

Cory's dance crew is getting ready for a major competition. It's the last one before they graduate eighth grade and go their separate ways to high schools all over New York City, so they have to make it count! The group starts to have problems as their crew captain gets increasingly intense about nailing the routine, and things go from bad to worse when Cory's parents ground him for not taking his grades seriously. He gets stuck with a new tutor, Sunna, who he dismisses as a boring nerd… until he catches her secretly practicing cool yo-yo tricks. Cory wants to learn the art of yo-yo, and as his friendship with Sunna grows, he ends up missing practice and bailing on his crew -- and they are not happy about it. With mounting pressure coming from all sides, how is Cory supposed to balance the expectations of his parents, school, dance, and his new friend?

· · · · · ·

This was so good! I had a blast reading it, and I'm glad to finally be introduced to Gale Galligan's work (they actually worked as Raina Telgemeier's assistant before succeeding her on the Baby-sitters Club graphic novel adaptations!).

And I will say, this book would pair phenomenally with Scout Is Not a Band Kid from last week—they feel like two peas from the same pod to me!

First off, where else are you going to find so many unique topics crammed into a single book? Freestyle's characters are into breakdancing and yo-yoing, both of which seem like fascinating ways to express oneself now that I've learned the tiniest smidge about them from this book. And the book gets at all that typical MG energy and it's set in New York City (just like my previous read, My Last Summer with Cass, reviewed below)! I feel like this is a winning combination of elements already.

I also love how this book gets into the head of not one, not two, but three different characters—Cory, his tutor and budding friend Sunna, and his breakdance team captain Tess—without getting in over its head! As a quiet, book-smart kid, Sunna felt like a complete kindred spirit, and I loved her instantly. But as a quiet, book-smart kid, I initially projected the stereotype of "misbehaving boy" onto Cory—and that was completely unfair, because he defied my assumptions and quickly became a delightful protagonist in and of himself!

And there's great themes in here. Living up to family expectations, trying to develop your talents individually while also taking your team's needs into account, juggling school and extracurriculars and relationships and sleep (oh, precious sleep), balancing old and new friendships to make everyone feel cared for, and learning to truly listen and show up when your friends need you—it's all here, and it's all impressively fleshed out and compelling for a book that really doesn't feel that long!

This is Galligan's solo graphic novel debut, and their writing is stellar—the plot beats, the dialogue, everything goes off without a hitch. And their art is irresistibly giddy and radiant, full of color and creative layouts and adorable character eyes, yet also never so chaotic that it becomes difficult to parse.

I'm so glad I gave this book a shot, because it's a stellar addition to the graphic novel canon—I imagine it will fly off the shelves thanks to its intriguing, kid-friendly premises, yet it will stay with those same readers for a long time thanks to its depth and smart writing!

Middle Grade/Young Adult:

American Born Chinese

Written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang
Graphic novel · 2006

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

All Jin Wang wants is to fit in. When his family moves to a new neighborhood, he suddenly finds that he's the only Chinese American student at his school. Jocks and bullies pick on him constantly, and he has hardly any friends. Then, to make matters worse, he falls in love with an all-American girl...

Born to rule over all the monkeys in the world, the story of the Monkey King is one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables. Adored by his subjects, master of the arts of kung-fu, he is the most powerful monkey on earth. But the Monkey King doesn't want to be a monkey. He wants to be hailed as a god...

Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, and he's ruining his cousin Danny's life. Danny's a popular kid at school, but every year Chin-Kee comes to visit, and every year Danny has to transfer to a new school to escape the shame. This year, though, things quickly go from bad to worse...

These three apparently unrelated tales come together with an unexpected twist, in a modern fable that is hilarious, poignant and action-packed. American Born Chinese is an amazing rise, all the way up to the astonishing climax--and confirms what a growing number of readers already know: Gene Yang is a major talent.

· · · · · ·

Fun fact (sort of): I tried to read this four years ago, but I was also having a nervous breakdown at the time and quit in the middle, through no fault of the book. And now, pretty much one year after having read Gene Luen Yang's Dragon Hoops, I finally returned to finish it!

Another fun fact (this one's actually fun): this is one of the most important kidlit graphic novels ever! It broke new ground for graphic novels by winning the Printz Award (for YA lit) and becoming a National Book Award finalist. It was one of the first books published by First Second all the way back in 2006 (if we're keeping count compared to my recent reviews, that's 2 years before Skim and 4 years before Smile). And it was just adapted into a TV series on Disney+!

So there are obviously quite a few reasons why this book has remained so successful 17 years later, and why it paved the way for Gene Luen Yang's hugely successful career as a graphic novelist.

This book combines three different plot lines, running the gamut from full-on fantasy grounded in Chinese mythology, to realistic fiction set in that most unnerving of settings (White suburbia), to what is essentially a terrifying sitcom built entirely around the most offensive stereotypes of Chinese people. This sounds like a lot to juggle while staying focused, but they converge brilliantly at the end with the help of not one, but two skillful twists, aided by some keen foreshadowing.

Ultimately, despite all the different plots and characters, this story is really focused on a single theme, which I might sum up as "assimilation." We see in American Born Chinese how, when you face bullying and explicit/implicit criticism for your heritage or who you are, you begin to compartmentalize your own self into the things that are "acceptable"—and the things that aren't. But when you try to run from those things that aren't acceptable, toward the things that are...you become afraid of who you are, deep down.

Gene Luen Yang is so freaking brilliant, and he is able to tell this story so deftly in so little space. His sense of humor is cutting, and his ability to make every single detail, including anecdotes that seem totally irrelevant, point toward the end goal of the story is remarkable. He creates a disturbingly real picture of American culture at its worst—and he crafts one character who is a cautionary tale to White readers like myself, who seems to want to "stay out of" the messy topic of race entirely, and who goes from pushing back against bigotry to casually perpetrating it himself.

And one more thing: Yang says in his author's note how, paradoxically, the feeling of being an outsider is one pretty much all humans can relate to. And for that reason, I love how he doesn't take us into the characters' heads when they face micro- and macroaggressions in the story. Because by minimizing specifics, he causes us to automatically fill in the gaps with that feeling as we've felt it. Instead of watching someone else suffer and trying to imagine it...he reminds us that we know exactly what this feeling is like already, because we've all lived it.

It's just so nice when you pick up a book and it does exactly what it set out to do. No chaos, no nonsense—just pitch-perfect plotting and progression that tells a meaningful narrative. American Born Chinese is exactly this kind of book, and I'm so glad to have finally read it and seen for myself why it changed the graphic novel landscape.

Young Adult:

My Last Summer with Cass

Written and illustrated by Mark Crilley
Graphic novel · 2021
Recommended by Rebecca Herzog

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

Megan and Cass have been joined at the brush for as long as they can remember. For years, while spending summers together at a lakeside cabin, they created art together, from sand to scribbles . . . to anything available. Then Cass moved away to New York.

When Megan finally convinces her parents to let her spend a week in the city, too, it seems like Cass has completely changed. She has tattoos, every artist in the city knows her. She even eats chicken feet now! At least one thing has stayed the same: They still make their best art together.

But when one girl betrays the other's trust on the eve of what is supposed to be their greatest artistic feat yet, can their friendship survive? Can their art?

· · · · · ·

This book is phenomenal. I cannot believe I let this sit on my shelf for literal years before reading it (heard that before?).

First off, I love Megan and Cass so much. I had this idea that the entire book was built around their disintegrating friendship, when in fact, their reunion after a long time spent apart brings them just as close together as they had always been. Megan narrates the story like she's telling it to you, a friend, while the way hurt and creativity simmer within Cass in equal measure is amazing to watch. And it's so satisfying to see both characters together, whether drawing on the wall of the rental house they shared as kids or trying to find that same artistic spark as young adults now.

And this book has brilliant insights about art and creativity. Megan and Cass used to create art together as kids, and now that Megan is pushing back against her parents to try and attend art school, she's more than ready to fall into the NYC art scene that Cass has found a place in. It's fascinating seeing the different characters in the story and the kind of works they create, and the book makes great points about how to push past self-doubt to develop your skills as an artist. But most importantly, My Last Summer with Cass raises the question of who we create art for—and whether we can ever have the freedom to say exactly what we want in our art, regardless of what people think. It's so interesting, and so well-executed.

The book also explores different kinds of family challenges, from families that are nominally loving but also suffocating, to families that have truly disintegrated and hurt the kids within them. These challenges aren't the absolute main point of the story but form the psychological framework for the characters' motivations in the book.

I also really appreciate that My Last Summer with Cass is willing to face the true depth of the mistakes all its characters make, so that apologies never feel hollow and no single character is ever turned into the bad guy.

And the stunning, sketchlike, color-morphing art creates an incredible, atmospheric portrait of New York City that is easy to sink into. (As someone who wants to visit NYC thanks to books like Goodbye Stranger, I especially loved this!)

On the cover of this book, Mark Crilley compares a good friendship to a work of art—and I'm more than happy to compare this book to a work of art, because it is one. This story features pitch-perfect characters, an immersive setting, and deep wisdom about the process of art and creativity. Please, don't miss this incredible graphic novel.

Young Adult/Adult:

I Was Their American Dream

Written and illustrated by Malaka Gharib
Graphic memoir · 2019

· · · The publisher says: · · ·

I Was Their American Dream is at once a coming-of-age story and a reminder of the thousands of immigrants who come to America in search for a better life for themselves and their children. The daughter of parents with unfulfilled dreams themselves, Malaka navigated her childhood chasing her parents' ideals, learning to code-switch between her family's Filipino and Egyptian customs, adapting to white culture to fit in, crushing on skater boys, and trying to understand the tension between holding onto cultural values and trying to be an all-American kid.

Malaka Gharib's triumphant graphic memoir brings to life her teenage antics and illuminates earnest questions about identity and culture, while providing thoughtful insight into the lives of modern immigrants and the generation of millennial children they raised. Malaka's story is a heartfelt tribute to the American immigrants who have invested their future in the promise of the American dream.

· · · · · ·

I hope the shorter length of this review doesn't make you think this book is proportionally less awesome, because if anything, it's more awesome than others I've shared recently!

I actually found out about Malaka Gharib's second graphic memoir, It Won't Always Be Like This, first—I think I discovered it because it's blurbed by Mira Jacob, creator of Good Talk, which I loved and reviewed recently. I definitely want to read It Won't Always Be Like This, but I figured backing up and reading Gharib's first memoir first would make more sense—and I'm so glad I did!

This lively graphic memoir crams a lot into about 160 pages. With great care, Gharib starts the book off by describing her mother and father's highly different experiences coming to the United States from the Philippines and Egypt, respectively. She shows us her own experiences with her parents' cultures and with family members on both sides, while also showing what it was like to navigate her parents' expectations in hopes that she could bring their American dream to life. Gharib shows the ups and downs of a childhood spent at diverse schools and a college experience that was predominantly White—these ups and downs include microaggressions insinuating that she is either too "whitewashed" or not White enough. Gharib depicts her experience falling in love with and marrying a wonderful White man. And most importantly, she shows us what it was like to find her identity as a person rooted in the three different cultures of her parents' home countries, and her own.

love how Gharib writes—this book is so full of heart and humor and hope, and you will laugh pretty much all the way through! The story is imbued with giggle-worthy snippets of conversation as well as clever interstitial pages, like page 32's challenge to "circle all the things my parents didn't allow," shown below. And her artwork practically vibrates with energy and whimsy—she cleverly bends a red-white-and-blue color scheme to tell her un-stereotypical yet fully American story.

(Click to enlarge)

While there are some mild references to condoms and other adult topics that might preclude the youngest of readers from enjoying this, I think YA audiences and above will get so much out of this wise and joyous memoir. I Was Their American Dream makes clear why Gharib sees herself as all the better for coming from the backgrounds she does. And it is a deep look into an experience so many readers will relate to and learn from.

Bookish thoughts:

I saw that the sixth book in Kayla Miller's Click series, Break, is scheduled to come out in January—and it looks so good! So I'll be looking forward to that for five months.

That's all, y'all—have a great week! ✨✨

Comments

  1. I am so sorry to hear about your grandfather; I love that he was a loyal reader of your blog.
    Happy blogoversary (for Monday)! 7 years is great; I am glad that I have found it as you've really helped keep me abreast of graphic novels to read. American Born Chinese and Last Summer are both soooo good!

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  2. So sorry for the loss of your grandfather. That's awesome that he loved to read and followed your blog. American Born Chinese sounds really good. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  3. So sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing all of these wonderful books..

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  4. I ordered American Born Chinese from my library. Thanks for recommending it. I'm sorry for your loss. Carol Baldwin

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  5. I'm sorry to hear about your grandfather, and hope that you are able to concentrate on the good memories of him as you and your family go forward. Congratulations of your seventh blogiversary! What a grest accomplishment. Thanks for the heads up on BREAK. As an older sister, I enjoyed Bad Sister because I was definitely not that bad!

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  6. I had checked Bad Sister out from the library at one point, but had to return it before I got to read it. Sounds like one I should check out again. Glad you liked Freestyle and thanks for the shout-out. I agree that it has great themes.

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  7. Congratulations on your big anniversary and my deepest condolences on the loss of your grandfather. His memory will always be with you and your family.
    Bad Sister's cover says it all. I had three sisters growing up so your review has me anxious to give this one a read. I had not heard of the other two books you featured but those also have endearing characters certain to win me over. Have a HAPPY MMGM!

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  8. American Born Chinese is what made me see graphic novels in a new light

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  9. You know I'm not much of a graphic novel fan, but I have to admit your review of My Last Summer with Cass made me put it on my TBR list. It looks very interesting. Thanks for all your work on this very long post.

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  10. So sorry to hear about the loss of your grandfather. How wonderful that he loved reading and loved your blog, what a sad loss to you and your family. Congratulations on 7 years, that's a lot of reviews :) And thanks for such thoughtful, indepth reviews today, they all sound wonderful books! Thanks for sharing!

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