Y’all, I did not expect this book to make me cry but it sure did.
Ash Tan is a young Singaporean girl stressed out from having the National Exams looming over next year’s horizon, particularly since she isn’t very good at math. When she gets her latest bad grade, her mom takes away her handphone (that’s cellphone to those of you outside of Southeast Asia,) resulting in a strained relationship between Ash and her mom, Grace, who works full time to support them and Grace’s own mom, whom Ash calls Ah Ma, a traditional name for Grandmother. Ah Ma is Ash’s caretaker while Grace is at work, but with age, her mental health is deteriorating.
When Ash sees Ah Ma slip outside for a walk one night, she’s torn as to whether to follow. Ash is supposed to accompany Ah Ma whenever her grandmother goes out nowadays, but she’s also supposed to be studying hard and proving to her mother that she’s worthy of getting her handphone back. When Ah Ma suddenly vanishes from sight, a terrified Ash runs down to find her, and discovers a secret that could change her ordinary life forever.
There are superheroics and hijinks galore in this very cute, very Singaporean tale of a young girl and her grandmother bonding over a family legacy. Arif Rafhan is a personal friend (whose work and personality I’ve gushed over in my review of his latest work) so I knew this would be pretty darn excellent. I did not, however, expect this graphic novel to move me so deeply in its second act denouement. Ah Ma is such a lovely grandmother, and her bond with Ash is as touching as her struggle with dementia is affecting. Southeast Asians don’t really talk about elder care beyond assuming it as a given, so this was a really terrific way to expose the topic to younger readers in a way that’s accessible, empathetic and devoid of scare tactics.
Melanie Lee has written a really great graphic novel here, situating her universal story firmly in Singapore, with Singaporean English, humor and manners the norm. Oh, how I desperately wanted chicken rice and curry puffs after reading this, due both to her writing and to Arif’s wonderful illustrations. The chicken rice in the styrofoam packs especially were a nostalgia-inducing mood (and yes, I know styrofoam is bad for the environment; I’m sorry that industry makes it so that deliciousness is currently linked with pollution.)
I really do hope that this book finds a wider audience than just Southeast Asia and its diaspora. It’s a demystifying and heart-warming look at a topic that isn’t often covered outside of “serious” dramatic media, with an angle that a world with an aging populace desperately needs, especially in allowing kids to get involved in elder care without seeing it as a burden.
Amazing Ash & Superhero Ah Ma by Melanie Lee and Arif Rafhan was published October 1 2020 by Difference Engine and can be purchased here.