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Review: The History of the West Wing

During the Tang Dynasty in China (618-907), a jaded young wanderer, Chen Yuqing, seeks the quiet of a Buddhist retreat to try to forget about the wealthy young woman who threw him aside. Unfortunately it is almost time for a big ceremony and all of the young men of the town are excited because it means that they will be able to glimpse the beautiful young Pianpian. She is the daughter of a government official and her beauty is reknowned in the village. Soon Yuqing and Pianpian are in love, but they face long odds as Pianpian’s mother is against their marriage. Will a horde of murderous bandits change her mind?

The History of the West Wing
Written by Sun Jianyu; illustrated by Guo Guo
Age Rating: "T", 13+
Yen Press, May 2009, ISBN: 978-0-7595-2992-2
112 pages, $12.99

This short one-shot should have had everything going for it. It’s lavishly illustrated in full color, it’s based on a classic Chinese play which is in turn based on a classic Chinese fable, and it is a romance-against-the-odds. Unfortunately it sinks beneath the weight of poor storytelling. Sun’s writing is too flat to be able to sustain a story, but not flat enough to have the cadence of folklore. Characters run together into a mish-mash, their motivations never clear enough to make them distinct. Yuqing and Pianpian are beautiful, but we’re never given any reason to believe that they really love each other, so it seems more like they are marrying because they are so beautiful together. Few characters have a backstory and even Yuqing, who does, doesn’t have enough of one to give readers a sense of who he truly is. On top of that, the dialogue is stilted and the plot tends to skip abruptly from one moment to the next, like a record with a scratch, so you always feel like you’ve just missed something.

What’s worse is that Guo Guo’s art is beyond breathtaking. It’s tragic that it is married to this mess of a plot. She studied costume design previously (this is her first graphic novel) and it shows in the lushness of her characters’ clothes. But she doesn’t neglect the rest of her world. The settings are so believable that you can feel the rain falling, smell the peach blossoms on the tree. Her color palatte is more autumn than bright, giving everything a softness which heightens the romance of the story. She still needs to work on making her characters’ facial features distinct enough to be clear on who is who and her breaks between scenes are not always crisp enough, but those are merely the sign of a young creator. I hope that she will stick with graphic novels because her talent is evident.

The introduction helps set the scene and gives readers a sense of why this play is important in Chinese literature. An explanation of life during the Tang Dynasty might also have been helpful. That way readers would have better understood how men and women of that time related to one another. Other than some discussion of drug abuse and concubines, there is little that keeps this from being inappropriate for middle school and up. Unfortunately the messy nature of the writing keeps me from being able to recommend this one. If, however, you are in an arts school or in a library with an arts school nearby, you might want to consider this one. The art is worth studying.

This review is based on a complimentary copy supplied by the publisher. All images copyright © Yen Press.

Snow Wildsmith About Snow Wildsmith

Snow Wildsmith is a writer and former teen librarian. She has served on several committees for the American Library Association/Young Adult Library Services Association, including the 2010 Michael L. Printz Award Committee. She reviews graphic novels for Booklist, ICv2's Guide, No Flying No Tights, and Good Comics for Kids and also writes booktalks and creates recommended reading lists for Ebsco's NoveList database. Currently she is working on her first books, a nonfiction series for teens.

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