In Limbo by Deb JJ Lee

“I love you when you’re at your lowest just as much as at your best.” – In Limbo, Deb JJ Lee

TW for suicide and abuse.

Deb Lee’s powerful new memoir explores coming of age in New Jersey as a Korean-American teenager. Deb examines the Korean-American diaspora and mental illness as she mines her history for answers. Deb left Seoul to come to America with her family when she was only three years old.  Ever since she arrived in the United States, she has been excruciatingly aware of her otherness. Her teachers couldn’t, and still can’t very well, pronounce her Korean name. Her English wasn’t perfect, she spoke Korean, but after some time, she slowly lost her Korean and spoke more and more English. Adjusting to the United States was difficult as her face and her eyes pointed her out as different. She felt wrong.

When Deb started high school, her life became harder. She started to feel increasing pressure at home, while dealing with high school changes. Her classes were more difficult than she expected, plus her friendships changed and ended. Deb struggles with finding a safe place to be herself, but luckily she has orchestra (even though that doesn’t last forever either). Her home life becomes increasingly chaotic as fights with her mom become more frequent, violent, and emotionally abusive. Deb has no idea what to do, feeling like she is stuck in limbo with nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help. Her mental health crashes, which results in a suicide attempt. Her healing process after is slow and methodical, but she is resilient, courageous, and willing to start the process. Art, self-care, and therapy help her start to understand herself and her heritage.

The artwork in this graphic memoir is amazing. Deb has drawn pages of evocative, grayscale artwork that give you the feel of memory. Some of their drawings are sharp while others are hazy, fuzzing out and fading to black. If you’re a fan of Tillie Walden, you will enjoy this art style. Deb worked on this for years before she finally was at a place where it was ready for the world. Their desire to wait makes this memoir feel polished and rewarding. This is a realistic depiction of a teen working through mental health experiences. Add in that this is a memoir and this is sure to be helpful to others.

Ronan and the Endless Sea of Stars written by Rick Louis and illustrated by Lara Antal

Trigger warning for child loss.

It’s seldom that I read a book that leaves me in tears. Ronan and the Endless Sea of Stars written by Rick Louis and illustrated by Lara Antal emotionally devastated me and tore out my heart. This graphic novel memoir tells the story of one parent’s journey caring for his son with a terminal diagnosis. Rick Louis beautifully wrote this story about his life, while Lara Antal illustrated his words with sensitivity. The pallet of blues, whites, and blacks is breathtaking and tenderly adds to the story of the before, during, and after his son’s life.

Rick and Emily were overjoyed when she became pregnant. After their son Ronan was born and as his development progressed, they noticed a slight issue with his vision that necessitated a trip to the doctor. That visit led them down a rabbit hole of other doctors and ended with a devastating diagnosis for Ronan. Ronan has Tay-Sachs, an incurable neurological disorder. Rick and Emily have to deal with the practical issues of raising their son, while also paired with the emotional hurdles of loving their son under the shadow of their inevitable loss and his inevitable death. They are trapped in an impossible situation with very little positives.

This book was heartbreaking, yet told beautifully by a father destroyed by the loss of his young son. I strongly recommend this book (though have the tissues ready). While this story is sad, Rick also lightens his telling with comedy paired with gorgeous artwork. It’s full of warmth and heartbreak, sorrow and joy, as Rick discusses the importance of finding joy no matter how your life is at the moment.

Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell

I am a lover of true crime. This isn’t much of a surprise to my family and friends. For years, true crime has taken over the media I consume(podcasts, tv shows, movies, books, etc). When I stumbled upon Murder Book: A Graphic Memoir of a True Crime Obsession by Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell, I knew this was something I needed to read. I wasn’t disappointed.

Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell is obsessed with true crime. Ever since she can remember, true crime has been prevalent in her life. Hilary believes that she inherited her interest in crime from her mother, but has questions about the psychology surrounding why people find true crime to be so entertaining. In her quest to answer that question, Hilary examines her past, does research, and starts combining what she learns into this graphic memoir. Hilary talks about high profile cases(Zodiac, Ted Bundy, etc) that impacted her life and moves onto other not as high profile cases and the often overlooked victims that are also etched into her memory (Anne Marie Fahey for example). For those of us that enjoy true crime, Hilary also lists authors she loves, the crime shows she watches, and the podcasts she listens to. This graphic novel made me feel normal – she outlines her obsession of love and true crime, while also saying that outsiders may see some weirdness in people loving/enjoying true crime. This is definitely an unconventional book/topic, but there is an audience who will appreciate it.

While I enjoyed this graphic novel, it does jump around a lot (the author acknowledges this). It didn’t bother me much as it made sense to me and followed the jumpy way my own brain works. Reading about how the author tries to figure out why she loves true crime and why she started down this path made me think about why I too love true crime. Hilary highlighted some cases that I hadn’t heard about and some that I had already explored. It was validating to read something that talked about my own anxieties, love of true crime, etc.

Look Again: A Memoir by Elizabeth A. Trembley

‘Trauma can make truth hard to find.’ – Look Again: A Memoir  by Elizabeth A. Trembley

Trauma dominates Elizabeth A. Trembley’s graphic memoir, Look Again. She talks about the impact trauma has on your experiences, to the effect that what you swear is the truth may not be what actually happened.

While walking her dogs in the woods years ago, Elizabeth found a dead body. That traumatic, grief-stricken moment of utter confusion overwhelmed her so much that what she looked back at that time all she remembered was shattered images flashing through her mind. In an effort to process, Elizabeth relays, in this graphic memoir, six variations of that same event. Each variation changed when seen through different lenses at different points in her life. She acknowledges that her route to track down the truth was convoluted, much like what other trauma survivors experience in their lives.

This graphic memoir was very well written, smart, enlightening, while also managing to be funny and relatable. Readers are able to walk with Elizabeth through her life as she works through what happened that morning in the woods. How Elizabeth chooses to deal with her trauma is clearly reflected in her words and drawings. Readers see when she is finally able to examine why she behaved the way she did – in a sense, readers grow along with her as the story evolves.

This book shook me, as it had me thinking about events in my past and how my memories may be skewed. Her research into trauma was enlightening. Seeing how she was able to find some answers in her research, as well as how learning more opened up her mind, really impacted and made me want to do more research of my own. At the end of her book, the author has a list of selected resources that helped her learn about her experiences (I’ve already snagged a few to read myself!).

New Year, New Genre: Graphic Novels

I know far too many people who are skeptical about comics and graphic novels, either because they don’t like the narrative form or because they are under the impression that they are a “lesser” literature. Thus, I have made it my personal and professional mission to combat the general disdain towards graphics. 

Listed below are five graphic novels that are new to the library’s shelves, each of which I think will appeal to readers with a hankering for the perfect book to shake up their reading slumps. 

Queen of Snails: A Graphic Memoir by Maureen Burdock

The aphorism “family is complicated” has never felt more apt than in the context of this graphic memoir, which compellingly grapples with intergenerational trauma, abuse, and displacement. Starting with her childhood in Germany, Burdock shares the pain of her parents’ failed marriage, her own isolation and abuse after moving to the U.S., and the unhealthy coping mechanisms she developed to assert control over her own body. She also wrestles with the fact that while her mother and other Germans suffered during the occupation at the end of WWII, members of her mother’s family were ardent supporters of the Nazis, with some espousing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial for decades afterwards. The art, with its intricate scientific details of snails, ears, and other bodily workings lends a surreal air, as though an episode of The Magic School Bus used entering the human body as a metaphor for coping with grief. A complicated and honest narrative that ends with hope that healing is possible and that we can create a better world.  – Booklist, November 2022

Who Will Make the Pancakes: Five Stories by Megan Kelso

This collection finds Kelso (Queen of the Black Black) exploring the dynamic between interpersonal relationships and interior experience with skill and insight equal to or greater than anyone currently creating works of short fiction in any format or genre. “Watergate Sue” concerns a woman who feels her mother’s obsession with the Watergate scandal overshadowed her early childhood, and her mother’s inability to see the problem with that. “Cats in Service” opens whimsically, with a woman inheriting her deceased sister’s staff of highly trained, impeccably uniformed cat servants, but when the woman’s young daughter shows a strong preference for her feline nanny over her actual family, the story transforms into a melancholy examination of generational trauma and personal responsibility. Kelso crafts a nuanced portrait of a single mother forced to confront her romantic notions about herself against a backdrop of post-World War II prosperity in “Korin Voss.” She saves the collection’s best and most affecting story for last: “The Golden Lasso” is a heartbreaking coming-of-age tale about a pre-teen girl and the adults who shape her understanding of the world. VERDICT A treasury of impactful stories from a virtuosic artist with a distinctively empathetic point of view.  – Library Journal, October 2022

Movements and Moments by Gantala Press, et al.

This colorful, impassioned collection focuses on Indigenous women rebelling against colonialism and capitalism. Selected from an open call made by the Goethe-Institut Indonesien in Jakarta, eight comics short stories highlight the power and resiliency of Native women, from Bolivians forming a trade union against great odds in “The Anarchist Cholas” by Vanessa Peñuela and César Vargas to villagers in the Philippines fighting to keep ruthless industrialists from building a dam on their sacred river in “Let the River Flow Free” by Gantala Press and Nina Martinez. Other narratives highlight individuals who have dedicated their lives to empowering others, such as “Shanti: Beyond the Veil” by Bandana Tulachan and the autobiographical “Times Will Pass…” by trans artist Chandri Narayanan, drawn by Sadhna Prasad. The artwork throughout is excellent, presenting a panoply of approaches ranging from the cartoony stylings of Cecilia Larrea and Citlalli Andrango’s “Mama Dulu” to Vietnamese artist Phạ m Thu Trà’s lush lyrical drawings in “Tracing Between Colors of the Highlands.” Taken together, these shorts carry a cumulative power, offering a heartening reminder of the strength and spirituality within resistance and a potent call to arms against injustice.   –  Publishers Weekly, October 2022

It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth by Zoe Thorogood

In It’s Lonely At The Centre Of The Earth cartoonist Zoe Thorogood records six months of her own life as it falls apart in a desperate attempt to put it back together again in the only way she knows how. This fresh and thought provoking auto-bio-graphic is an intimate and metanarrative look into the life of a selfish artist who must create for her own survival.

“This book has served as a creative sanctuary for me from the day it was conceived—an experimental playground that I hope will inspire, disturb, and comfort in equal measure,” said Thorogood.

Eric Stephenson, Publisher at Image Comics, added: “Zoe’s debut graphic novel, The Impending Blindness of Billie Scott, was one of the highlights of 2020, and we were thrilled when she approached us about publishing her next project… which as it turns out, will be the project after this one! But one of the great things about exciting new talent is that the creative process often takes on a life of its own and It’s Lonely at the Centre of the Earth was a project that had to happen, very much to everyone’s delight. This is excellent work by one of comics’ best new voices!” Image Comics, 2022

Wash Day Diaries by Jamila Rowser & Robyn Smith

Wash Day Diaries started out as a successfully crowd-funded mini comic,and this release expands on the original with four additional short stories, giving readers a window into the lives of four best friends and each of their respective wash days. The stories are interconnected and happen within a small time frame, revealing glimpses into the lives of these four Black girls from different backgrounds and with different struggles and situations. Each short story has a different predominant color, representing the mood and the person it focuses on. Color is also used to flip back and forth between past and present. Besides being a window into the lives of these women, it’s a window into the lives of young Black women, specifically, and all the work and care that goes into maintaining their hair. The multilayered stories reflect how hair is cultural and affects not just appearance but their work lives and interpersonal relationships. This inviting and illuminating slice-of-life comic shows how the friends, all in different stages of life, can support and show up for each other. – Booklist Reviews, July 2022

Ducks : Two Years in the Oil Sands by Kate Beaton

Kate Beaton is one of my favorite graphic novel authors and illustrators. Her latest, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands, was an eye-opening graphic memoir about her time working as part of Alberta’s oil rush.

Kate Beaton grew up as Katie Beaton in Mabou, Cape Breton, a tiny tight-knit seaside community in Canada. After she finished university, Katie was at a loss of what to do. Having moved back home, Katie’s immediate concern was her mounting student loan debt. Desperate to pay it off as soon as she could, she decided to head west and spend time working in the oil sands with the goal of paying off her debt as quickly as possible.

Once she arrived in Fort McMurray, Katie finds work in one of the camps that is owned and operated by the world’s largest oil companies. A culture shock she didn’t expect was being one of only a few women working amongst thousands of men. When Katie moves to a more isolated worksite for higher pay, her actions really hit home. Some of the men’s attitudes put her on edge. She is constantly on alert, seeking friends where she can find them. Sadly the harsh reality of life in the oil sands pushes into her day-to-day life when she experiences trauma that she discovers occurs everyday, but is seldom and/or never discussed.

I have been a long-time fan of Kate Beaton’s artistic style. It has only seemed to mature in Ducks. There are certain pages where Beaton draws the massive machinery and vehicles used at the oil sands up against the barren backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and the Northern Lights that articulated the juxtaposition of exploitation and natural beauty expertly. Highly recommend Beaton’s latest work.

Side-note: if you’re like me and you have trouble getting through nonfiction, I highly recommend you try graphic novels! The visual format makes it easier for me to focus on nonfiction. (This also works when I want to read a classic.)

Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir by Tyler Feder

Coping with grief is hard and never-ending. As a librarian, I am constantly on the lookout for books that discuss the topic of grief in a new way. Enter author and illustrator Tyler Feder. She has written Dancing at the Pity Party: A Dead Mom Graphic Memoir, what Feder describes as ‘sad but also silly and weird, just like loss’. Feder’s illustrations are soft, gentle, and simple which serve as the perfect accompaniment to her heartbreaking subject matter. This book is part cancer memoir telling the story of Feder’s mom’s death and part reflection on her motherless life. Feder gives readers a glimpse into a devastating time into her life, while also being humorous. She makes note several times throughout that this memoir is for the people who are struggling with loss who just want someone to understand and get what they are going through.

Tyler Feder loves her mom Rhonda. That has never been in doubt.  As the oldest daughter, Tyler made Rhonda a mom and shared a special bond with her. No one loved more in Tyler’s life than her mom, all be it a bit blunt but full of joy. It’s hard to distill such a large personality to a single memoir, but Tyler pays devoted homage to her by weaving poignant yet piercing details throughout.

When Tyler was 19 years old, her mom died of cancer. This memoir covers everything from her first oncology appointment to the different stages of cancer to the funeral. Feder then goes a step further to show her family sitting shiva and how they adjust to the new afterward without their mother and wife in the ten years after. The art in this book is gorgeous and seeing Tyler show her love and heartbreak through her work tore at my heart as I read this book. This graphic memoir also felt like a self-help book as reading Tyler’s journey somewhat mirrored my own travels through grief. You see Feder’s grief fresh after her mother’s death as well as how she is working through it ten years later. Highly recommend this graphic memoir to anyone who is looking for a new read.

This book is also available in the following format: