There’s been a lot of talk about the role of the reviewer when it comes to self-published books. Horn Book Magazine makes a point of not reviewing selThere’s been a lot of talk about the role of the reviewer when it comes to self-published books. Horn Book Magazine makes a point of not reviewing self-published fare of any sort. Kirkus, in contrast, makes quite a penny off of doing precisely that. And bloggers? Bloggers make their own rules. Some eschew anything but the professionally published while others are open to all comers. I fall somewhere in the middle. In my experience, you should always be open to self-published books because once in a while you’ll find a diamond in the rough. It might take a while to find them but they’re out there. I receive roughly 2-3 requests to review self-published fare a day, on average. I don’t review books not originally published in the current year and I don’t review books that are only available in an ebook form. That knocks out roughly 60% of the requests I receive right there. I also don’t review YA, so when I was contacted about Christine Mari Inzer’s illustrated memoir Halfway Home I sent a politely regretful email saying I’d be unable to review the title. As it happened, the book had already been sent to me in the mail so I figured I’d just hand it over to the YA specialist in my office and be done with it. Then I saw it firsthand. You know, when folks like Jeff Smith (Bone), Hope Larson (A Wrinkle in Time), and Kate Williamson (A Year in Japan) are blurbing a high school senior’s memoir of a time spent in a foreign country, you know something’s probably up. Funny and smart with a personal journey that’s infinitely relatable to young readers everywhere, Inzer’s first foray into publishing will leave readers wanting something very specific: more.
Meet Christine. In the summer of 2013 she had a chance to spend a whopping eight weeks in Japan with her maternal grandparents. Born in America with a Japanese born mom, Christine hadn’t visited Kashiwa, a small city outside of Tokyo, since she was ten. Now she’s traveling by herself and recording it all. From crepes and ramen to Kashiwa Matsuri and 6 a.m. sushi, Christine records everything with wit and a surprising amount of acumen. By the time she returns home she’s older, wiser, and more self-assured, though she misses Japan like crazy even before she’s home. But as the quote in the front of the book says, "Each day is a journey, and the journey itself home" - Matsuo Basho.
It’s hard to get perspective on your life when you’re 30, 40, even 50 years of age. Now imagine that you’re a senior in high school and you’ve managed to define for yourself what it is to straddle two very different cultures, both of which you love deeply. Near the end of the book Christine is traveling on a train back to the airport to leave Japan once more. She writes, “What was most painful was when the train doors closed, and Baba was standing outside. And also, the scenery outside the window. Old house rooftops and rice fields and everything, so vivid with color, and I was passing by all of it for the last time.” She concludes eventually that being split between the two countries, she can only be halfway home at any given time. Though the book could be read as a graphic novel, it's the author's written passages like this that give it heft and weight. You're not reading fluff when you read "Halfway Home". You can get something out of it and apply it to your own life.
To be honest, when I saw the blurbs the book had received I found them interesting but it was Inzer’s artistic style that actually put my mind to rest best. The book is drawn like an artist’s sketchbook, only it has a coherent narrative present throughout. Inzer alternates between pages where the text and images cohabit together to panels to simple images of architecture or food. Photos are also meshed into the final product and help it enormously. The end result is a book that will inspire as many teen readers as it will amuse.
To my mind, all the great cartoonists have one thing in common: if they are writing a memoir then they consistently make themselves less attractive in their comics than they are in real life. This makes perfect sense. If you’re being honest about your life and how you live then often you’ll draw yourself as the “you” that you feel matches the “you” inside your skin. So while the pronounced eyebrows do their best to render Christine heavy browed, you get the distinct sense that she’s just drawing the “Christine” that best represents her inner self. It’s a sophisticated choice on her part. One you’d expect from a cartoonist far older than her scant 17 years.
And it’s funny! Honestly really very funny. Yet not primarily in an “isn’t it funny how they do things in Japan” way. Plenty of books go that route and it’s honestly the easiest way to write a travel manual. I-went-here-and-saw-this-crazy-thing will only get you so far when you’re trying to write a serious book. Fortunately, Christine mixes things up. Because the book has a sketchbook style to it, you really do feel like you’re with Christine every step of the way. And while she’ll milk humor from enormous corner condom stores, toilets, and bathtime, she also knows how to work in situational humor (her Baba’s conversation with a monk is classic), flights of fantasy (imagining Tyra Banks hosting “Japan’s Next Top Maiko”), and everyday moments (flight woes, being eaten alive by deer, etc.). She even uses tropes that I enjoyed greatly, like having her 10-year-old self interact with her present day self (very “Hark, a Vagrant”).
I once worked the children’s reference desk just a floor below a very active teen library. Since my floor had the nearest bathrooms, we were constantly fielding an array of rather adorkable YA readers. Those that always fascinated me the most were the ones obsessed with Japan. They’d been introduced to it via manga and that obsession had turned into a full on love affair. They learned the language. They read everything they could about it. For them, Halfway Home would read like a How To manual of everything they’ve ever wanted in life. But its appeal stretches far beyond those kids already fixated on the topic. Humor and heart are difficult things to invest in any YA title. You usually either get one or the other. Inzer gets both in a book that feels professional and reads beautifully. Recommended heartily and with a MOS Burger lifted in thanks.