Book Club Review: “Almost American Girl”

40030311._sy475_We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing bookclub running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “American Girl Readalikes”, in which we each pick an American Girl book and a book that can be connected to it, however tenuous as it may be.

For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “Almost American Girl” by Robin Ha

Publishing Info: Balzer + Bray, January 2020

Where Did We Get This Book: The library!

American Girl Book: “Felicity Saves the Day” by Valerie Tripp

Book Description: A powerful and timely teen graphic novel memoir—perfect for fans of American Born Chinese and Hey, Kiddo—about a Korean-born, non-English-speaking girl who is abruptly transplanted from Seoul to Huntsville, Alabama, and struggles with extreme culture shock and isolation, until she discovers her passion for comic arts.

For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up in the 1990s as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.

So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated. Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends at home and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily. And worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.

Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.

Kate’s Thoughts

I had not heard of this book before it was picked for our book club session in March, and therefore going into it was a bit of a blind dive in. I had heard of Robin Ha’s previous book, “Cook Korean! A Comic Book with Recipes” but I knew that this was going to be a bit different. I figured I’d read “Almost American Girl” over the course of a few days, but then I ended up devouring it in nearly one sitting. I loved it that much.

The first thing that struck me about this book was how gorgeous and unique the art was. The colors are a watercolor-esque aesthetic, and it had both a calming effect as well as really evoking the emotions that were coming off the page. Robin’s transition from her life in Korea to her sudden shift to America was emotional and very difficult, and Ha used the imagery in both the pictures themselves and the color schemes to portray all of the ups and downs of Robin’s feelings during that time. From stark reds or darkness during difficult times, or almost glowing and bright colors in times of happiness, Ha uses the artwork to her advantage in her storytelling, and I really liked it.

The story, too, was compelling and very readable. While I was absolutely interested in Robin’s story as a girl who has to completely shift from one culture to another, Ha also makes a point to show the point of view of her mother, who made the decision to take her daughter from her life in South Korea and move them to Alabama without any hint or forewarning. I thought that at first I was going to have a hard time with her mother (while still trying to recognize the cultural differences between my experience and hers), but, like Serena mentions below, Ha was very deliberate in wanting to give a full picture as to how hard she had it and why she would take such a huge risk. And, on a personal note, I think that now that I’m a mother to a daughter (who is still just a baby, mind you) I was especially moved by their relationship, through the good times and the bad.

Ha also did a very good job of showing the straddling of traditional cultural expectations, and the different expectations that the children of immigrants may have. Ha’s step family was a mixed bag of those who thought that Robin and her mother should be adhering to the traditional roles they would have had back in South Korea (even though Robin’s mother didn’t feel like she had a place in that society as an opinionated single mother), and those who wanted to just fit in in American society. That was a theme that I wasn’t really expecting from this story, and I thought Ha was very careful in making sure not to say whether these expectations were right or wrong. Well, except in the case of her step-cousin. That girl was just mean. But we also got to see Ha make connections to other Korean-American kids her age as time goes on, and how once you do find that place in a community that ‘gets it’ it can make a world of difference in one’s life.

“Almost American Girl” was a moving and wonderful graphic memoir. I am so, so glad that we read it.

Serena’s Thoughts

As I’ve said many times before, a big part of my appreciation for bookclub is how it challenges me to read outside of my typical genres. Unlike Kate, I rarely get around to graphic novels, even though I tend to enjoy them when I do  read them. I was excited, then, when I saw that we’d be reading this book next!

This book had a lot of great things going for it, from the excellent looks into a girl’s experience as an immigrant coming to the U.S., to the exploration of her mother’s life and choices, to the beautiful use of the artwork to display the myriad of emotions that Robin experiences as she adjust to her new life. I’ve read a handful of other “immigrant experience” novels and they have all had something unique to offer as no “experience” will be the same, obviously. One thing that I think this story really highlighted were the challenges of language for Robin and the impact this had on her adjustment to life in the U.S. The use of the graphic novel format was cleverly used in this instance to replace speech bubbles with nonsense jargon to highlight how difficult it was for Robin to follow along in conversations, especially when the speaker was talking quickly.

I also really liked the inclusion of the mother’s story. From the beginning, seen through Robin’s eyes, it is challenging to understand the choices Robin’s mother has made that has lead to the complete upheaval of their lives. But as the story continues, we learn more and more about Robin’s mother’s past, the challenges she faced living in Korea as a single mother, and the values she saw in coming to raise her daughter in a completely foreign and new country. And even after that one major choice was made, we see the struggle and the myriad of choices, both good and bad, that Robin’s mother faces in the U.S. while trying to make a new life here.

Lastly, I really enjoyed the last portion of the story that shows Robin briefly returning to Seoul when she’s in college and finding that she no longer fits there either. It’s an interesting look again at the differences between Korean and American culture, and touches on a side of the immigrant experience that is often skipped over. How, on returning to one’s nation of origin, many can find that they no longer fit in within that culture either.

I really enjoyed this book. I think the artwork was beautiful, and I loved the story itself. I highly recommend it to pretty much everyone!

Kate’s Rating 9: An emotional and personal memoir that tackles culture, the immigrant experience, identity, and the importance of community, “Almost American Girl” was a heartfelt and moving read.

Serena’s Rating 9: Through beautiful artwork, “Almost American Girl” presents a moving story of the immigrant experience full of challenges, sorrows, and joys

Book Club Questions

  1. How does “Almost American Girl” compare to other “immigrant experience” novels that you have read?
  2. What did you think of the artwork in this book? Was there anything in particular that stood out to you?
  3. How did you react to Robin’s mother’s parts of this book? Did you feel like you understood the choices that she made?
  4. How did you find Robin’s step family and the way that they treated her and her mother?
  5. Do you think that today Robin would have had the same experience when coming to a completely new culture and country? Why or why not?
  6. How did you feel about where she ended the story in terms of where she was in her life at the time? Did that seem like a good way to wrap the story up?

Reader’s Advisory

“Almost American Girl” is included on the Goodreads list “Great Graphic Novels Released in 2020”, and would fit in on “Books and Boba Reading List”.

Find “Almost American Girl” at your library using WorldCat!

Next Book Club Book: “This Place: 150 Years Retold” by  Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Sonny Assu, et al.

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