Books for Babes provides info on the sort of comics that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. This week we recommend the hardcover edition of ‘Sanpaku′, out now from Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios.

Sanpaku by Kate Gavino
Cover to ‘Sanpaku’ OGN HC. Art by Kate Gavino/Archaia/BOOM! Studios

by Stefania Rudd.  Sanpaku is Japanese for “three whites,” which Kate Gavino states in her graphic novel of the same name “[Is] that thing where the white space above or below your iris is clearly visible.” I’m sure you’ve seen many people with sanpaku, you may even have it yourself. So why is it such a big deal, and more importantly, why should one feel compelled to fix it? In Sanpaku, a graphic novel from BOOM! Studios imprint Archaia, Gavino uses her own memories as inspiration for the story of 12 year-old Marcine, and the belief that if she can control her own sanpaku maybe she can get a better handle on her life.

Marcine is Filipino American, and an introverted, observant sixth-grader who attended a Catholic school in Texas during the mid-90s. She adores her grandmother, Lola, so naturally when she learns about sanpaku from her (not to mention all of its implications), she believes every word. According to Lola, those who have it are doomed.

The proof? Abraham Lincoln, John. F, Kennedy, and Marilyn Monroe all had sanpaku. So you see? Doomed!

Lola and Marcine are also afflicted with this condition. So like any concerned person Marcine does her research and finds author George Ohsawa’s book titled You Are All Sanpaku, which promotes a macrobiotic diet to fix this spiritual imbalance. Marcine doesn’t buy into the cure at first. But soon after Lola does, which causes Marcine and her grandmother to embark on a special kind of journey, one that demands a limited diet and chewing your food exactly 50 times. And when Lola passes away unexpectedly, Marcine becomes obsessed with curing her sanpaku and feels the need to educate others so they might avoid a similarly unfortunate fate.

Sanpaku is divided into chapters that center around Marcine’s obsession with this perceived malady and how it touches on all aspects of her life, from school to friends to work. Gavino approaches this as a memoir set in the first-person perspective of Marcine, and draws inspiration from Gavino’s own life as a teen from a religious immigrant family growing up in the suburbs of Houston. Familiar details end up shaping entire plot points, which gives the story a strong feeling of time and place. (For example, Sanpaku takes time to dwell on the pop singer Selena and her tragic death in 1995.) In effect, Gavino’s story becomes an incredibly fascinating one to read, chock-full with relatable themes that capture those awkward teenage years we’ve all experienced—or are currently experiencing.

Sanpaku leans into its impressionistic style. Pages appear as wood-cut tapestries; Gavino’s swirling black inks and white spaces form clean lines and geometric shapes that give life to the story. It never once feels stiff or overly rigid—in fact, there is much emotion and depth to glean from the artwork. I loved the choices Gavino made in illustrating this book; they made my experience feel more intimate, more tangible. (The H-E-B grocery bag and the carton of Blue Bell ice cream are as Texas as Texas gets, and made me long for both of those things due to my own personal connection to both.)

Growing up can be difficult for some, and adolescence feels especially painful, physically and emotionally. We find ways to make sense of who we are becoming by fixating on the strange things we notice about ourselves. We try all sorts of ways to remedy what we think is off, or different, what we think will help us better navigate our feelings and our identities. In Sanpaku, Kate Gavino crafts a beautiful story that strikes at the aching center of these feelings, a poignant story for adults who never grew past these growing pains, or those who are just now experiencing it for themselves.

Archaia/BOOM! Studios/$24.99

Written and illustrated by Kate Gavino.

This book contains adolescent themes such as sexual discovery, body fixation, and mean girls.

Age range: 15+

Enjoy this 15-page preview of ‘Sanpaku’ OGN HC, courtesy of Archaia, an imprint of BOOM! Studios!

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