Danika reviews The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

The Legend of Auntie Po cover

Amazon Affiliate Link | Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

This is a quiet, almost slice-of-life graphic novel about a 13-year-old queer Chinese American girl’s life at a logging camp. Mei is the daughter of the camp cook, and she helps out in the kitchen and spends her free time spinning yarns for the other children in camp–especially about Po Pan Yin, or Auntie Po, a Chinese American matriarchal version of Paul Bunyan. She is best friends with (and obviously has a crush on) Bee, the foreman’s daughter.

In the background, though, is the constant hum of anti-Asian racism. The Chinese workers eat separately from other workers. A sawmill that employed Chinese workers is burned down. Mei is keenly aware that she’s losing something: she no longer prays, she doesn’t know her grandparents, and her Cantonese is rusty. She is caught between traditions she feels disconnected with and an American culture that doesn’t accept her.

Auntie Po is the bridge between them: a blending of cultures and a way of adapting tradition to make it relevant. Not only does Mei tell stories about Auntie Po, she also begins to see her–especially when times get hard. Auntie Poe (and her giant water buffalo Pei Pei) become a source of hope and inspiration for her, and it’s left ambiguous whether or not she’s real.

The foreman claims that Mei and her father are like “family” to him, but Mei’s father knows better than to take him at his word, even if their daughters have grown up together. The story explores friendships across racial and financial differences in both these generations (Bee and Mei as well as their fathers’ relationship) and how fraught these can be. Mei’s father soon finds himself choosing between the man he’s called “family” and his own safety and comfort.

I enjoyed the watercolor illustrations with digital lines art style, and there are some stunning spreads. Pei Pei especially is a delight whenever he makes an appearance. This is a quick read, but there are lots of different aspects to dive into: I think this is a book that could act as a great conversation starter with young readers.

As for the queer content, Mei’s crush on Bee is obvious, and they hold hands and dream about a future together, but this isn’t a romance. It’s the kind of adoring friendship (with occasional blow-ups) you’d expect between 13-year-old girls. Not long ago, this kind of relationship in a kids’ book would likely be dismissed as a close friendship, but the author’s note makes it clear that Mei is queer, and I think we’re finally at a point where queer content doesn’t have to be spelled out to be obvious.

This is a thoughtful book about a topic of U.S. American history not often written about in middle grade books, and I highly recommend it.

Kayla Bell reviews Radiant Days by Elizabeth Hand

Radiant Days cover

There aren’t many stories that can truly say they’ve done time travel in a unique way. Going back to the past or ahead to the future have already been done dozens of times. A fish out of water, or out of time, is going to make for an interesting story. But Radiant Days does time travel differently, and in a way that felt very compelling to me. 

Radiant Days takes place in two different time periods. The 1870s storyline follows French poet Arthur Rimbaud through the trials and tribulations of his youth. The other storyline takes place in the 1970s, and follows Virginia art student Merle as she develops her craft and explores the street art scene. Merle is exploring her sexuality and Arthur is trying to survive as an artist in an oppressive time. One night, somehow, they meet and connect over their shared love of art. In terms of plot, there isn’t anything too major beyond that. 

Still, I found this book really compelling. Merle’s voice feels very authentic, and I wanted to see her make it out okay despite being in a bit of a toxic relationship. I also appreciated the unique perspective of a queer woman from Appalachia. Merle’s sexuality wasn’t at the forefront of the novel, and I think that was quite refreshing. She was also trying to deal with her complex family dynamics, recovering from the abuse she grew up around, and trying to make it in the art world. At the same time, the storyline following Arthur was also entertaining and kept me reading. Hand mixes historical events with humor and fun in a way that clearly showed how much respect and admiration she had for Arthur Rimbaud. As a Young Adult book, I thought this story structure was a clever way to get young readers interested in what from another writer might be a drier historical story. 

That being said, I would have liked to have seen a bit more plot in this novel. Merle exploring the graffiti subculture of the 1970s was very interesting, but I think the story could have used a little more of a driver. Similarly, I wish that Arthur had been given a chance to develop more as a character, I found myself wanting to read more of his inner thoughts and feelings and connecting more with Merle than Arthur. It was clear that both protagonists were impacted by their meeting out of time, but I think the story could have benefitted from spending a bit more time describing the impacts on both of them. With that being said, I thought that this was an excellently paced novel that is fantastic for younger readers. 

If you know a young person that is looking for a book about the power of art and what it means to break the rules, and is interested in historical fiction, this is a great option. I found myself feeling genuinely connected to both characters by the end of the book, and I can only imagine that it would be even more powerful for a younger reader. More queer historical fiction, especially about artists, is something I definitely want to see. 

Mary reviews Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun

Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun

I love historical fiction with sapphic love stories, especially set in the old west. This as niche a genre as it can get, but the heart wants what the heart wants. This time my love has brought me to Crossing the Wide Forever by Missouri Vaun.

After years of abuse and isolation on her family’s farm, Cody finally revolts against her father, disguises herself as a man and heads west to find fortune and freedom. Along the way she meets, Lillie, who has left her upper middle-class life to take up a farm her uncle left her when he passed. She also has dreams of being an artist, but she is hindered by misogyny of her society. Once they meet, they become friends, and soon grow closer than that.

This is a very pleasant and soothing friends-to-lovers story that warmed my heart. Cody and Lillie were distinct characters and their own arcs as well as their love story was engaging. The author takes her time to show Cody and Lillie slowly developing feelings for each other and finding ways to deal with that. How Cody took care of her secret was also well done and how Lillie handled it.

The author also does a good job of bringing characters and making them a meaningful part of the story, no matter how brief their encounter. Cody and Lillie make many friends on their journey, from ones they travel with, to neighbors on the farm, to people back in their home states. All of them felt real and engaging.

Another aspect I liked about the story was how antagonist wasn’t one single person, but the frontier and challenges of society. Both Cody and Lillie have to deal with several unsavory characters and circumstances, and they all felt real and interesting. This really added to the believability of the story and their characters arcs.

The world building was also very well done. Vaun clearly did a lot of research into the time period and the daily lives of those who lived in it. I felt like I was really there and reminded me of why I love this genre so much.

My one gripe is that I wanted the story to be longer. Some plot points felt a bit of rushed and I would have liked to have sit with the turmoil and challenges a bit longer. As I said, I enjoyed that the antagonist was the time period and society, but those challenges would have benefited from being more deeply explored by the characters.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story book and I recommend it to any other sapphic fans of historical fiction.