"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · recommend · series

{comic} a secret worth sharing

Secret Coders by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

First Second, 2015

My copy was an Advanced Readers Copy thanks to First Second & NetGalley

Welcome to Stately Academy, a school which is just crawling with mysteries to be solved! The founder of the school left many clues and puzzles to challenge his enterprising students. Using their wits and their growing prowess with coding, Hopper and her friend Eni are going to solve the mystery of Stately Academy no matter what it takes!–publisher’s comments

In short, this book is fantastic!

The images and paneling are straightforward cartoon expositions. The reader can relax into the non-threatening artistic rendering and engage with the energy of the image and dialog. Hopper is a firework and Eni is smooth. Yang has a great sense of comedic timing and manages a pleasing plot revelation now and again. Secret Coders is smart in that it is educational and—super important—entertaining.

In his closing note to the readers, Gene Luen Yang writes:

“Coding is creative and powerful. It’s how words turn into image and action It truly is magic. Mike Holmes and I made the book you now hold in your hands because we want to share a bit of that magic with you, and maybe inspire you to become a magician—a coder—yourself.”

Yang and Holmes provide puzzles and the space to solve them without their feeling out of place in the narrative. The code-work builds in complication, leaving the last as an aspect of the cliffhanger. I’m looking forward to volume 2 for the sake of not only the mystery laid out in the story, but I want to know if my solution is correct.


recommendation: for lovers of sports and/or math, mysteries and humor. an easy sell for STEM, so gift this one to the classroom and school library, friends.


"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · juvenile lit · poet-related · recommend · short story · Uncategorized

{book} open mic

Open Mic: Riffs on Life Between Cultures in Ten Voices

edited by Mitali Perkins

Candlewick, 2013. (ages 12 & up)

hardcover, 127pages w/ “About the Contributors.” Library loan.

As Mitali Perkins observes in her “Introduction,” “humor has the power to break down barriers and cross borders. Once you’ve shared a laugh with someone, it’s almost impossible to see them as ‘other'” (x). Open Mic wants to tap into this power, employing ten gifted humorists to talk about growing up between cultures. There are prose and poems (x2) and a comic by Gene Luen Yang (ABC Chinese, Boxers & Saints), and even the comedic stylings vary so Perkins does a great job preparing for a broad readership–in other words, you can hand this to any middle-grader and they should find at least one out of the ten that will entertain.

Perkins does set down some rules, understanding that race can be a “tension-filled arena” (xi). It is a really good guide and includes a paragraph each in explication (which I obviously chose not to include below):

1. Good humor pokes fun at the powerful–not the weak.

2. Good humor builds affection for the “other.”

3. Good humor is usually self-deprecatory (note: not self-defecatory, although it can feel like that). (xi-xii)

A last bit from the “Introduction” on a hot topic in literature:

While I usually don’t like edicts about who can write about whom, in a post-9/11 North America, where segregation, slavery and even genocide aren’t too far back in history, funny multicultural stories work best when the author shares the protagonist’s race or culture. Funny is powerful, and that’s why in this case it does matter who tells a story. Writing that explores issues of race and ethnicity with a touch of humor must stay closer to memoir than other kinds of fiction on the spectrum of storytelling. (xii)

That said, none of the authors are White. Of the ten stories (a temperate number that hopefully hints at a series) Perkins includes herself and a brilliant variation of cultures w/ authors coming directly  (born in) or indirectly (generational) from roots in Mexico, Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Palestine, India; Hispanic, African-American, or as G.Neri describes himself: “I’m Creole, Filipino, and Mexican–or as I like to call it, Crefilican. On top of that, my daughter is also German” (124). Many of the authors are well-traveled since childhood, and Debbie Rigaud is currently living in Bermuda.

What follows are brief remarks on the contents w/ links to author sites. One of reasons I love anthologies (on young and older shelves) is the opportunity to meet new voices and discover new reads. Many of these authors write Young Adult and, er, Not-Just-Young-Adult literature, like David Yoo who begins the collection with a good humor-setting tone, accessibility (read familiarity for anyone, including those of my western European ancestry), and insight the anthology is going for. The collection ends with some especially strong story-telling. (*=favorites)

“Becoming Henry Lee” by David Yoo (Choke ArtistThe Detention Club prose (1-13). 

This Korean-American protagonist is neither White nor Asian enough to abide by those (un)comfortable and ill-fitted cultural stereotypes. Besides dealing with public personas and private crises of identity (think school & parental aspirations), Yoo touches on festishization of culture, a step beyond mere appropriation. Big kid words, I know, but Yoo balances what even a young reader will understand as serious beneath that palatable guise of good humor.

“Why I Won’t Be Watching the Last Airbender Movie” by Gene Luen Yang. comic (16-9). *

first: Derek Kirk Kim (Same Difference, The Eternal Smile, Good as Lily) makes an appearance. Of course, the two are friends and frequent collaborators, but they also share a similar stake in what the comic is about. White-washing happens in multiple forms, as does cultural ventriloquism. Speaking up against this is of import for multiple reasons, and Yang offers a unexpected point to the story’s ending. A point of contention offers an invitation to engage (if not instigate) a conversation; what if it offered an invitation in return?

“Talent Show” by Cherry Cheva (author; writer & exec. producer on Family Guy) prose (20-30). *

Two students, a Jewish male and Asian female, await their turn to audition for the school talent show. It is sweet and funny and I can’t say too much because it would just recalibrate expectations: which is some of what the piece is about.

“Voilà!” by Debbie Rigaud (Perfect Shot) prose (31-42).

“Yup–I’m fourteen now.” I nod, squeezing the last bit of polite from my reserves. “And yes–both my parents are from Haiti.” […] I shrug. People have assumed this before–that I’m only half Haitian. Or at least, those who can’t understand how a person with longer hair or lighter skin could come from Haiti” (32-33)

Above illustrates just one form of misidentification that Rigaud explores; language and other popular assumptions make appearances. Rigaud has fun with miscommunication up until the very end both lamenting and finding humor in people’s ignorance.

“Three Pointer” by Mitali Perkins (Bamboo People, Secret Keeper) prose (43-54).

Three Indian sisters, of whom the narrator is the youngest, play the “Guy Game,” yes, it has to do with dating–and no, their parents who were arranging marriages and degree programs were left unaware of their antics (44). The premise facilitates also sorts of topics on cultural and generational differences and similarities in ways that educate and certainly entertain.

“Like Me” by Varian Johnson (Saving Maddie, My Life as a Rhombus) prose (55-68). *

“With about thirty students per grade, Hobbs is the smallest boarding school in Vermont. Our demographics are just like the state’s. White, white, and white.

“I guess that’s not fair. Technically Rebecca is “one-eight German, three-eighths Sephardic-Jewish, and one-half Irish.” And Evan has enough Muskogee blood running through him to be a member of the Creek Nation. Still, I didn’t see anyone looking at them when we talked about the Holocaust or the Trail of Tears last year in World History. But let anyone mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Will Smith or even the slightly black-looking dude who trims Principal Greer’s prized rosebushes, and suddenly I’m the center of the attention.” (57)

Now twin girls have joined Hobbs and the questions of relationships begin to surface. Seeing and not seeing difference is handled deftly while calling out those awkward conversations on stereotype, in-group criticisms, the jokes people tell that aren’t all that funny.

“Confessions of a Black Geek” by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (8th Grade Super Zero) prose (69-78).

I found the pop culture references amusing and was interested in where black geek and white geek might diverge or intersect. The seriousness, how personal, had a diminishing effect on earlier comedic tones at the close. Do not expect the stories to end on punch-lines, many have a heartening declaration like this one.

“Under Berlin” G. Neri (YummyGhetto Cowboy) long poem (79-99) **

My dad is black,/in a real southern way./But Mom is a light-skinned Hispanic/from Puerto Rico,/so I’m as black as Obama, I guess,/which is only half./My bro rolls his eyes. “Sorry./I meant ‘mixed American;” (83).

I am not awarding this one extra points for mention of currywurst, but the story of a family on the subway (in the literal underbelly) of Berlin is one of my favorites. It is rich with personality, like many of the others, but easy and playful, tender and smart, despite that “tension-filled arena.”

“Brotherly Love” by Francisco X. Stork (Marcelo and the Real World, Irises) prose (100-13). **

Touching on machismo and religion, sweetly and deftly, Stork is unsurprisingly pitch-perfect with this story about Luis talking to his sister. Sometimes that life between cultures is experience within a community and between generations and gender. This one is so well-done.

“Lexicon” by Naomi Shihab Nye (Habibi) long poem (114-21) **

“Half-baked, mix of East and West,/balancing flavors” the narrator speaks lovingly about her Arab father, about the power of words and perspective. There are some truly lovely images and lines: “words like parks to sit in.” “My father’s tongue had no bitch/hiding under it.” “But dying, this lover of life said sadly,/My dilemma is large. 

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · recommend · short story · Tales

{comic} the eternal smile

The Eternal Smile : Three Stories by by Gene Luen Yang & Derek Kirk Kim

First Second Books, 2009.

Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim are authors and artists who’ve teamed up in this collection of three short stories, or three individual comics. The three pieces find commonality in their use of cultural influences, like fairytales, products, childhood media, virtual reality, and technological communication. They play with cultural references in art and story as they explore what is real, healthy, manufactured, isolating, and malleable. They move from the psychological to the technological, finding natural cause to frequently blur the two, ultimately binding the three under an umbrella of escapist fantasy. And their sophistication regarding social commentary progresses with each story. The Eternal Smile is an excellent choice for Teen and Young Adult, but not to the exclusion of us who are older.*


Duncan’s Kingdom. Duncan is not the most adept suitor to call on the Princess (“Your eyes glisten like wet marbles”), but with a magic sword from the monk who found him as a babe, how can he not win her hand by slaying the Frog King? Or will a haunting dream and an obsession with Snappy Cola ruin everything?

The title page has the appearance of a classic fairytale cover of a heroic adventure. It fairly blares a herald’s bugling. And with the turn of a page all is silent but for night sounds and someone snoring from a room in the castle. While European medieval comes to mind initially and is illustrated throughout in a fitting fashion, the Asian influence saturates the story in lovely ways—particularly in color. I would love to say more on that influence, but there’s my ignorance. The amalgam is a delight, and works from its fantastical start: a Frog Clan? There is little that is atypical in the tale actually, until Duncan dreams. The discovery of Snappy Cola takes the story for a truly bizarre turn.

The story has a really good and challenging moral for its young (and perhaps not so young) adult audience.


Elias McFadden’s Gran’pa Greenbax and The Eternal Smile. Gran’pa Greenbax strives to create a pool of money into which he dive into without busting his nose on the bottom. With the latest venture not producing enough depth to his pool, Gran’pa and his two granddaughters (Polly and Molly) demand another inspired business opportunity from his bullied, under-paid employee. Filbert has run out of ideas and hopes the sighting in the sky will be enough to soothe the savage beast of a boss. What it does is lead them on a path none of them could have anticipated—no not the decision to exploit the masses with religion, the other thing, the thing that has to do with that Eternal Smile.

“Gran’pa Greenbax” sports a title page reminiscent of Disney’s Duck Tales w/ Scrooge McDuck comics replete with volume number and publisher block in the corner and “Elias McFadden’s” in Disney-font. Referencing childhood television, its merchants and its merchandise is no coincidence as Duck Tales meets aTruman Show twist in an indictment of exploitation, whether the institutional interests are media-, corporate- or religion-driven. What would happen if you met your creator, finding echoes in the “outside” mirrored in your own life, and the realization of an influence most unnatural? Would you find relief knowing that you were made the way you are by someone or –thing other than you? What about those recurring (hardwired) desires that had to be manipulated or worked around.

There is a drastic move, and while the violence throughout comes across as startling (eventually), it makes more than a Fight Club sort of sense. Whether internal or external something painfully disruptive might lead to the kind of return to self a character needed. There are a lot of inner- and interpersonal dynamics at play in this cartoon-rendered tale.

“Gran’pa Greenbax” also includes a nice cameo from “Duncan’s Kingdom.” That hope-filled image comes at a key point in the story.


Urgent Request. Where the other two brought more mainstream cultural images instantly to mind the third drew an indie vibe for me (Tomine meets Sunday comics section). The panels appear like screen captures, the dingy black and white apt. Beginning to read, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan came to mind, and I hoped “Urgent Request” would not reach that level of depressing. It seemed well on its way.

Janet has worked her CommTech cubicle job for 7 years, and a scheduled performance review with an vein and inconsiderate boss doesn’t look to change things. She lives alone and has no social life at or away from work. Eavesdropping on a conversation, a co-worker (the receptionist) describes her as “Awkward? Shy? Frumpy?…insignificant.” This is a pivotal moment as she decides to seize her chance to save a Nigerian Prince who has just started e-mailing her asking for monetary aid.

Janet would be difficult to deal with if the world around her did not seem as equally despairing. The opening panel is dark and rainy. The boss clings to a triumph years before and , the receptionist comes across as pandering to the boss at anyone else’s expense. And what about this Nigerian Prince? Of all the tables Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim turn in their earlier stories, this one is the most surprising. I was delighted even as I was initially baffled by the revelation. But then one has to get over the idea that Janet is so singular and other from the likely tech-savvy, tech-world-built readership of the comic. She is painfully familiar and very typical, except for the fact that she recognizes her life for what it has become and boldly claims her choices.

What appears to be rather unfortunate investment calls become complicated as Janet appears to be investing in herself at the same time. The sun breaks through, Janet begins to decorate her cubicle, becomes more animated and more musical when she moves, we get color. And what to do with that ending? “Urgent Request” transforms its central character into someone who is not awkward, shy, frumpy, or insignificant. The getting there is odd and complicated and did I say odd? I guess it really isn’t all so very odd, just watching someone open up in the face of incredible personal risk requires a massive lung capacity for all that held breath. You genuinely hope it pays off—in some form. And “Urgent Request” does calculate the expenses. Humor manages to find a way in, but the idea that a world has been robbed of passion either in their neutered avatars, or their ergonomic work closets is a delightful indictment in this piece. Janet decides to demand more.

A moment on the format with this one. I really enjoyed the speech bubbles and text (other than sound effects) were placed outside of the panels. The frames keep their (older) on-screen quality. And when they take up white space it makes all that white on the page more comfortable. The placement of the frames require more conscious attention, as their effect is disruptive in obvious ways; the composition had me wondering if there was more to it than the distancing, the emptiness (isolation), and “out of place”/ “out of sync” visual perception–not that that wasn’t enough.


*Curious after reading Same Difference and noting Kim’s pop cultural references, I checked birth dates. Derek Kirk Kim was born in 1974, and Yang in 1973.

{images belong to Derek Kirk Kim and Gene Luen Yang}

Check out this 2009 interview I found when looking for images. Yang and Kim speak with Alex Deuben for Comic Book Resources, wherein Yang says,

“Geek culture has heavily influenced mainstream American culture. Escapist culture is all around us, and it’s big business. I think it’s easy, especially for teachers like me, to just look at the ways it interferes with real-world relationships, goals, and personal growth. But many of the roots of modern escapist fantasy – myths, fables, and even the more modern Tolkien novels – weren’t really about escaping reality. They were about illuminating it. I think fantasy videogames, movies, and comic books can do the same, if crafted well.”

"review" · comics/graphic novels · concenter · fiction · young adult lit

{comic} level up

After American Born Chinese I was eager to read something else by Gene Luen Yang and the Library finally got a copy of Level Up. If I had written this review after reading Level Up it probably would have consisted of a copy/paste synopsis and a shrug. I don’t expect to connect nor identify in some way to every book I read, but this one was fairly inaccessible to me after the first read. I would say that the primary reason was the cultural gap—not the nintendo gaming part, I got that; I had a few friends in college who would rather play than go to class. And while I do have the juvenile sense of humor to get the potty jokes (both literal and figurative), for some reason I had little patience for it. And as for the magical realism…the “four adorable angels” were just creepy. It really comes down to the fact that I hadn’t expected the novel would require the patience it did. And for the most part, it does pay off. Yang is unusual in his storytelling technique. While he may be trying to entertain the reader throughout, Level Up  does require a thorough sitting—and perhaps a much more specific audience (which I can respect).

Struggling with bad grades, a video game addiction, and his father’s death, Dennis Ouyang is on the verge of dropping out of college when four adorable angels appear and take charge of his life. But nothing is ever what it seems when life, magic, and gaming collide. ~back cover copy.

Thien Pham’s art is really good; looser in form than I would have expected. I really responded to the color choices, texture, and the use of the wash with the pen/ink. The clean straightforward formatting of the panels is refreshing. I like creative use of illustration/text in the comic medium, don’t get me wrong, after so much of it though, the clean pages are a pleasure. The subtleties, however, should not be underestimated. Pham knows what he is doing. He definitely sets the tone/mood of the piece.

Reading the dedications is a good habit to form, and Yang and Pham’s dedication creates a nice primer for the story: “Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being the good Asian sons.” Their protagonist feels the pressure of being a good son and to excel within the expectations given him. Where Dennis’ passion and obvious talents lie in video games, that is not considered a valid pursuit according to his parents. He eventually folds to the pressure, haunted by what first appears to be “adorable little angels” to help him succeed in fulfilling his destiny—which lies in a field that he can hardly stomach (no pun intended). Dennis’ pursuit would seem more noble if it didn’t come off as such a painful ordeal. Even great friends and a potential romance cannot offset impending doom. The story takes its time before culminating in the Dennis confronting that which haunts him and his future, to say nothing of his sense of self worth. I liked Yang’s use of the angels and what they represent as well as the pac-man imagery.

The ending is a bit clean, with an all was not for nothing kind of gesture; a necessity after all the time and angst expended in the course of the story. To be fair, Dennis is shown to have choices; he could be successful in any of his decisions. This is important to understand because it focuses on the self-imposed limitations like familial and cultural expectations—which in this novel, creates a conflict between his Chinese heritage and his American one. I think part of my not understanding his choices (and the story overall) comes down to not being able to discern where to apply the idea of “we must learn to eat bitterness of our own” (82) aspect of the conflict. Dennis’ mother confused me, which may be due, in part, to the story being told from Dennis’ (first person) perspective.

While I didn’t enjoy Level Up as much as American Born Chinese, I could enjoy it after the second read and spending time letting it steep. Is it to obvious to say that Level Up will resonate more easily with those who can do more than intellectualize the scenarios played out? Because I think Yang has another gem here given the right audience. I’m happy to see First Second continuing to support his work.

——Level Up——

Story by Gene Luen Yang; Art by Thien Pham

First Second Books, 2011.

hardcover, 160 pages.

Check out: Moye for 8Asians.com hosts a great interview in her article “Level Up’s Gene Luen Yang & Thien Pham on Asian Parenting & Video Games

"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · juvenile lit · recommend · series · Tales · wondermous · young adult lit

finds of the graphic nature.

The comics/graphic novels have not been moved out of the non-fiction Art section, but the shelf is getting fuller. One thing at a time, I guess.

Last week, our Library Haul consisted mainly of comics; as did today’s.

There was the usual browse for any Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew Graphic series books Natalya hasn’t yet read (or wouldn’t mind reading a fourth time).  But there were a few new ones, all of which I would recommend:

American Born Chinese written/drawn by Gene Luen Yang (First Second, 2006); 12 & up.

This is enjoyable, clean in presentation, and accessible.  This book is a good start for those adults not given to reading comics.

Many a review has been written about this 2007 Printz award winner. I will provide a few links beside the Powells Books link attached to the title.

Yang on this work; Read About Comics; A 2007 blog tour interview at Finding Wonderland; Things Mean A Lot; Book Nut

Rapunzel’s Revenge written by Shannon and Dean Hale; illustrated by Nathan Hale(Bloomsbury, 2008); ages 10-14.

A humorous re-interpretation of the classic fairytale figure of Rapunzel. Rapunzel’s tower is actually a giant hollowed out tree, and the realm is a Wild West’s landscape. Our narrator has a dry wit. The art and the layout are nice and in a style that recalls to my mind The Courageous Princess by Rod Espinosa (Dark Horse, 2007); which is a comic that should be on everyone’s reading list.

Shannon Hale fans should not be daunted by this comic form of her storytelling as teamed up with her husband Dean. Another good graphic novel for non-genre readers.

Gray Horses written/drawn by Hope Larson (Oni Press, 2006); YA. I’d read Larson’s Chiggers a short time ago; see here. Gray Horses is nice. It is pretty. It is strange. This read is Young Adult, so Chiggers readers of a younger age will recognize Larson’s beautiful style but will find the story indecipherable, so YA is a good guide there. I didn’t bother passing this onto the nearly-10 daughter (who reads some YA); maybe later.

Larson is an author/artist who puts thought into every choice: text, color, lettering, composition…which makes the hard-to-read white text on that high value of yellow a mystery for me. I like the yellow; and since I do not know French, the white text was of little loss, but I’ve yet to figure out what to do with that aspect of the work.

I like the scope of Hope Larson’s work, her stories. Gray Horses feels small and simple and would accompany a nice Indie-film choice of soundtracks. Quiet, but not without entertaining complexities.

Amelia Rules! Superheroes (book 3) written/drawn by Jimmy Gownley (Atheneum Books, 2010); Children/Juvenile.

Natalya thoroughly enjoyed this read. She (like after Rapunzel’s Revenge) set it right at my elbow. This one she had to show me her favorite pages. And there are a lot of favorite pages. A variety of styles are employed to tell this third story in the series of Amelia Rules! A follower of comics will recognize Speigelman, Eisner, and even a bit of Alan Moore.

The layout and the variety in the visual storytelling devices are fun and creative, but can be a mite overwhelming. Gownley would not limit his characters, so why should he himself.

The story he writes is good. All seriousness is not lost in the comedic turns. He balances the fun and the gravity.

This series is on most every list of “must read graphic novels for young readers.” Once read, it is easy to see why. The illustrations are not-too-cartoony and the story is not-too-light. The characters are fantastic.

We look forward to reading the other Amelia Rules! books. Too bad the Library District only has the 3rd. (Strange, I know.) In this 3rd book, Amelia is 10 and I wouldn’t suggest her reader be much younger; maybe 4th grade and higher? And no, this is not for girl’s only.

Lunch Lady and the League of Librarians written/drawn by Jarrett J Krosoczka (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2009); Children/Juvenile.

I admit that I would not have picked this up but for the recommendations. A lunch lady hero? Yeah.

For boys and girls alike. For fans of cartoons such as those found on Cartoon Network. For those who enjoy the bizarre and the outright silly!

We picked up a few more of these at the Library today.