I must have shown at least ten people this book already.

I’d hand it to them and say, “Look at this book I’m reviewing. Read the first story, it’s only two pages.  So cute, huh?”

And they would respond in kind, “That is cute!!”

“I’ll let you borrow it after I’m done,” I’d promise, feeling validated.

That was before I had finished reading the book.  Now, after digesting it in its entirety, my verdict is, it’s still pretty cute all the way through.  But to limit discussions of this book to simply “cute” would be a disservice to everything the book encompasses.

Tokyo-born Rumi Hara’s (she/her) second book, The Peanutbutter Sisters and Other American Stories is a collection of seven short stories in comic form.  Each explores different characters and scenarios of the near and far future, or somewhere outside of reality altogether.  There are people with trees on their heads, transgalactic races, and bellybutton-induced vertigos.  Weaved into these scenarios are meaningful interrogations of how we see ourselves, our society, and our earth.

From an artistic standpoint alone, the stories are incredibly charming.  Hara uses black ink on white paper throughout the entire book, with occasional pops of color from watercolor paints.  I adore comics and cartoons of all styles, but there is a special place in my heart for traditional 2D art and animation.  There is a certain priceless quality in the painstaking process of doing everything by hand, without modeling, undo buttons, or copy-and-paste-ing.  I treasure all of the unique textures and “imperfections” that add character to the already expressive illustrations.

One of the most precious things about this book is its portrayal of cultural identity.  Few works, especially in the American mainstream, seem capable of portraying characters of color without making a big show of introducing or explaining cultural elements to the uninformed.  I feel like this well-intended approach ultimately distances that culture from what is considered to be “American” or “normal.”  In contrast, Hara normalizes diverse representations by speaking from and with those perspectives, rather than about them.  We can see how Brian Tran’s Vietnamese heritage is interwoven in the setting through the titles in the “Staff Picks” display at the library where he works.

Hara directly subverts the very idea of “America” in small instances throughout the book.  In one story, sisters Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia Peanutbutter describe how their father wanted them to have “true American” names (hence “Peanutbutter”) and even named their island New Mississippi in tribute to the land’s “first tribal residents.”  This shallow and silly generalization of “America” ironically reflects the relationship Americans have to the Indigenous people of Turtle Island, fetishizing culture without meaningful action.  Cities such as Seattle owe their namesakes to Indigenous people, yet the Duwamish tribe has not even been federally recognized.

Equally vital is Hara’s representations of sexuality.  At times characters are nude, or otherwise exposing butts, breasts, and genitals for others to see.  None of this comes across as particularly sensual or erotic.  Rather, I find it very refreshing.  These scenes show people in community with one another and with nature, simply in their natural state.  I see Hara creating a safe space for curiosity, nudity, sex, and existence without objectification of bodies.

By no means does Hara construct a utopia.  Her stories touch on issues ranging from pollution, sexual assault, and monopolized news sources.  Whilst navigating this, characters evoke spontaneity, belonging, acceptance, and joy.  To me, Hara taps into the best of what fiction has to offer: imagining a better world.  I want to be a part of the world Hara envisions.  It almost feels like a type of mental liberation—a necessary reframing that centers youth, with room enough for all the different ways of feeling and being we have as humans.

I find the words of Lisa Hanawalt, gracing the back cover, to be a fitting description: “Striking stories that are precious but not polite, mysterious but inviting, untethered to reality but also the realest thing you could read.”

Rumi Hara, if you ever read this, I think you’re really cool.  I am grateful to add this book to my personal collection.

Please support your local bookstores when you have the opportunity.  You can also use Bookshop.org and BetterWorldBooks.com to make social impacts with your purchases.

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