Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha; Balzar + Bray, 228 pages ($22.99) Ages 12 and up.
This powerful memoir, in graphic novel format, offers a revelatory look at the immigrant experience, at the fear and loneliness and emotional challenges facing a teenager forced to leave everything familiar behind to start over in a new place. It's a story of a mother hoping for a better life for her daughter. It's also a story of art as universal language and of the power of art to offer solace.
Robin Ha grew up in Seoul, Korea, the only child of a single mother who ran a successful beauty salon. When she was 14, her mother took her on a summer vacation to visit a friend in the U.S., a businessman in Alabama. Her mother married the man, and the vacation became a permanent move. ("Just like that, everything I loved was suddenly snatched away from me.") Used to life in a big city, Robin was separated from her friends, her school, her beloved comics, everything familiar, and stuck in this strange, hot, boring place with its terrible food. She did not know much English, wasn't really welcomed by her step-family and was furious at the betrayal by the one person she was closest to in the world: her mom.
Ha is a gifted writer and artist; the art featured in the background of the chapter openers comes from comics she created as a teen. Her panels bring to life her story, vividly portraying the streets of Seoul with its neighborhood cafes, comics store and amusement park, in contrast to the dull Alabama suburb where her step-family lives. When she starts eighth grade – the only foreign student at her Alabama middle school – she becomes the subject of racist taunts and struggles to comprehend lessons taught in English (the school has no English as a Second Language program). Her language difficulties are conveyed in speech balloons containing nonsense scrawls. Her only connection at school is a kind English teacher, who suggests communicating through a journal.
Things finally start looking up when Robin gets a taste of home: letters from her friends and a package of her favorite comics from Korea. Then her mother signs her up for a comics class at a comic book store, a life-changing move where she rediscovers her love of drawing comics and finds a new best friend. Forced to move again when her mother splits with her husband and escapes from his overbearing family, Robin finds herself at the high school in McLean, Va., with many international students and an ESL program where she instantly feels at home: "I felt like a mutant teenager from X-Men who had finally found Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters."
Annie Barrows, author of best-selling and beloved "Ivy + Bean" series, has another winner in this new middle-grade series featuring Iggy Frangi, a high-energy 9-year-old with a talent for getting into trouble. Barrows uses the narrator's voice to engage the young reader (and parents) with great effect, starting with opening line: "All of us do things we wish we hadn't done." And a bit later, "Iggy is what's called the hero of this book. Does that mean he's polite and nice and plays the cello and reads for at least half an hour before bedtime? No."
We first meet an apparently remorseful Iggy lying facedown on the rug of his room: "He has to stay in his room until dinnertime. It's two thirty in the afternoon. That means he has four hours to go. This is his punishment. Part of it, anyway. He is also getting no dessert for a week. Plus no allowance next month. Plus he has to write an apology letter. He is supposed to be writing it right now."
Barrows has more going on here than a kid causing trouble. She is starting an important conversation about not being too hasty to judge – or label – others. In a potentially dangerous incident with another kid, the reader watches events unfold and clearly sees, as the parents coming in at the end do not, how Iggy ends up getting the blame for something that wasn't his fault. In another incident, this one at school, the reader sees what happens when Iggy simply doesn't anticipate the likely outcome of a prank planned with other boys.
The inspiration for Iggy apparently came from Barrows' husband, "who did many wicked things as a boy," according to the publisher's notes. "Like Iggy, Annie's husband wasn't just plain old 'bad:' there are gradients to every situation and the conversation 'The Best of Igy' sparks is a necessary one to have with our children today." That's a conversation about "extenuating circumstances." Kids who read Barrows' book will learn what that means.