Title: Messy Roots: A Graphic Memoir of a Wuhanese American
Author: Laura Gao
Illustrator: Laura Gao
Publisher: Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
Publishing Date: 2022
Genre/Format of the Item: Book-Graphic Novel
Reading Level/Interest Level:
Grades 7-12 (NoveList)
Plot Summary: Messy Roots is the autobiographical graphic novel of Laura Gao’s life (early childhood through early adulthood). Interestingly, Laura was born in Wuhan, China, and the Covid-19 epidemic is referenced in this book. Laura’s given Chinese name is Yuyang Gao which translates into three meanings: the skies (tall and mighty), the sea (peaceful and safe), and the cosmos (infinite and mysterious). She tells the story of growing up in rural Wuhan, China, before it became more urbanized. She moved to the U.S. when she was four years old. She was a good student and loved basketball, but she frequently had trouble fitting in with her peers. She travelled back to Wuhan as a teen and felt isolated from her old life as well—so many changes had occurred since she moved away. Laura begins to crack under the pressure of performing well on the basketball court and doing well in school. She leaves the team and discovers her love of art. College opens up doors that Laura had not thought possible, and with it, the discovery that she is gay. Laura finds freedom in living a life away from her parents and is involved in many school clubs. The ups and downs of relationships and self-discovery are paramount in this book. A family medical issue brings Laura home, where she rediscovers her parents and their love for her.
Author Background: Laura Gao was born in Wuhan, China and immigrated to the US when she was four years old. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. Gao worked at Twitter as a project manager until 2020. In 2020, her webcomic “The Wuhan That I Know” became very popular and she began to explore a career as an author/illustrator (Goa, n.d.). Messy Roots was published in 2022.
Critical Evaluations: : I love the cover of Messy Roots. The images of the places where she has lived and grown-up are beautifully depicted. The author also does not always keep the images contained in a panel, with many often taking up a half to a whole page, thus allowing the author to convey more detail or emotion. I found it interesting that Gao uses varying levels of details in their drawings—sometimes faces have a lot of details and other times they are very basic drawings. I did not find that it detracted from the story though, as the level of detail seemed appropriate for each panel. I think that the story is very relatable to teens. Whether a reader relates to the story of Laura’s immigrant family and their feelings of being left out or not belonging, or to Laura’s coming out as a queer person, there are familiar emotions described in this book that most people can empathize with. It is interesting because the author will sometimes add in text messages as the information panel. I think that this will also appeal to teens, as phones and texting are a very common mode of communication. The climax is very satisfying, as Laura finally seems to embody and celebrate her true Chinese name. I found the relationship with Laura and her parents to be a recurring theme throughout the book. As a reader, it was satisfying to have the relationship evolve towards one of mutual understanding and respect by the end of the book.
Creative Use for a Library Program: This book would be good to use in a library program that focuses on young immigrant authors. This would be a teen evening event. The teen librarian would find books by young authors who had immigrated to the US and create a mini memoir writing session. Other books to be used in the event would be Our Stories Carried Us Here edited by Rozman, Vang, and Kaczynski and Nowhere Boy by Marsh. Messy Roots would be on display and there would be multiple copies available to view. The librarian would lead the teens in a short, thoughtful mini essay on their own heritage and experiences growing up in this country.
Speedround/Book Trailer: Meet Laura, a Wuhanese American navigating two cultures and two countries with wit and fierce honesty. From China to the US, Laura learns how to trust herself and believe in a future that is all her own. Read Messy Roots by Laura Gao to learn more!
Follow this link to read Laura Gao’s webcomic The Wuhan That I Know
Potential Challenge Issues/Defense Preparations: This book may have some challenges regarding references to LGBTQIA+ and frustrations with immigrating to the US. I would defend this book because it is an honest and insightful look into American culture and the realities for people who move to the US as children. I think that many teenagers could relate to Laura and her quest to find where she belongs in the world.
Reason for Inclusion: I chose to include this memoir in my collection because I wanted to have a memorable memoir that teens would find interesting and inspiring. I liked that the format was a graphic novel because I think that the reader can feel Laura’s emotions more intensely through her images. I also liked that she was the author and illustrator and I wanted to include diverse voices and opinions in my collection.
Epic Reads. (2022, May 6). Messy Roots by Laura Gao. Official book Trailer [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LV6IAVgNg5o
Gao, L. (n.d.). Hey. https://www.lauragao.com/hey
Yao, J. (2022, March 2). Q & A with Laura Gao, Messy Roots: A graphic memoir of a Wuhanese American.We Need Diverse Books. https://diversebooks.org/qa-with-laura-gao-messy-roots-a-graphic-memoir-of-a-wuhanese-american/