Sunday, January 3, 2021

MMGM and #IMWAYR (1/4/2021): Almost American Girl by Robin Ha

Welcome to 2021! I've been trying to write something profound or at least funny to say before we begin, but I have nothing. Except that, since 2020 is in the past, I guess you could say that hindsight is 2020. Ha, ha...groan. I do want to mention that my plans to organize my bookcases hit a snag when the perfect bookcase I ordered showed up damaged in several places because the box had basically no padding. I got a refund, but I'm waiting now for different bookcases to show up. Sigh.

OK, on with the review! For MMGM and #IMWAYR, I am recommending the graphic memoir Almost American Girl by Robin Ha.

FYI, there is cursing in this book, which doesn't concern me at all, but I'm still telling you regardless.




          This story magically algorithmically showed up in my Amazon suggestions a few months ago, so I bought it, and I loved it (though I'm not the first one—check out #IMWAYR blogger Cheriee Weichel's recommendation of it as well on Library Matters)! Almost American Girl is the memoir of author/illustrator Robin Ha. As a child in Seoul, South Korea, Robin has a pretty good life: she has many good friends who share her love of reading Korean and Japanese comics, and although her single mother draws some glares in South Korea's conservative society at the time, she and Robin have a close bond that is hard to break. But it gets tested when Robin's mother decides to upend her and Robin's lives by moving them from South Korea...to Alabama. Robin's mother gets remarried, and Robin finds herself with a new family she struggles to bond with, a predominantly-White school where she is an outcast (especially considering she barely speaks English), and a mother who she can barely look at. But with the help of a few kids, a comic-drawing class, and further family upheaval (it's good this time, I promise), Robin starts to find both herself and her place in America.

          My brain is functioning as if someone ran it through a blender and poured the liquid back into my skull, so I'm having trouble composing any thoughts about this book, which is a shame, because it is wonderful!!! One of the striking things about Almost American Girl is how nuanced its depiction of culture is. We've all seen the book where the one non-White kid is an outcast in the sea of White kids and desperately wants to fit in. What we probably haven't seen is the book where the one non-White kid is an outcast in the sea of White kids but ends up not bothering with them and finds their place elsewhere. Almost American Girl is that latter type of book. Try as she might (and just walking in those school doors every morning must have required so much effort that I have no idea how Robin managed it), Robin cannot find her place in Alabama. Family's no good—Robin's mother's new marriage falls apart as quickly as it starts, and her stepfamily is not exactly welcoming. School's awful, too—it's really hard to make friends when you are the first non-White person most of your classmates have ever witnessed, and it's not like Robin is going to magically turn an entire school into some multicultural antiracist haven—this is reality, not some ridiculous fairy tale. So Robin doesn't bother with that. Almost American Girl dares to have Robin find her place somewhere else—a place where she isn't the first immigrant known to man, a place where ESL classes exist, a place that reflects the true diversity of this melting pot of a nation. And in this place, where Robin isn't having to bear the load of introducing the entire concept of race to an entire school, she starts to realize that America might actually be better than South Korea in some ways. In South Korea, at the time of the story, single mothers were judged even more deeply than they are here, women were expected to submit to men in so many ways that it is positively ridiculous, and getting a job meant also getting a nose job so that employers could see on your headshots that you weren't ugly. America is a hard place to get used to, and it has its own bucketful of flaws, but Robin finds over the course of the story that she might have left South Korea right before her own life would have gotten hard there too. I found all of this detail to be incredibly nuanced, especially for an MG book, which is just one of many things that makes Almost American Girl so good!

           What else makes Almost American Girl so good? Well, Robin is a truly delightful protagonist. She's obviously a real person, so everything about her is incredibly true-to-life, and readers really see how she is not the outcast who cannot speak that America makes her out to be, but a smart and kindhearted kid with a passion/talent for drawing and an unbreakable will to make the best of a bad nightmarishly awful situation. Also, Almost American Girl's depiction of Robin's relationship with her mother is incredibly nuanced as well; Robin's mother is far from perfect, but her drive to help her daughter succeed both in South Korea and in America is truly incredible, and the story has a series of anecdotes (and one entire chapter) that really explore the lengths Robin's mother would go to for her daughter. I would say it's incredibly nuanced, but I just used that exact phrase to describe this exact attribute, so I'll say instead that it is truly multifaceted and just beautiful! There aren't really any other important characters in Almost American Girl, so we really get to explore Robin and her mother and get to know them, which is just fantastic!

          Almost American Girl is labeled an "illustrated memoir" on its cover, but I would call it a graphic memoir—really, though, neither term is accurate. Essentially, this book has comic panels on every page, just like any graphic novel would, but it also has a ton of narration. Like, almost as much as in Relish by Lucy Knisley (which borders on just being a book with a lot of illustrations). Almost American Girl reads quite a bit like a written novel, which would make it a great graphic novel to start with if you've never really gotten into the genre before. For graphic novel fans like me, the amount of text was a bit shocking (and a bit pedantic at times), but I quickly settled into the rhythm, and I appreciated how the words added the nuance and depth that drawings would likely have struggled to convey in the book. Still, though, Almost American Girl has wonderful art! The style is detailed and in full color, and it really helps to put you in Robin's shoes and feel exactly what she is feeling. (Also, I love the chapter divider pages, which feature watercolor illustrations posing as Polaroids on top of real comics Robin Ha drew as a kid—which are stunningly beautiful!) Almost American Girl has a different word-illustration balance than most graphic novels, but that is in no way a bad thing, and for readers of traditional books, it's a great thing!

           Speed round! I'm just going to throw out random details, because my aforementioned brain smoothie seems to be evaporating right out of my head. Almost American Girl does a great job showing readers exactly what parts of South Korea Robin misses so much—anecdotes of Robin's mother's salon or of Robin and her friends reading comics help to set the scene very well. In America, you probably know that many Asian people are expected to pick names that sound more American, which is obviously super-racist, so I was delighted to find that even that viewpoint misses the full story: Robin was actually thrilled to get rid of her Korean name, Chuna, which she compares to American names like Bertha or Myrtle in its old-fashionedness. Almost American Girl discreetly throws in quite a bit of exploration about Robin's mother's failing relationships with her first husband and with her new husband (with him, it doesn't help that her in-laws want her to drop everything and pour more time and effort into his failing business venture). Despite this story sounding incredibly depressing, it moves so fast and with so many details and anecdotes that you don't have too much time to dwell on the sorrow, which makes it a much more manageable read. One more detail: I barely talked about the comic-drawing class, but it definitely helps Robin find kids who are actually like her and share her interests—go extracurriculars!

          This review is really not the one Almost American Girl deserves. I finished this book several days before I got around to writing this review, so my thoughts are dreadfully incoherent. I hope I am still conveying to you how impressed I was by Almost American Girl, though! This book is a thoughtful, introspective, and nuanced look at how a girl and the mother she relies on leave a nation that seems to reject them at every turn and find their place in a new nation that also seems to reject them at every turn. This book takes the best powers of words and drawings to create a story with countless details and features that I don't want to give away. Thus, I hope you'll pick up a copy of Almost American Girl and see for yourself how, no matter how many books you read about middle-graders, or immigrants, or comic artists, you always have more to learn, especially from a book this insightful!

(Update: I just saw that Almost American Girl is a finalist in the Cybils' YA Graphic Novel category! So really, get a copy of this book!)

My rating is: Really good!


28 comments:

  1. Hey, I appreciate the attempt at a joke! The brain through a blender feeling has been about normal for me, lately. I even bought ingredients for one of those brain defogger recipes because I've GOT to try something to get out of this funk! I’m finding that if I don’t immediately write my review, important parts and pieces of my books fall through the cracks. Like seriously, I’ll sit down to write a few days later and I got nothing except the synopsis (unless I did a good job of recording quotes that help me recall what I loved). It’s a terrifying feeling, especially since I watched two of my grandfathers go through years of dementia and I’m always like, “What if this is how it started?” :( Anyway, I’m going to go look up Almost American Girl right now — hopefully we have it available in our tri-college library or on Overdrive. Thank you for sharing!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't think it's dementia so much as just the extreme stress we're under right now! I usually have a pretty good memory, and I've found myself forgetting what people say to me about five seconds after they say it. I'm glad you enjoyed my joke! I hope you enjoy Almost American Girl, and thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  2. I have it on my list! As for the brain/blender. I've jumped around in my reading so much this year, hoping that 2021 will make it better. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely hope 2021 will just be more organized! I hope you enjoy the book, and thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  3. The joke was fun -- I liked it, since I am the last person in the world to tell a joke.

    This book sounds like my kind of story -- other than the graphic novel part of it. But, since there is a lot of narrative, it may be a good way to get me to read a graphic novel. Don't see many book about South Korean immigrations, so that caught my eye immediately! I like your comments about the protagonist. And I saw it was a finalist in the Cybils. That's another plus for reading this story! Thanks for your thoughtful review.

    I try to review a book within a day of finishing it. Or, I have trouble. Don't dare go on to another book, even if its a PB review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really do think this is a great book for non-graphic-novel readers to try out the format! Graphic novels can really feel like a big jump from prose/verse novels, but it's surprising how fast you can get used to them! I definitely made a mistake not to write this review quickly enough! Thanks so much for stopping by (and for appreciating my joke)!

      Delete
  4. Sounds interesting. Thanks for your review!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

      Delete
  5. I really appreciate that complexity and nuance - life is rarely good/bad, and anyone who has moved anywhere knows that any place can have good and bad aspects, and that home can mean many different things. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's an awesome point! I have only moved places once, when I was 3 years old, but I can imagine that moving again would definitely change my definition of home to being more than one place. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  6. Boy, the brain in the blender description is perfectly apt for me as well. Thanks for your very thorough review of this book. It sounds great.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad the book sounds appealing! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

      Delete
  7. I'm glad this book is a CYBIL's finalist. The main character alone would be enough to capture the attention of young readers. Thanks for sharing on today's MMGM.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course! I'm glad to see it as a Cybils finalist—it's nice to have awards that aren't solely for dead-parent books (I'm looking at you, Newbery)! Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  8. I have shared before that I do not read a lot of upper middle grade or YA as an elementary school reading specialist but your review has me intrigued.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also struggle to branch out from my own preferred age range (MG and YA), so I'm thrilled that this book intrigued you nonetheless! Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  9. I really enjoyed All American Girl too. I included it on my best YA Graphic Novels of 2020 list. :) I really love that more and more memoirs are being done in the graphic/comic format. And yes, the label is tricky. Not truly a novel, so graphic memoir is possible, illustrated memoir makes sense, but then doesn't really acknowledge the comic format, but I haven't heard a more accurate and effective term yet.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You have a Best YA Graphic Novels of 2020 list??!! I need to look at that ASAP! I think the confusion of the name comes from the fact that this book doesn't have a lot of words and few drawings ("illustrated memoir") or a few words and a lot of drawings ("graphic memoir")—it has a lot of words AND a lot of drawings! I also love seeing all of these graphic memoirs! Thanks so much for stopping by, and I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!

      Delete
  10. This sounds like a great book that a lot of kids could relate too, and it could help them find their place in the world. As a mom of a daughter adopted in China, I thought a lot about helping my daughter feel comfortable with her identity. Wish this book had been around when she grew up.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely wish it had been around then as well! It's definitely a very powerful story that, thankfully, has been written so that even younger readers will be able to make sense of it. Thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  11. I adored this book and am so excited to see it as one of the Cybil's finalists for this year. The amount of text didn't bother me, but I will look at it more closely when I reread it in the next month or so.
    I was torn between purchasing this and Banned Books for my Korean daughter in law. I ended up getting Banned Books because I thought she would appreciate it more, but...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Good thing there will always be more holidays to give her books! ;) The amount of text shocked me at first glance, but I got completely used to it within just a few pages. I'm really glad you enjoyed the book, and thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  12. Just requested it from my library. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Of course! I really hope you enjoy the book, and thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

      Delete
  13. Some YA books just have too much cursing. It's just not... imaginative. If my students can get suspended for using the words in the hallway, I don't want to buy books that model that kind of language!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I definitely get what you mean. The cursing in this book didn't really bother me that much as a reader (and I cannot fathom MG readers haven't heard those words before), but I can also imagine middle-schoolers cursing and then saying, "But Robin gets to say it in the book!" Perhaps publishers should offer "clean" versions to libraries and schools (though does that get too close to censorship?). Sigh. Anyway, thanks so much for stopping by!

      Delete
  14. Oh, I have reorganizing on my list of things to do, as well. And that always means another book shelf, lol!
    I've heard so many great things about this one, glad to see it's getting some Cybil love too!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I have this one on my TBR, thanks to Cybils; and since I am now done with my round 1 nonfiction reading, I can get on with other categories!!

    ReplyDelete

Please feel free to leave a comment—I always love reading them!