Himawari House

First Second. Oct. 2021. 384p. Tr $24.99. ISBN 9781250235565; pap. $17.99. ISBN 9781250235572.
Gr 9 Up–Living in a foreign country is an immersive and often rewarding experience, but grappling with a new language can also be a struggle to keep one’s head above water. Becker, who illustrated George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy, pinpoints this sense of discovery and disorientation in her debut graphic novel. Nao, a Japanese American teenager, arrives in Tokyo for a gap year and quickly befriends her roommates—bouncy Tina, who is Chinese Singaporean, and homesick Hyejung, who is Korean—and interacts with two male Japanese roommates, Shinichi and Masaki. Together, the fast friends experience touchstones of Japanese life—combini, izakaya, obaachans, cherry blossoms, and matsuri. But this is largely stage-setting for Becker’s focus on language learning in context; speech bubbles written as subtitled Japanese become more complex as Nao’s comprehension improves. There are countless intersecting modes of communication even within Nao’s social circle: Tina’s Singlish, Hyejung’s thickly accented English, their paths to Japanese acquisition, and surly Masaki’s fluent written but poorly spoken English. The ability to define oneself depends on the ability to communicate that self to others, and our heroes tackle language barriers head-on to articulate their identities in an exhausting, exhilarating year in Japan. Becker’s art references manga and Japanese urban aesthetics playfully but not obsessively, reinforcing the book’s themes of immersion and self-definition.
VERDICT This lighthearted yet serious-minded journey of discovery will delight, educate, and challenge teens interested in language and cultural exploration.

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