Halfway Home is an utterly charming, very slim, self-published graphic novel. The author-illustrator, Christine Mari Inzer, a senior in high school, was just shy of sixteen when she spent eight weeks with her maternal grandparents in a small city outside of Tokyo. Because it's more travel-diary than memoir, this would be an excellent book to give to a young person visiting Japan for the first time.
Chock full of loving drawings of food, clothing, and tourist destinations, Inzer perfectly captures what it's like to be a teenager in a new place--a place she feels both connected to and foreign in. The beauty here is in her ability to home in on adolescent minutiae that an adult might mistakenly gloss over, but which reveal the subtly observant way teens understand the world around them...by analyzing their own immediate reaction to it, and their place in it, as if they were as important as the scenery itself. Thus, for example, most of her time at the Zen garden of the temple of Ryoan-ji--a spot that's supposed to allow you to transcend the physical world and achieve a more enlightened level--is spent worrying about how distractible her mind is, and how she must be meditating wrong, how she can only find thirteen of the fifteen rocks (you're supposed to be able to see fourteen from any given angle), and "What language are those tourists speaking? It must be French." This is a bright, funny, and engaged girl, experiencing new kinds of beauty, joy, and loneliness for the first time, and letting us tag along with her.
Am I cutting her some slack for being a teenager? Yes, of course (but only a little is necessary, since this book is great for what it is). The art in Halfway Home is sweet and accurate and at times confident, but somewhat primitive, and there are moments when she unnecessarily explicates themes that we can already see in the text and illustrations. In the hand-written introduction, for example, she says, "The title refers to my somewhat feeling half at home in both Japan and America, being born to parents of both countries," perhaps not trusting that the entire book already conveys that idea. A photo of a vending machine on the verso faces her illustration of a similar vending machine on the recto, making the photo unnecessary. (This happens a few times, for instance with the Temple of the Golden Pavilion and the Gate of Asakusa, which her drawings render well enough without including photos. However, in some instances the photographs enhance the drawings and make a curious event more real, like the Condomania building and the pillar at Nara.) The book is also kinda slight for eleven bucks.
But then she draws herself on the subway in a page called "The Problem With Japanese Boys," growing comically desperate to catch a handsome boy's eye (LOOK I'M CUTE) while he plays endlessly with his phone, and her beginner mistakes are entirely forgiven. Ms. Inzer already displays the sparks of a sensitive writer, a keen observer, and an artist who knows how to make us feel included.