from guest blogger Francisca Goldsmith:
The term “multicultural” when applied to reading choices for youth is used too often as shorthand to identify books that aren’t multi in their cultural portrayals, so much as about a cultural group that is something other than the dominant one. Natsume Ono, however, has concocted a rich and splendid story of fully expanded multiculturalism: the setting is an Italian apartment and its neighborhood, the cast includes middle aged Italian bachelors and a stream of exchange students—female as well as male—from Denmark, Japan, and America, and the friends all these characters cultivate beyond the apartment. Without ever losing the thread of story or suggesting that any cultural norm is a mere stereotype, the sepia world of the five-room apartment is unpacked to reveal how people cope with homesickness, sorrow over a broken marriage, celebrating a shy person’s birthday, and, in the end, preparing to vacate the apartment when the tenant of record, Massimo, marries his longtime girlfriend.
Teens who wonder how scary it might be to live in the home of strangers abroad can find several variations of honest comfort here. Charlotte, the initial exchange student we meet, provides a credible way into examining concerns about living with strangers, living as the only young woman in a middle aged male household, and living with folks who can be cranky or careless. Nobody in this graphic novel’s world, however, is truly mean or criminal. Everyone feels safe to express interest or wonder at the differences they see in the habits of those who are from different places. And even with all this cultural exchange and exploration at the forefront, the story has a gentle back beat that features Massimo and his girlfriend and another that explains the depressed nature of one of the flatmates.
This book originally found its audience a chapter at a time as a web comic, is published so that the art can remain unflipped from its Japanese original (so that the volume reads right to left), has just enough Italian to bring the flavor of the setting to full volume, and features, from the imagination of its woman creator, the nuanced relationships among a group of men. That’s a lot of multi, and here it is genuine as well as successful.
Adult/High School–In six chapters, manga and web comic writer Ono presents the story of an Italian bachelor household that hosts a cast of temporary exchange students. Just as each of the students–who come to Italy from almost every continent–is quickly but gently individualized and presented without stereotyping, the householders, too, are a diverse lot. Massimo, the apartment tenant of record, is wise and humane; truck driver Al seems to sleep all the time; little Luca, a street musician, is actually well off; Cele, a comics artist, isn’t shy about showing his rude side to strangers. Each chapter brings an underlying plot about the relationships among these men forward, as well as their interactions with a different current exchange student. Both art and actions are delightfully evocative, making this foray into the possibilities the openness to cross cultural exchange holds vivid and inviting. Sprinklings of Italian vocabulary and customs further the cultural pluralism. Excellent storytelling shows (in sepia!) how connected we all are in spite of our many individual idiosyncrasies and misguided beliefs about strangers.–Francisca Goldsmith, Infopeople Project, CA