LIKE A FLOWER BENDING IN THE BREEZE, BEND WITH ME
Koko Be Good by Jen Wang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Jen Wang's astonishing debut is an assured and heartfelt story of people searching for their place in their world. The fundamental question of "What do you want to be when you grow up?" doesn't end when you actually have grown up, it only becomes more pronounced and real. Wang's characters have passed the precipice of adulthood, but they are still confused about what they want out of life. Jon has abandoned his dreams of making music to follow his older girlfriend to Peru, where she will work in an orphanage and be a force of positive change. Doubts linger in Jon's mind that maybe he's just a tag-along in someone else's existence, a suspicion that is only emboldened when he meets the strange and wonderful Koko.
At one time Koko would have been called a "free spirit," but that has since been co-opted to mean hippy-dippy kookiness. In Wang's hands, Koko is much more than that. She is the rarest of creations, a social gadfly who behaves with the caprice of childhood who doesn't come off as either damaged or obnoxious. She can be a jerk, sure, but she is easy to forgive. She is like a flower trying to break out of the shell of its seed.
It's Koko who challenges herself to be good, which in turn becomes a metaphor for being true to oneself, to one's friends, to whatever passion gave you purpose enough to get this far in life. The joy of Koko's discoveries is the joy of creation itself, and we see it in every page. Jen Wang has clearly put a lot of herself into every panel, and though she masterfully controls the lines of her lively figures, she isn't afraid to let the world around them be loose and shimmery. Her watercolored tones and her easygoing layouts give the book a natural feeling, even though her art has a cartoony flourish. She uses more inventive and complex page construction sparingly, when the scene needs to go flashy or better yet, when an emotional epiphany must occur, such as the double-page spread where Jon's girlfriend realizes he is in a different space than he thinks he is. Her narrative flows naturally, and even when she takes a detour into something more experimental, it doesn't seem forced or gimmicky. The pages turn instinctually.
As a fan of Jen's short work, I am pleased that Koko Be Good has delivered on the promise of those smaller slices. Quite possibly the debut of 2010, if not a contender for the book of the year across the board.
Alas, the rest of you are going to have to wait until September to read this wonderful book. Expect me to keep talking about it until then. In the meantime, visit Jen Wang's website.
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