If you’re excited for a break from classes and schoolwork, this article will interest you in some reading and watching (books and graphic novels with adaptations are included) for both leisure and (potentially) non-academic learning.
Onto the list!
Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Silicon Valley family, he realises there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.
Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.
When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history, and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.
If complicated Asian family dynamics hit too close to home and you want to avoid being hurt by fictional people and their fictional relationships, don’t read this. This is a book to spend an afternoon (if you’re someone who commits to a book wholeheartedly), or several, being absorbed in. It will leave you thinking long after you’ve finished reading.
“If nothing else there’s a comfort in knowing someone’s holding space in their own life for what’s hurting you. That’s the thing that makes life bearable sometimes, I think: that you can feel more than one thing at a time, that it floods into you from so many directions at once.”
Additional tags: This is a good book to read with a friend. It has a diverse cast and is equally plot and character driven. The characters are flawed and faceted, but ultimately lovable.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
One of my friends loves this novel, which is the only reason why it’s on here (if I had a choice I would’ve put Little Fires Everywhere here as my token Celeste Ng novel). Everything I Never Told You is a mystery drama detailing the lives of a mixed Asian-American family in the 1970s. Unlike typical mystery novels, Everything I Never Told You isn’t solved through detective work after the fact, but rather by working backwards through both time and the memories of each family member who yearns to reveal the truth behind the untimely death of Lydia Lee. The book is insightful and cleverly written.
Additional tags: This is a good book club pick. Read it in a group!
A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna
In a universe of capricious gods, dark moons, and kingdoms built on the backs of spaceships, a cursed queen sends her infant daughter away, a jealous uncle steals the throne of Kali from his nephew, and an exiled prince vows to take his crown back.
Raised alone and far away from her home on Kali, Esmae longs to return to her family. When the King of Wychstar offers to gift the unbeatable, sentient warship Titania to a warrior that can win his competition, she sees her way home: she’ll enter the competition, reveal her true identity to the world, and help her famous brother win back the crown of Kali.
It’s a great plan. Until it falls apart.
Inspired by the Mahabharata and other ancient Indian stories, A Spark of White Fire is a lush, sweeping space opera about family, curses, and the endless battle between jealousy and love.
The novel’s a space opera retelling of the Mahābhārata (Sanskrit epic from ancient India, described to be the longest poem ever written). If you don’t normally read space operas, this is a book to make an exception for. It may be a gateway to the rest of the genre if you enjoy it.
Additional thoughts: There should be a reading challenge where you only read books that have underwhelming and lacking covers, and find yourself surprised by how badly covers can sell books. This is offtopic, but sometimes, author: good. Cover: could be better.
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
Trigger warning: racism, graphic violence, on page death, anxiety, OCD.
A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.
Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.
But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.
With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.
The story’s also available as a webtoon! Based on my experiences of reading Not Even Bones (and the series that it belongs to, which is unfortunately out of order) prior to the release of its webcomic adaptation on Webtoon, I’m biased towards reading the books before their adaptation because:
1) You learn more about the characters and the world that the story takes place in.
2) It’ll be more exciting when you see all the things you’ve already read and imagined in your mind be visually depicted in the novel’s adaptation.
3) The webtoon updates once a week. The book is completed.
Additional notes: Read the book at the same time as the webtoon—win-win situation.
The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang
The Shadow Hero is based on the golden-age comic series The Green Turtle, whose hero solved crimes and fought injustice just like any other comics hero. But this mysterious masked crusader was hiding
more than your run-of-the-mill secret identity… The Green Turtle was the first Asian American superhero.
Now, exactly seventy years later, author Gene Luen Yang has revived this nearly forgotten, pioneering character in a new graphic novel that creates an origin story for the golden-age Green Turtle.
One out of five stars in terms of crying, which is a pretty good number in terms of ‘how much crying should I be doing while reading a superhero origin story graphic novel?’ The novel subverts expectations and explores themes of identity, belonging and family dynamics without falling prey to tired tropes and overused cliches. I finished this graphic novel in one read.
The Gods Lie by Kaori Ozaki
Natsuru Nanao, a sixth grader who lives alone with his mother, strikes up an unlikely friendship with the reserved and driven Rio Suzumura. Natsuru plays hooky from soccer camp that summer, and instead of telling the truth to his mother, he spends all his time with Rio and her kid brother at their rickety house, where a dark secret threatens to upend their fragile happiness.
If there’s one story on this list to blind read with no expectations, it’s this one. My mum has this belief that great stories are ones that you can read over and over again, are timeless, and can be reread by a wide audience. Or, to put it more bluntly: a story that has replay value. I think that belief is flawed and having a specific audience is a strength more often than not, but when it comes to The Gods Lie, I have to agree with her on that. It’s in my Top 10 books to read as a sixth grader and find yourself revisiting years later.
Mooncakes by Suzanne Walker
A story of love and demons, family and witchcraft.
Nova Huang knows more about magic than your average teen witch. She works at her grandmothers’ bookshop, where she helps them loan out spell books and investigate any supernatural occurrences in their New England town.
One fateful night, she follows reports of a white wolf into the woods, and she comes across the unexpected: her childhood crush, Tam Lang, battling a horse demon in the woods. As a werewolf, Tam has been wandering from place to place for years, unable to call any town home.
Pursued by dark forces eager to claim the magic of wolves and out of options, Tam turns to Nova for help. Their latent feelings are rekindled against the backdrop of witchcraft, untested magic, occult rituals, and family ties both new and old in this enchanting tale of self-discovery.
Mooncakes is a heartwarming and lovely read, but might make you cry a little if you’re weak to warmth and softness. Taking place in a witchy modern setting, this graphic novel features found family and childhood friends to lovers. A lovable cast of characters made it a joy to read. I loved Mooncakes and its slow worldbuilding and development because they gave me more time to really enjoy the relationships between characters and learn more about them and what they want.
If you enjoy slower plots with more focus on characters and their relationships, you’ll probably love Mooncakes. Slice of life with action included.
A Map to the Sun by Sloane Leong
One summer day, Ren meets Luna at a beachside basketball court and a friendship is born. But when Luna moves back to Oahu, Ren’s messages to her friend go unanswered.
Years go by. Then Luna returns, hoping to rekindle their friendship. Ren is hesitant. She’s dealing with a lot, including family troubles, dropping grades, and the newly formed women’s basketball team at their highschool. With Ren’s new friends and Luna all on the basketball team, the lines between their lives on and off the court begin to blur. During their first season, this diverse and endearing group of teens are challenged in ways that make them reevaluate just who and how they trust.
Sloane Leong’s evocative storytelling about the lives of these young women is an ode to the dynamic nature of friendship.
Visual storytelling is, however obvious this may sound, one of my favourite parts of reading graphic novels because, unlike with a novel, you don’t have to explicitly mention things and the reader will still be able to notice the details themselves. There’s no distinct plot, and, like Mooncakes, A Map to the Sun also follows its characters rather than any specific plot or stake. Its focus is on the friendship between the 5 girls of the basketball team, especially the relationship between the protagonist Ren and her childhood friend Luna, who she now has a tense and complicated relationship with.
I didn’t expect the art style of the book (I picked it up as a blind read) but it’s amazing. I love the use of colour and the way it’s used to tell the story. In contrast to its starkly bright and colourful art, A Map to the Sun explores timely social issues that impact the lives of the main characters. Most of the characters are unlikable at some point or another. What I liked about A Map to the Sun is that it didn’t force the characters to be anyone other than who they were: imperfect people—intentionally cruel at times and accidentally hurtful at others.
Real life is rarely as uncomplicated or simple as fiction. A Map to the Sun is a colourful testimony to that.
Additional thoughts: A different review of this graphic novel described it as having “no focus, other than the basketball playing”, which, to be honest, sounds lovely. The novel has a unique art style, and if you don’t like the colouring it might stop you from enjoying this novel as much as you could.
Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san by Honda
Ever wonder what it’s like to sell comics at a Japanese bookstore? Honda provides a hilarious firsthand account from the front lines! Whether it’s handling the store, out-of-print books, or enthusiastic manga fans, Honda takes on every challenge!
Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san is good. All the other graphic novels on this list are imperfect human creations not free from sin. Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san? Gift to humanity. You can either read this online or request it from the nearest library. Fair warning that the contents of Skull-face Bookseller Honda-san are more information heavy at times than most shounen manga. Yes, there are complicated worldbuilding and deep intricate plots, but also, this is a manga series telling semi-autobiographical stories about the bookselling industry in Japan. Expect information and a lot of it. It’s an engaging light read that weaves insight and conversation around censorship and classification of media with humorous anecdotes.
Additional thoughts: I have not watched the anime for this yet (a friend has and they said it was a pretty decent anime), but will be starting it now that I have time.
A short list of non-fiction titles and video essays, if you’re interested in spending your time enriching your knowledge and learning more about the world around you. Full disclosure that I’ve only read ¾ of this list, so you may or may not enjoy everything on it.
- The Meaning Of Trees by Robert Vennell [BOOK]
- How to Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler by Ryan North [BOOK]
- Cookie Clicker Explained [VIDEO ESSAY]
- This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor by Adam Kay [BOOK]
- Transgender 101: A Simple Guide to a Complex Issue by Nicholas M. Teich [BOOK]
- Kairo, Pulse & Fear Lost in Translation [VIDEO ESSAY]
- Burn the Place: A Memoir by Iliana Regan [BOOK]
- Unmuted: Conversations on Prejudice, Oppression, and Social Justice by Myisha Cherry [BOOK/also available as a podcast!]
- The nightmare videos of childrens’ YouTube — and what’s wrong with the internet today | James Bridle [VIDEO ESSAY]
- Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World by Naomi S. Baron [BOOK]
- No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder [BOOK]
- No Filter No CO2 No Ferts Planted Nano Tanks [VIDEO PLAYLIST]
Written by Elaine Cao, and edited by Elizabeth Pham. Published on 12/08/2021. Header image by Maggie Xian