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Book: “Hungry Ghost” by Victoria Ying
Publishing Info: First Second, April 2023
Where Did I Get This Book: I received a finished copy from First Second.
Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound
Book Description: A beautiful and heart-wrenching young adult graphic novel takes a look at eating disorders, family dynamics, and ultimately, a journey to self-love.
Valerie Chu is quiet, studious, and above all, thin. No one, not even her best friend Jordan, knows that she has been binging and purging for years. But when tragedy strikes, Val finds herself taking a good, hard look at her priorities, her choices, and her own body. The path to happiness may lead her away from her hometown and her mother’s toxic projections—but first she will have to find the strength to seek help.
Review: Thank you to First Second for sending me a finished copy of this graphic novel!
I had been eying “Hungry Ghost” by Victoria Ying for awhile, and even had it on my NetGalley shelf ready to go, when I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to receive a print copy and to review it for the blog. The cover caught my eye from the jump, and then reading into the backstory and summary I was even more interested. Disordered eating is something that is a difficult and charged topic, but an important one to talk about. So I sat down and began my read, and found it to be a very emotional experience.
This is a very personal and unflinching story about Valerie Chu, a teenage Asian-American girl who has been pressured by her mother to stay thin since she was a girl, so much so that she has started making herself throw up in her teenage years and obsessively counting calories whenever she eats. It’s a really difficult read at times, but I liked how candid and straight forward Ying was with what Valerie was going through, and how complicated the various factors feeding into it could be. I really found Valerie’s inner turmoil to be compelling and upsetting, and I liked how Ying explores the familial pressure from her mother, the self pressure from Valerie herself due to seeing thinness everywhere as an ideal, and the pressures to be a perfect person and to have control, and how once control is gone how much it can make things spiral. For Valerie it’s the sudden tragic death of her father that sends her off, due to her grief, and the perceived need to be there for her devastated mother whose insistence on Valerie’s thin physique has been a pall over Valerie since childhood. There were so many moments in here that made me tear up, and I liked how Ying was sensitive but also very honest about these issues and how toxic all of this is for Valerie.
I also liked the depictions of how complicated Valerie’s relationships were with her loved ones. The most obvious one is her mother, whose domineering insistence on Valerie being thin has set up her disordered eating and mental health issues. It is made very clear that her mother is very wrong for putting this kind of pressure on Valerie (from the jump you see her denying Valerie a piece of her own birthday cake when she is in grade school, which is just… wow), but Ying is also very careful to not make her into a two dimensional villain. At first I was very ‘um maybe we should be calling this out a bit more?’, but thinking about it it started working for me a bit more because 1) this is her mother, and family dynamics can be so hard to disentangle, 2) it’s clear that it’s not just her Mom that has this hang up, as we also see some of her extended family voicing similar opinions, and 3) the death of Valerie’s Dad makes her mother’s emotional state all the more fragile and complex. Ying doesn’t excuse it, but also shows that sometimes people have to stand up for themselves or set boundaries in other ways. There is also the relationship between Valerie and her best friend Jordan, who is fat and is completely comfortable within her body and herself. Valerie adores Jordan, but it’s clear that her own standards of her body are constantly nagging at her (especially since her mother is always commenting on how fat Jordan is), and as things unravel more and more it starts to have an effect on their friendship. It is a really complex web, and I really appreciated that.
And finally I really loved the artwork. Ying is a very talented artist and animator whose work has been seen in various Disney ventures like “Moana”, “Big Hero 6”, and “Frozen” (among others!), as well as other books and graphic novels. And I really liked her style for this story, as it feels very accessible and engaging, while also hitting the emotional moments and beats.
I really, really enjoyed “Hungry Ghost”. It’s poignant and powerful, and I am pleased that Ying has brought these various difficult and entangled issues to a moving graphic novel.
Rating 9: A gorgeous, emotional, and very personal story about grief, disordered eating, and complex family relationships, “Hungry Ghost” is a must read graphic novel.
“Hungry Ghost” is included on the Goodreads lists “2023 YA/MG Books with POC Leads”, and “Great Graphic Novels (Released in 2023)”.