Booktoss means we, the Literary Gatekeepers, need to be willing to see the problems with books and simply toss them aside. Then there are the books I want to keep, and hold, and pass on to kids and teachers. Books that provide authentic views of lives and people and events. Books that are complex, complicated, heartfelt and heartening. Because there are great authors that don’t need to tear down, dehumanize and objectify one community in order to make a point.
For this first iteration Books: Keep or Toss I will be looking at two graphic novels set in China; The Only Child by Guojing and The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff. There will be spoilers, so … gird your loins.
Book to Keep:
The Only Child by Guojing
Some will argue this is a wordless picturebook. I don’t care. I am claiming it as a graphic novel, in the same way I openly claimed Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. Some might say, “But Laura. I thought you said graphic novels are book length narratives written in the comics medium and comics utilize images AND language to deliver a unique story.”
At this point I’d have to shush you, and open the book because it is gorgeous, and magical, and sad, and heartbreaking, and beautiful. So, stop quoting me at me and look at the book!
The Only Child begins with a short author’s note Guojing describes the isolation she “experienced growing up in the 1980s under the one-child policy in China”. The book reads as if it is an expression of that isolation, but at the very same time it communicates love for family, a respect for a child’s imagination, and the possibilities of magic.
The story centers around a little girl in an industrial city who’s parents leave for work in the morning, and she is left to entertain herself in their apartment. Her only companion is a small, toy elk that she takes with her throughout the book.
The entire book is drawn with very fine lines – pencil or charcoal – that give a depth to the objects and spaces. The paper is thick, almost luscious and gives the book a physical heft it deserves. Guojing’s paneling is and image placement is deft, and provided me with a clear idea of what was real and present in the girls life, and what was not. Take a look at the series of panels on the left page … the little girl is actively engaged in keeping herself entertained. But, each time she engages in play she ends up with a sense of time simply passing.
Now, look at the facing page (right side). The girl has settled in and is looking at a photo album. Her small hand signals a change in point of view for the reader. We are no longer looking at her play in the apartment. Rather, we are now oriented, as we hold the book, as a co-reader as she holds the photo album.
The book progresses. Things happen. Tension builds as she leaves the apartment, gets on a bus to see her grandmother, and gets lost in the woods. I’m not going to give any further details of the story but I will share the exchange I had with my 12 year old son after he read The Only Child.
“What’d you think?” I asked when he returned the book to me.
“Yeah. Good.” He said in typical 12 year old fashion as he headed to the fridge.
“Can I get more words?” I pushed.
“Great drawings. The clouds were amazing. The kid was cute.”
“Did you laugh? Cry? Anything?”
He looked at me, rolling his eyes and sighing, “Well, yeah. All of that. What do you think I am, some kind of monster?” The implied dumb-ass was clear. Of course he had all the feelings. How could he not?
I highly, insistently, and obnoxiously recommend this wordless graphic novel for a microcosm level look at the ways the Chinese one-child policy affected a generation.
Book to Toss:
The Undertaking of Lily Chen by Danica Novgorodoff
This graphic novel also begins with an authors note. But, instead of a note from the actual author, it is an excerpt from The Economist (July 26, 2007) about a cultural practice in China called “corpse brides” wherein brides are procured for unmarried dead men.
According to Amazon Undertaking is about “Deshi, a hapless young man living in northern China, is suddenly expelled from ordinary life when his brother dies in an accident. Holding Deshi responsible for his brother’s death, his parents send him on a mission to acquire a corpse bride to accompany his brother into the afterlife, in accordance with an ancient Chinese tradition that has many modern adherents” (https://www.amazon.com/Undertaking-Lily-Chen-Danica-Novgorodoff/dp/1596435860).
The salacious nature of the term “corpse bride” set off a warning flag. The term predisposes the reader towards a “Isn’t China just so weird and different”? stance that I have seen far too many times. Anytime I see cultural practices used as plot devices I’m skeptical.
Novgorodoff’s characters are drawn as caricatures of people but even given this more abstract and absurdist style she relies on some tried and true racist and sexist tropes.
Deshi meets up with a bride merchant (pictured) who is actually has a “fu manchu” mustache which, if you have ever seen any evil Asian characters immediately signals he is up to no good. In fact, he convinces Deshi that to be a real man and a good son he must find a kill a young woman to be his brother’s corpse bride.
Eventually, Lily is introduced into the story. Deshi decides Lily is the girl for his brother and convinces her he’ll help her escape marriage her father has arranged. She is drawn with ridiculously thin arms and legs and a huge bobble head. In one scene she sits on a riverbank in supplication before she catches a fish with her bare hands to cook for Deshi. She is looks physically delicate and yet she can catch a fish with her bare hands, gut it and cook it over a campfire, all before Deshi has figured out how to kill her.
Much of the book is spent with Deshi trying and failing to kill Lily while they travel the countryside to “escape” her life on the farm. One night, by the light of a campfire, he climbs on top of her and starts strangling her. She wakes, touches his face tenderly, and they have sex. The whole thing is bizarre.
The combination of racist and misogynist tropes, the exoticism of China, along with the rape and forgiveness storyline make this a graphic novel one to toss. Toss it and move on with your reading life.