Graphic Novel Review: Emiko Superstar

While it definitely shouldn’t be shelved in the children’s section, this coming-of-age graphic novel will appeal to YA readers.

Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Steve Rolston.
Minx, DC comics, New York, 2008.
Graphic novel, 150 pages.
Not leveled.

This is the story of one summer in the life of Emiko, a summer that changed her life.  It starts out like a normal summer.  A coffee shop job doesn’t last, so her mom signs her up for babysitting work.  She meets a girl named Poppy and finds herself strangely drawn to Poppy’s mesmerizing, frenetic, artistic life.

Emiko Superstar cover resized
Emiko Superstar by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Steve Rolston.

There is a lot going on in this graphic novel.

I want to caution readers that this is definitely for teens.  We found it at the used bookstore in the kids section, and I assumed that it would be okay for N based on other Minx books I’ve read, which were fine for middle grade readers.  Nope!

This is a great book, but the content is intense, and middle schoolers should be discussing it with a parent or teacher.  Mariko Tamaki is better known for Skim, an intense YA graphic novel.

The dramatic opening is a little confusing.  An edgy, artistic girl with one shoe is coming home late at night.  She’s texting her friend and narrates as the images go from her to old photographs.  Chapter two backtracks to early summer.

Her employers the Cuthberts seem like the classic suburban family, but she’s got shopping cash now.  Poppy is everything Emi’s not – confident, brash, artistic, odd, and being thrown out of the mall.  But Emi catches one of her flyers – for something called The Freak Show at a place called The Factory.

Emi’s not that kind of person, but doesn’t fit in with the geek crowd anymore, either.  The Freak Show is loud, scary, chaotic… and full of art that moves Emi.  She needs to be a part of it.  Poppy is a white girl with piercings and dyed dreadlocks.  She wears risque outfits for her performance art.  Emi finds her absolutely captivating.

Emiko Superstar p 114 resized
Page 114 of Emiko Superstar

Photographer Henry introduces himself and helps Emi navigate the stage tryouts.  Disliked by most at The Factory, but friends with some of the main performers,  Henry occupies the same weird middle ground as Emi – only she’s determined to make it to the inner circle even after a disastrous first day at tryouts.

Spoilers  |  All is not as bucolic as it first seems at The Factory.  In this hip gathering place for young people, The Curator is the only old person – and he’s in a relationship with teen Poppy.  Alcohol is sold, IDs optional.  Vomiting and smoking are frequent and the place is filthy.  Emi walks away from the beer, but still wants in.

Then she discovers Susan Cuthbert’s big secret – her girlfriend.  Emi thinks Susan’s diary, combined with her grandmother’s old dancing clothes, might be her ticket to the stage.  Up close, Poppy seems older than her age and not so happy.  The Curator’s wandering eye turns to Emi, and she finds herself in a bad situation.  |  End of Spoilers |

Needless to say, this managed to stay right on the edge of what I would hand over to a teen, but isn’t appropriate for younger kids, particularly those that aren’t ready to peel back the onion and look at the complicated layers of this story.

Emiko Superstar p115 resized
Page 115 of Emiko Superstar.

In this one, because the night scene is so artistic and “before” Emi wears jeans and t-shirts, clothes don’t date the book, but rather the old-school flip phones she and her friends use.  The style of the art appealed to me.

Emi appears to be half-Japanese.  She specifically refers to her Japanese maternal grandmother emigrating to Canada.  Her father’s ethnicity isn’t specified, but he looks white.

I read a good amount of YA books, which often include coming of age narratives.  This book felt fresh, had a unique spin on finding yourself, and packed an amazing amount of narrative into 150 pages.  I’d recommend it to teens and adults who like YA.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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