For as long as she can remember, it’s been Robin and her mom against the world. Growing up as the only child of a single mother in Seoul, Korea, wasn’t always easy, but it has bonded them fiercely together.
So when a vacation to visit friends in Huntsville, Alabama, unexpectedly becomes a permanent relocation—following her mother’s announcement that she’s getting married—Robin is devastated.
Overnight, her life changes. She is dropped into a new school where she doesn’t understand the language and struggles to keep up. She is completely cut off from her friends in Seoul and has no access to her beloved comics. At home, she doesn’t fit in with her new stepfamily, and worst of all, she is furious with the one person she is closest to—her mother.
Then one day Robin’s mother enrolls her in a local comic drawing class, which opens the window to a future Robin could never have imagined.
Almost American Girl provides an intimate look at the author’s journey through immigrating from South Korea to Huntsville, Alabama, in the USA, very suddenly after her mother tells her she has met a man and is going to marry him. Robin Ha invites the readers into her adolescence through this graphic memoir which allows them to see such a full range of emotions: anger towards her mother, anxiety at attending school, sorrow and intense frustration at trying to fit in when she doesn’t understand her peers and is bullied, and a flood of relief when she finds a first glimmer of connection during her comics drawing class.
The story begins in South Korea, where we meet Robin, or Chuna, which is her Korean name, and her mother, a single parent working as a hairstylist. There, Robin has a vibrant community of supportive friends, a strong love for comics, and most importantly, a deep sense of love and belonging. However, all of a sudden, she finds herself privy to her mother’s romantic life, and she is shocked when she lands in Alabama with nothing and no one she loves besides her mother.
My heart really went out to her when she is bullied at school with classic stereotypes and offensive language towards East Asians, especially by this one boy who I truly despised, targeting Robin for absolutely no reason other than that she was different than the majority of the students there. I also disliked this one girl who straight up told her that she couldn’t sit at the same lunch table with her and her friends. I remembered this feeling from when I was in middle school myself and being excluded from friend groups for no good reason. Most of this was definitely racist, bigoted behavior, but there was definitely a part of it that was what a lot of teens experience and it was painful to revisit that past that I could relate to.
Robin’s mother’s life and backstory was so telling of the intergenerational trauma in her family heritage, and spoke volumes to why she made the relational decisions she did. The book explains that single parents, especially mothers, are looked down upon at that time in Korean culture, and they are deemed untrustworthy, extending into the workplace where some employers judge them to be unhireable and less desirable. This created a sense of strength in Robin’s mother in making career and life choices, but also frustration for Robin when she did not understand her decisions or felt that she did not have Robin’s best interest in mind. Although not exactly similar, I really appreciated this highlight of a tumultuous relationship between an East Asian mother and daughter and found parts of it relatable to my own experience.
With all this trauma that Robin and her mother experienced, there was a huge turning point when her mother takes her to a comic book store where she feels so much joy at finding comics she used to enjoy in Korea, and on a whim joins the drawing class. She finds connection there with others who love comics and starts hanging out with a girl who later becomes her best friend. That feeling of relief when finding community and safety is definitely something I felt when I met friends who I have known since I started in the book community in 2015 and have since then traveled together, stayed up late talking, and formed lasting friendships with. These new friends did not care about Robin’s English skill level, only that they had something in common and that they enjoyed each other’s company. You can feel her love for comics coming through the page and it was so heartwarming. I was rooting for Robin the whole time, and this made me want to let out a cheer, alongside a sigh of relief.
(Disclaimer: CW and Skye are the Pond’s resident artists, so I will do my best to describe the art style and what I was drawn to about it… but please keep in mind I am no expert and have no skill!)
The art style features panels with a full array of color choices, although the colors are on the more muted side. I think this provides an accurate reflection of the choices people made in terms of decor and clothing during the time this was set, but also was perhaps metaphorical in some way, describing how dull life was for the author when she first moved to Huntsville. My favorite part of the art style was that when she would draw panels from the comics that she enjoyed reading, there was a distinct change in how the characters would look, directly reflecting those illustrators’ styles and how vividly she experienced them in her mind. Some flashbacks were provided in black and white or exclusively sepia tones and provided a great contrast to me as an admittedly visual reader, and I always find these shifts helpful.
An immense sense of growth resonated with me during the ending of the story. Robin experiences her teen years right next to this immigration experience, and she has gone through this realization that she has created a new identity for herself. A piece of her is in the USA, and a piece of her lives in Korea, and her true self is an amalgamation of both. I think this would really resonate with any first or second generation immigrant readers.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
I read Almost American Girl in one sitting, and I have only said that maybe twice in the past two years. It is truly that engaging and is the perfect mix of a coming of age story with the harsh truths of immigration and the detrimental effects of strict gender norms.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: Chuna, or Robin, immigrates from Korea to Huntsville, Alabama very suddenly in her early teens and struggles to fit in while not knowing any English or a single person there, but finds connection through comics and art.
Genre: graphic memoir
Trigger/content warning: Racism, sexism, divorce, offensive language towards East Asians, targeted bullying (all challenged and/or framed in a negative light)