Review: My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder by Nie Jun

I spend a lot of time with my local library system, and I occasionally stumble upon books that escape notice by the indie and alt-comics press. There’s a thriving kids comics market, for example, centered around books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and the work of Raina Telgemeier. I’ve read a lot of comics this year, but if you asked me what comic book I’ve seen the most in other people’s hands this year, it would be Smile. It’s no surprise then that larger publishing groups are trying to edge in on Scholastic’s chokehold on the kids comics market, but one publisher in particular seems to be engaging with the indie comics scene a little more intensely than others. That publisher is Lerner Books, and they’ve recently published work by Marinaomi and Sara Searle, among others. My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder is a fall 2018 release from Lerner, and brings the work of Chinese cartoonist Nie Jun into English for the first time. Nie Jun is now also publishing work online through the website Tapas, but this collection proved an ample introduction to his work.

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder is a collection of four short stories featuring a diminutive young girl named Yu’er and her portly grandfather. Each story is a slice of life vignette mixed with a small helping of fantasy. Yu’er has some kind of disability that makes it hard for her to walk without a crutch, and this disability plays a role in every story. In the first, she is fascinated with swimming and wants to swim in the Special Olympics. When she is rejected at the local gymnasium, her grandfather rigs up a harness in the tree in their backyard. The harness lets her “swim” in the air, while grandpa takes up the role of swimming coach. After long and intense practice, Yu’er finally learns how to swim – except instead of being in the water, she’s actually swimming through the air, flying overtop of her small neighborhood in China.

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder is remarkable for its beautiful color. I found myself enchanted by Nie Jun’s illustrations of trees, bugs, and rooftops; the places where Yu’er and her grandfather play and live feel vibrant and whole. Nie Jun concentrates his drawing on neighborhood life in China, and that concentration pays dividends. Instead of seeing Beijing the city, we see Beijing the people. Nie Jun is a competent illustrator, and the book has a kind of stylized art that is reminiscent of Miyazaki’s movies. You wouldn’t be remiss in saying that My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder is Miyazaki-inspired. Each of the four stories has the same kind of dream logic, whimsy, and wonder that make Miyazaki’s movies so popular.

As a collected whole, I find myself as emotionally invested in Yu’er as I would be one of Miyazaki’s young heroines. That said, the work is airy; My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder is about love and overcoming adversity, like many of Miyazaki’s stories, but less complex and less subtle than Miyazaki. These comics are fluffy and bathed in the warm glow of nostalgia, a potent combination when mixed correctly, but the end result is something a little less than substantial.

My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder tells stories that, while delightful, are a little soft around the middle. The themes in each of the stories read like the text on a motivational poster: be kind to others; take care of the natural world; do your best. But My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder only rarely strays into mawkishness. This is a lovely collection of short stories, with great cartooning, beautiful color, and resonant characters. My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder is full of the joy of life while still acknowledging its hardships. Even the most cynical readers need a reminder of that joy from time to time.

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