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Almost American Girl, written and illustrated by Robin Ha

Area schools have been in session for a week or so now, and the air around the Library’s Teen Department has been filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation all month.  There have been a lot of butterflies, whether it’s the start of band camp or sports practice or middle school or senior year.

Middle school is usually a fraught topic every August–people going there for the first time, people hoping to start over in a new grade, people leaving it to navigate the uncharted waters of high school.  There’s a lot at stake in middle school even in the best of circumstances.

Now imagine the shock of going back to middle school then heading out on a family vacation at semester break only to discover that the “vacation” means starting over at a new school in a new country where you don’t speak the language or understand the culture and the only people you know are the surprise step-relatives you’ve just been introduced to.  Plus, you weren’t able to say goodbye to your friends and they (along with all of your clothes and possessions) are half a world away.

That’s exactly what happened to Robin Ha, author and illustrator of Almost American Girl.

Ha is now a cartoonist based in Washington, D.C.  When she was in eighth grade, her mother took her on a short trip to Alabama which turned out to be a permanent move to a house full of strangers.  Ha’s mother married a divorced father of two saddled with a failing fish market, living with his brother’s family (including their traditional Korean mother).  It was a far cry from the life Robin and her mom had carved out for themselves in Seoul, South Korea–except for many of the conventions and attitudes embraced by their new family.

The book follows Robin’s experiences navigating the challenges of middle school, of learning a new language on the fly, and of unexpected, seemingly arbitrary relationships.  Robin’s eighth grade year unfolds chronologically with interspersed flashbacks to her life growing up in South Korea.  Narrative tension isn’t compromised because the memories are connected to experiences after the move.  Prompted by Robin’s meltdown after chafing under the in-laws’ treatment, the chapter “The Leap of Faith” unfolds the difficulties Robin and her single mother endured trying to thrive in a rigid society; the chapter ends with her mother convinced that “Whatever America is like, it will be better…” even if that translates to racism, poverty, and exclusion.

Almost American Girl follows its author’s inner and outer journeys.  It’s a beautifully drawn coming of age story that’s honest and real.  It embraces the pain and delight of adolescence, bringing readers along on the emotional roller coaster ride without being heavy-handed–a meaningful, immersive experience told in a muted palette of blues and tans and purples and reds that grows brighter and deeper as Robin’s wisdom and inner strength grow.

The book is also a love letter to comics fans, celebrating teens who draw and doodle and color and who recognize the transformative power of art.  It’s for everyone who survived adolescence (in whole or in part) thanks to comic books, manga, art supplies, and pads of paper.  Find your niche, and chances are good that you’ll find friends; with any luck, you’ll find some very good ones.

Read Almost American Girl even if you aren’t an adolescent.  (Especially if you aren’t!)  Give it to a teen who’s interested in contemporary, coming of age stories or manga and anime or Korean culture beyond K-pop or who could use a gentle affirmation.  Read it because it’s lovely and because (spoiler alert) stories can have happy endings.

You can find this title in the graphic novel section of the Teen Department or as an ebook through the Library’s OverDrive service.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frane Lessac

Pictures have such power!  Bright and bold or quiet and soft, the stories they tell vary as widely as those told by words alone.  What happens when powerful pictures and beautiful text meet in the same book?  Magic!

Traci Sorell creates magic with her first children’s picture book, We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga.  A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she introduces Cherokee culture with a trip around the seasons giving thanks.  Otsaliheliga is a Cherokee expression of gratitude, akin to “we are grateful”, and Sorell infuses every page with the feeling.  Beginning with uligohvsdi, autumn, her sparse prose describes the natural world and ceremonies and food and art and games and music and history and agriculture–so much that is wonderful about life–in language welcoming her young audience. Sorell’s writing has a quiet beauty about it.  Her words have a rhythm that mirrors nature, “As bears sleep deep and snow blankets the ground…When showers fill streams and shoots spring up…Every day, every season.”

Veteran illustrator Frane Lessac takes Sorell’s text and punches it up all the notches without compromising its delicate delivery.  Lessac uses gouache on paper to create scenes full of zip and vigor that burst from the page in an explosion of color.  Her bold sunset on the book’s cover blends the spectrum of orange in ways that only nature can.  Inside, a summer garden invites you to dig in the rich, brown soil brimming with energy and to pick deep green and red vegetables under a sun so bright you expect the people on the page to break a sweat.  An interior scene bathed in shades of salmon and coral exudes the warmth of winter family visits and warm soup served with buttery bread while outside the window the cold weather gear of cousins feeding the birds pops against the snow.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga is tender and affirming.  A smiling elisi, grandmother, rocks a tiny, new family member amongst the fall leaves while others gather buckbrush to weave baskets.  Three generations brave the winter cold to honor an uncle who has died.  Extended family embrace a relative departing for military service.  Groups of children play a rollicking round of stickball in the summer heat.  The bold illustrations reinforce the text.  It’s a delight to read and to view.

It’s also an engaging introduction to contemporary Cherokee culture and a good OwnVoices title for little ones.  Key Cherokee words appear throughout, and each is presented written in the Roman alphabet, phonetic spelling, the Cherokee syllabary, and English.  The book includes helpful resources at the end–a brief glossary, an enlightening note from the author, and information about the Cherokee syllabary.

From the moment I saw it on the shelf, I couldn’t wait to read this title.  I wish I had had the opportunity to immerse myself in it as a child.  There’s something new to see with every visit, and I love the warmth and security found within the pages.  Traci Sorell has become a new favorite for me among picture book authors.  I can’t wait to see what she does next, and I can’t wait to find more of Frane Lessac’s illustrations!  I hope you have a chance to explore their work, too.