Cartoonist: Jen Wang
Publisher: First Second Books
Stargazing, Jen Wang’s follow-up to the Eisner Award-winning The Prince and the Dressmaker, is a heartwarming portrait of friendship between two girls and the loss that is felt after one falls ill. The book’s narrative is loosely based on Wang’s childhood growing up in and of searching for her own identity within the Chinese American community.
Christine Hong is a studious, hard-working girl whose life revolves around homework, Chinese lessons and music lessons. Christine’s life changes when Moon Lin and her mother move into the extra unit behind Christine’s house. Christine has heard that Moon has a bad reputation. Despite this hearsay and being polar opposites, the two become besties.
The confident and free-spirited Moon introduces the insecure Christine to K-Pop and dancing. They paint their toenails and enter the school talent show. Moon shares her drawings with Christine, but Christine also learns Moon’s secret: she has visions of celestial beings. When Moon’s growing popularity challenges their friendship, Christine does the unthinkable and must face the consequences of her actions.
Asian American kids will find plenty to identify with in Stargazing: after school tutoring in math, music lessons, Chinese school, pressure to excel and succeed conflicting with the desire to fit in. “You want everyone to be perfect! Especially me,” moans Christine to her father when the pressure and feeling of inadequacy become all too consuming. It’s a familiar refrain for many second-generation Asian American children, the “conditional” love they interpret as coming with strings attached. Even if Wang intended the story to reflect her own personal experiences, this perspective that she brings so painstakingly to life has appeal to both the adult reflecting about childhood and the child living in the moment.
Wang abandoned the brush to rely entirely on ballpoint pen in bringing Christine and Moon to life on the page. The lines are cleaner, more defined. The style she uses is simpler than her work in The Prince and the Dressmaker, but also more immediate and emotionally impactful. There is a visceral expressiveness to the characters, such as the pure joy Christine and Moon show while practicing their dance routine, the jealousy in the averted eyes and standoffishness Christine directs at Moon, and the righteous indignation and uncontrolled anger Moon feels when her secrets are discovered. The friendship between the two is palpable and entirely relatable to readers.
Stargazing is a sweet and intimate story of friendship, of learning to be comfortable in one’s own skin, and learning to embrace the differences that make each person special in their own way.