Kyle's Little Sister
by BonHyung Jeong
BonHyung Jeong, a Korea-born, internationally raised and U.S.-educated artist, astutely channels the universal experience of growing up--and sometimes growing away--in her delightfully boisterous middle-grade graphic novel debut, Kyle's Little Sister. For her entire life, Grace Bailey has "not once... been free from being 'Kyle's little sister.' " Being labelled with a three-word phrase instead of being called by her own name is bad enough. Even worse, though, is that her familial proximity to Kyle has ensured that others--especially at school--make automatic assumptions based solely on their siblinghood: "That's Kyle's sister?! She's nothing like him," the kids decided when she was seven. At age nine, the homeroom teacher greeted her with, "I bet you're also good at sports." Nope, not so much.
"I'm pretty sure I knew the moment I was born that he and I wouldn't get along," Grace insists in the opening panel. Over the years, though, she's managed to become her own person. She has her own bff gal pals, Jay and Amy (even though Amy is Kyle's buddy's little sister). Kyle might be the basketball star, but Grace has her own talents: she's an unrivaled, gifted gamer. Bottom line: she really is nothing like Kyle--he's athletic, popular and generally everyone's favorite. Except, of course, not Grace's. The feeling is mutual: "It was nice not having you around," eighth-grader Kyle dismisses her when she enters his middle school as a sixth-grader. As they march up the steps of Elington Middle School, begrudgingly forced together on the first day, Grace announces, "I bet it's gonna be the worst year ever."
Grace's frustrated verdict seems initially prescient. Amy, obsessed with romance since kindergarten, is being pushy, manipulating Jay into pursuing her new romantic interest: Kyle?! "I try not to get involved when it comes to Kyle," Grace demurs as Jay awkwardly tries to ignore Amy's attempts to maneuver a love connection. When Amy's not matchmaking, she's making self-absorbed demands: "Why don't we go to my place and I choose what to play?" Negative responses from Grace or Jay elicit further less-than-ideal alternatives. Amy, however, remains indefatigable while Grace silently muses: "I wonder if there's anyone who can win against Amy." Given Amy's tone-deaf, bulldozing tactics, a blow-up proves inevitable. Harsh words are thrown about among the three girls, feelings get trampled and, somehow, amid the finger-pointing accusations, Grace suddenly lands as the odd one out. Her texting screen remains empty, lunch becomes a solo event and greetings are even met with silence. "I'm better off being alone," she tries to convince herself.
But just when Grace is ready to admit "I'm actually not fine at all," her assigned science partner, Cam, asks Grace for her phone number, invites her to share lunch and quickly makes Grace believe "I've made a new friend." Cam is energetic and popular but, it turns out, she's also a bit mean. The sudden attention she's directing at Grace isn't genuine--and when Cam unveils her true intentions, it's up to Jay and Amy to show Grace what real friendship should look like. And--surprise!--maybe being Kyle's little sister isn't so awful, after all.
Nothing in Jeong's story is upsettingly surprising: relationships change, siblings rival, best friends fight, real friends make up, social groups transform and people hopefully grow. That familiarity is exactly what elevates Jeong's narrative, providing universal entry points into empathic understanding. Her whimsically stylized art adds an ongoing invitation for interactive engagement, as the characters are constantly in motion: walking, playing, eating, ignoring and sulking. Her layouts are rarely uniform or predictable, the scenes only sometimes contained within panel borders, many overflowing beyond the actual pages. Color is vibrant throughout, adding intensity to flashy fashion or an over-flushed face. While the Bailey family presents as white, Jeong depicts a diversity of races and ethnicities throughout.
Beyond the lively visuals, Jeong is a multi-layered storyteller who relies on much more than dialogue bubbles to reveal her characters' thoughts. Asides directed at readers appear in boxes with italicized text; whispers are seen in lowercase type encased in dotted borders; mobile texts presented in a computer font are strewn throughout--communication can happen in many ways, she reminds readers. She's also deft at inserting humor, especially in creating exaggerated reactions and highlighting overwhelming emotions. Even as her story concludes, Jeong continues to entertain with a graphic afterword in which she introduces herself and her work, and acknowledges "quite a journey to get to the ending of this book," including illustrated shout-outs to her friends and family who enabled the book's publication. Her "thank you" appears in Korean characters with a declaration to "see you next time!" Hopefully that's a legit promise to lucky audiences for a continuing future with Kyle's Little Sister. --Terry Hong