Mei and her father work in the kitchen for a logging camp in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the late 1800s, where they expertly make delicious meals for the loggers after a long day of hard work. Mei makes wonderful pies that everyone craves, and at night, she entertains the camp's children by telling fanciful stories. One such stories is the legend of Po Pan Yin, an elderly Chinese woman logger who watches over the camp and works in the forest with her giant blue ox. The children accuse Mei of stealing the American legend of Paul Bunyan, but Mei makes Auntie Po into her own myth and a guardian spirit for the camp and herself. With the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act limiting the opportunities and safety for Chinese immigrants, Mei and her father must navigate an increasingly hostile community where violence against Chinese workers is not uncommon. On top of all of this, Mei must work out her feelings for her best friend Bee, which are becoming increasingly romantic, as well as plan for her future away from the logging camp.
While the main attraction of this storyline is the birth of a new folktale with Auntie Po, hidden within are some deeper themes as Mei must figure out her place in this world. The theme of family runs throughout the story, both blood family and those around you who become your family. Mei also has to deal with grief when a death hits close to home. Mei and her father both have to deal with the racism that was part of the community both in and out of the logging camp, and that racism makes Mei's future difficult to plan out. Mei is a deeply sympathetic character, so it's no surprise that when everything doesn't work our perfectly, the ending leaves a little bit of sadness in the reader. The ending is probably more realistic, which reminds the reader that this story itself isn't a folktale where everyone lives happily ever after.
The watercolors are vivid and, along with the illustrations, provide a childlike atmosphere to this story while it tackles tough topics.
Sara's Rating: 8/10
Suitability Level: Grades 5-8
This review was made possible with an advanced reader copy from the publisher.
Publisher: Kokila (Penguin)
Publication Date: Jun 15, 2021
ISBN: 9780525554882 (Hardcover)
Tags: Rating: 8/10, Suitability: Elementary School, Suitability: Middle School, Graphic Fiction, History, Folklore, Family, Penguin
I've been reading manga and comicbooks for years. Now, I write reviews and other helpful things for School Librarians, teachers, parents, and students.
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