Author: Suzanne Walker (author), Wendy Xu (artist)
Publication date: October 22, 2019
Genre: graphic novel, young adult, fantasy
My rating: 4 / 5 stars
Queer and quirky and oh-so-cute, Mooncakes was the quick, enchanting graphic novel I didn’t know I needed in my life. I finished almost all of it in a single night, and boy, was it a fun and heartwarming ride, complete with utterly charming magical creatures, adorable cats, and a super-sweet romance.
This graphic novel tells the story of Nova, a young witch with a hearing impairment who lives with her two grandmothers, and Tam, a nonbinary werewolf who used to be best friends with Nova before their family moved away. When Tam comes back to town, pursued by a strange cult that wants to harness Tam’s werewolf magic to bind a demon, their path quickly crosses with Nova’s, and the two set off to stop the demon and, hopefully, prevent Tam from reaching a horrible end.
This book succeeded because of three major factors: its art, its characters, and its themes.
As I’m sure you know, artwork can make or break a graphic novel. When designs are off-putting or too complicated or kind of boring, even the best story will inevitably fall flat. This is even more the case when the story deals with things like magic, which requires a creative eye and a knack for detail. Fortunately, Wendy Xu’s illustrations rose to the occasion. Vibrant and colorful, they captured everything from the beautiful swirls and details of magic to the vintage-chic style of Nova’s clothing. (Incidentally, I want literally everything in Nova’s wardrobe, because it’s that adorable.) The visual humor was both subtle (e.g. clever titles on books in the background) and overt (e.g. a cousin of Nova’s who literally has the head of a pigeon). The emotions of Nova and Tam, as well as the Nanas and Nova’s friend Tatiana, were all convincingly conveyed. And–perhaps my favorite random detail–there are some incredibly imaginative magical creatures who don’t really have names but are just so dang adorable to look at. Props to the illustrator for bringing those to life; even without any dialogue, their thoughts are clear, and their physical appearances (big eyes, pretty flower ornamentations, bright colors, inexplicable flying…) are delightful.
The thing that first drew me to this book wasn’t the art, though–it was the diversity. I had heard it was cute and super gay, but beyond that I didn’t know much. The thing is, this book is so much more than that. Nova doesn’t just have a hearing impairment that’s mentioned once and then ignored; she wears hearing aids on a regular basis, they impact her magic, we see her take them off and on, and we see scenes where she has them off and needs to ask people to repeat themselves. Tam is nonbinary, yes, but people totally respect their pronouns once they are aware, and we see snippets of Tam even at a young age struggling to reconcile their feminine upbringing with their more in-between gender identity. Even the side characters are great. Nova’s grandmothers have an adorable relationship with each other, and Tatiana is a plus-size girl who loves science, even as she struggles to reconcile that fact with the existence of Nova’s magic and Tam’s werewolf-ness.
Finally, thematically, this book was enjoyable because it was so focused on love, friendship, family, duty, acceptance, and inclusion. Though Nova and Tam become romantically involved fairly quickly, it derives from the deep friendship they shared as children. Tatiana is wholly supportive of the relationship between the two and proves herself a loyal friend, rather than the typical backstabber you often expect to see in a YA book (especially one that features a “third wheel” character or one whose ideologies differ from those of the main characters). Both of the Nanas do everything in their power to help and protect both their granddaughter and Tam. And the rest of Nova’s family, too, in their few brief appearances, are supportive and caring, even when they don’t fully understand what is happening, or when their own understandings of what witches are “supposed” to do conflict with what Nova and her grandmothers choose to do.
Still, there were small drawbacks to the book. In some ways, because of its rapid pace and short length, it felt a little half-baked (pun not intended), with a couple rushed plot points and not quite enough time spent building up certain details on the backgrounds of the characters. This, in turn, rendered some of the story elements too simplistic and unsatisfying–but, given the light tone throughout, this was not a deal-breaker by any means. It was enough to make the book not quite a perfect five-stars, because it lacked that complexity that could have fully brought it to life, but not enough to dampen my enthusiastic recommendation of it.
If the world’s got you down, if you want some awesome casual nonbinary rep, or if your life could just use a little more charming magic, go ahead and pick up a copy of Mooncakes. I guarantee, it’ll keep you spellbound.