Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese-American

HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Mar. 2022. 272p. Tr $22.99. ISBN 9780063067776; pap. $14.99. ISBN 9780063067769.
Gr 7 Up–In this poignant memoir, Gao conveys her love for her home country and her journey as an immigrant. Born in Wuhan, China, young Yuyang grows up surrounded by rice paddies, riding water buffalo with her mischievous cousins under the watchful eyes of her grandparents. But soon she joins her parents, who are attending graduate school in the United States, and she finds herself in a frightening, overstimulating world. Her teachers and classmates can’t pronounce her name, and she drops her Chinese name for “Laura,” after then–First Lady Laura Bush. Gao describes the American public school system, where she felt desperate to fit in and become the star basketball player; the University of Pennsylvania, where she was able to carve out her identity; and life as a young professional in San Francisco before circling back to Wuhan today and the specter of the COVID pandemic. Her voice is grounded yet humorous; she illustrates a more nuanced Wuhan than the one depicted in current media, while conveying the difficulty of being a part of American society yet never feeling truly at home. Underpinning her external struggles is Gao’s deeper understanding of herself as she reckons with her sexual identity, eventually coming out as queer. Depicting her hometown in thick, organic brushstrokes and a warm palette, she evokes a sense of peace and beauty and a longing to return to her origins. For scenes in America, Gao relies on a muddy palette that suggests the challenges of fitting into an uncomfortable environment.
VERDICT A tender story of self-acceptance that lifts the story of Wuhan beyond COVID and shines light on a region with a rich culture and history.

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