Review: Koko Be Good by Jen Wang

Koko Be Good is a graphic novel by Jen Wang published in 2010. This makes it a little old for reviewing, but I’m disregarding that fact because until I plucked it off the shelf at Mantor I had never heard of it. I’m talking about it because it needs to be talked about.

The story revolves around a cast of young characters in San Francisco—Jon, a recent college grad with Big Plans; Koko, a young woman tripping through life and leaving much chaos in her wake; and Faron, her quiet, unhappy young friend. Each one is facing the big question: What on earth am I going to do with my life? A surprising theft brings the three together, and the friendship between Jon and Koko inspires both of them to really consider their freedom and place in the world.

At the beginning, Jon thinks he has it figured out. His girlfriend, Emily, is Peruvian, and the two are planning a move to Ayacucho. There, she will work at the orphanage her mother came from, and he will do—something, probably. He’s working on that bit, along with his Spanish. Koko knows she doesn’t have it figured out—she always has ideas and projects, but she’s hanging in the listless, meaningless certainty that none of it is the Right Thing. Inspired by Jon and Emily’s Goodness, Koko decides that her new mission in life will be to be Good (Good is always capitalized in the book—Koko is the kind of person who uses Emphasis Capitalization).

Koko Be Good both praises and questions the idea and desire to be Good. For Emily, who is driven by purpose, Goodness is easy to achieve. Koko wants to be Good because being Good sounds better than what she’s been doing—she is constantly vigilant and receptive to ways in which she could make the world a little better, determined to be a hero to someone. She sponsors a child through the World Children’s Fund, joins in a rally for Mexican rights, and volunteers her time at soup kitchens and care facilities. She struggles, though, because none of it feels like pure goodness. She hates changing diapers and doing mountains of dishes. She causes trouble with the old folks. And she feels different when she’s around other do-gooders.

Aligned with the discussion of Goodness is the constant struggle with Selfishness. Koko wants to help the entire world, but is thwarted because this plan is, obviously, much too big and, frankly, not the right humanitarian project for her. Jon just wants to help Emily, but in doing so he is forced to put aside something which is very important to him, which is music. It is revealed gradually throughout the book that Jon is a talented musician; by moving to Peru, he is choosing to help Emily follow her dreams instead of following his own, a decision which may not sit as easily as it first appears.

The artwork is fantastic. Jen Wang uses a light, feathery stroke that complement her sepia watercolor style. The focus on hands is entrancing, the movement graceful, the faces and large eyes endearing. The artwork was what made me pluck it off that library shelf in the first place. Wang’s panels are the perfect platform on which to tell this story, which is at times funny, sad, incredible, and heartbreaking.

This book will appeal to anyone with an internal struggle between Goodness and Selfishness, doing what is right or what is fun and easy. I believe it is particularly relevant for people in their twenties, because at this age the future is big, looming, and full of possibilities. Like Koko, we will all have to decide how we want to exist in the world, and this story offers a comforting array of ideas.


Koko Be Good

Jen Wang

300 pages. First Second. $18.99.

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