The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor. Kokila, June 2021. 304 p. ill. ISBN 9780525554899 (pbk), $12.99.
Nicole Lovenjak, Librarian, Toronto Public Library
Reviewed July 2022
If stories reflect the people who tell them, then what if the founding myths of America were told by someone else? Powerful and beautifully illustrated, The Legend of Auntie Po gives one answer as its main character, thirteen-year-old Mei, who reimagines Paul Bunyan as Auntie Po, an elderly matriarch.
Mei and her father work as cooks at a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885, where everyone knows that Mei tells the best stories. Her stories featuring Auntie Po and her blue buffalo Pei Pie come to life, serving as a way to navigate challenges and politics of whiteness at the camp.
Shing Yin Khor’s work as an installation artist, cartoonist, and experience designer translate well to the page. The artist’s craft is present throughout: from the hand-carved block-printed title, to incorporation of iconic Paul Bunyan images and legends, to the handwritten script and detailed illustrations of logging tools in the chapter headers. Art, story, and historical research are wonderfully combined.
Khor’s art style is distinctive, with sharp, crisp black-inked outlines colored in with watercolor washes. The watercolor provides a softness to the story and creates immersive environments, such as the light browns of the logging camp, the dazzling ombre of a night sky in the wilderness, and the contrasting color scheme for Auntie Po and Pei Pei. Khor uses a hybrid traditional-digital process: digitally sketching and inking, then painting on watercolor paper, and finally scanning and layering it together.
Highly recommended for children’s collections in libraries. Despite being geared towards middle-grade readers, this work of graphic historical fiction appeals to all ages and is recommended for libraries seeking diverse voices, especially queer and Chinese American stories and authors. Khor includes a bibliography and an enlightening author’s note, acknowledging the Indigenous people and lands where the book was written and takes place.