BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Five More to Go: Shing Yin Khor’s The American Dream? [in The Booklist Reader]

The American Dream? A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito by Shing Yin Khor

Malaysia-born, LA-dwelling Shing Yin Khor introduces the “two Americas” that were their obsessions growing up: a Los Angeles “full of beautiful people and sunlight and open roads” and a landscape defined by Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joad family desperately pursues the American Dream. Khor takes that “feeling of desperately searching for something better, for a new start,” and adapts it to their own “pilgrimage” as immigrant and artist traveling historic Route 66 – “the part of America that my brain finds more American than anything else.”

Traversing from L.A. to Chicago in their 2010 Honda Fit with their “tiny adventure dog,” Bug, Khor recognizes their end-of-the-road realizations are not what they expected, but the rewards are many. What lingers longest is Khor’s four-panel epilogue, revealing their trip was taken six months before the 2016 elections; in magnifier-required microfont, the penultimate panel confesses, “This comic feels like a record of a time when a brown girl could drive America fearlessly.”

That the ubiquitous media is consistently alight with disturbing reportage and terrifying images from our borders confirms that the search for the ever-elusive American Dream remains timeless. The quest, of course, takes many forms – with just as many variations, consequences, and results. Below, you’ll find five more memorable graphic titles highlighting life in these here United States as refugees, immigrants, and – even – Americans by birthright.


Blame This on the Boogie by Rina Ayuyang

“Beyond this door,” Rina Ayuyang warns as she guides readers to her suburban Pittsburgh childhood home, “lies a story of dread and woe, despair and sadness.” But no, turn the page, and amid technicolor walls, carpets, and toys strewn everywhere, she admits, “I’m kidding. It’s just a mess. Mostly mine.” Agilely bouncing between raw vulnerability and guffaw-inducing humor, Ayuyang introduces her earliest memories as the youngest of four kids of Filipino immigrant parents and exuberantly draws herself through the decades into adulthood as wife, mother, and artist. Presciently appointed “great disco dancers” as godparents, Ayuyang irrepressibly accompanies her life with a soundtrack every step of the way. A raucous tribute to family, multiculti identity, and the saving power of great (but sometimes awful) musicals.


A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories by Will Eisner, with an introduction by Scott McCloud

Originally published in 1978, Eisner’s title is considered by many to be the first-ever “graphic novel.” W. W. Norton published a beautifully restored edition in 2017 – introduced by Eisner-winning (natch!) comics creator and theorist Scott McCloud – in celebration of the centennial of Eisner’s birth. Set in the 1930s immigrant Jewish community of New York City’s Bronx, Eisner’s Dropsie Avenue tenement stories open with the eponymous “Contract,” in which Frimme Hersch’s utter transformation in reaction to his beloved daughter’s death has devastating consequences. The narratives that follow feature the trials and tribulations of other Dropsie residents and their extended relatives.


I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib

Gharib’s Catholic mother regretted leaving her upper-middle-class Manila life, but unrest fueled by the 1970s Marcos regime sent her stateside. Meanwhile, Gharib’s Egyptian Muslim father “had been scheming to get to America since high school” and finally enrolled at UCLA’s School of Management. They met working at a hotel, married six months later, and had Gharib one year after. Divorce happened, with Gharib predominantly raised in Northern California by her overworked mother and her multigenerational extended family. Growing up, “Filipino-Egyptians were kinda rare,” and by 16, she “just [knew] that white > whatever the hell I was.” Gharib’s coming-of-age is a formidable balancing act negotiating parents, cultures, religions, and expectations; not until adulthood can she begin to assert “the Real Me.” Forthright and funny, Gharib fiercely claims her own American Dream.


Manuelito by Elisa Amado and illustrated by Abraham Urias

Thirteen-year-old Manuelito is one of 200,000-plus unaccompanied children who have fled the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras); his parents hope to save him from the armed militia, gangs, and soldiers controlling their small village. After the coyote – a human trafficker – leaves Manuelito stranded, he is saved by the kindness of similarly-on-the-run strangers who help him enter the U.S. to join his aunt in New York. Safety, alas, is short-lived. Artist Urias captures Manuelito’s journey in raw black-and-white sketches, mirroring the dangerous urgency with quick, broad strokes. He directs detailed attention to close-ups of faces, drawing focus toward the individual humanity of desperate refugees. Their situations prove dire, and neither author nor artist holds back in presenting the life-and-death scenarios unrelentingly happening now.


Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight by Duncan Tonatiuh

Surviving a life-threatening journey from Mexico to a “strange city” in the U.S., Juan joins his uncle and three cousins. He owes his low-wage, 12-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week restaurant job to a boss who insists he’s “doing [Juan] a favor because [he] had no papers.” Although Juan is married, he agrees “to go have the happy hour” with the persistent new Chinese waitress. Her invitation, however, is hardly amorous; she energizes Juan to fight for fair pay and improved conditions. Tonatiuh channels his interest in the Mixtec codex format to create a superb modern odyssey, stupendously illustrated in his signature contemporary adaptation of pre-Columbian art forms, presented on accordion pages in a handsome slipcase. His often-wordless insertions of border violence, #BlackLivesMatter, gay relationships, even gender preference prove especially resonating.


Published: “Five More to Go: Shing Yin Khor’s THE AMERICAN DREAM?,” The Booklist Reader, July 22, 2019


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