Stargazing by Jen Wang, 224 pp, RL 4
Stargazing by Jen Wang
Review Copy from FirstSecond Books
An act of generosity moves Moon and her single mother into the granny flat behind Christine's house, her world expands and changes in challenging ways. Moon and Christine are both part of the same Chinese-American community, the children of immigrants, but their lives couldn't be more different. Christine plays violin, goes to church, takes Chinese lessons (taught by her mother) and asks to be enrolled at a tutoring center after getting a C on a math test. Moon is a Buddhist and vegetarian who paints her nails, listens to K-Pop and has a fierce sense of justice. Moon welcomes Christine into her world and, with a few tentative steps at first, Christine discovers a life outside of the firm influence and expectations of her parents.
Moon is also an artist, sharing the contents of her sketchbook, including drawings of magical beings from outer space, with Christine. She even shares her deepest secret with Christine, the fact that she has visions of these celestial beings sometimes and they speak to her, telling Moon that someday she will be reunited with them. As Moon becomes part of Christine's friend group, her unique personality attracting new (and more popular) friends, Christine grows jealous. Her struggles with her sense of self as part of her tight-knit family and community, and the new things she is experiencing and enjoying outside of this world lead Christine to make a hurtful decision that affects Moon. This coincides with a devastating discovery for Moon that Christine blames herself for.
A wonderful afterward from Wang adds insight and depth to Stargazing. While entirely fictional, Wang shares personal elements from her own childhood that made it into the story, including one that I won't share here, as it is a pivotal and surprising part of the plot. Like her main characters, Wang grew up in a community Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant families and their American-born kids, writing,
The more you're expected to share with a group of people, the more you obsess over the ways you are different. (I was vegetarian, I was Buddhist, I didn't excel at academics, I wanted to be an artist, etc.) If I wasn't like the other Asian American kids, who was I supposed to be like? It's taken me thirty-three years to get to a point where I can comfortable reflect on these feelings. Writing Stargazing was as much about healing myself as about showing the diversity of experience even within a very specific community. As our society continues to diversify (as I would hope), I imagine there will be many more Moons and Christines out there wondering which parts of them are "not Asian," and which parts are just uniquely and wonderfully them.
As I make diversity and inclusion my focus in reading and reviewing kid's books, I am grateful for the experience that Stargazing has given me. Finding stories with characters from a variety of cultural backgrounds and life experiences, created by authors from a variety of cultural backgrounds and life experiences is vital. It is yet another layer, another experience to read about characters struggling to make sense of the the world their families came from and the world they live in and to integrate this all with the unique individuals they are.
I fell in love with Wang's illustrations in 2012 when I read Tom Angleberger's super-kooky Fake Mustache: How Jodie O'Rodeo and Her Wonder Horse (and Some Nerdy Kid) Saved the U.S. Presidential Election from a Mad Genius Criminal Mastermind and immediately bought her debut (YA/Adult) graphic novel, Koko Be Good. She went on to partner with Cory Doctorow on a superb graphic novel about the economies and injustices of online gaming. Last year's magnificent The Prince and the Dressmaker won Wang two Eisner Awards (the Newbery and Caldecott for graphic novels and comics). Click on titles below for my reviews.
Koko Be Good