The City on the Other Side by Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson

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Title: The City on the Other Side
Author: Mairghread Scott (Writer) and Robin Robinson (Illustrator)
Genre: Middle grade fantasy, Graphic Novel
Topics: mother-daughter relations, friendship
Publisher: First Second Books
Publishing Year: 2018
Pages:224
Format Read: Paperback
My Rating: 5/5

Summary (from Goodreads): When a wealthy and sheltered young girl stumbles into a pitched war between two fairy kingdoms, the fate of San Francisco itself hangs in the balance!

The first decade of the twentieth century is coming to a close, and San Francisco is still recovering from the great earthquake of 1906. Isabel watched the destruction safely from her window, sheltered within her high-society world.

Isabel isn't the kind of girl who goes on adventures. But that all changes when she stumbles through the invisible barrier that separates the human world from the fairy world. She quickly finds herself caught up in an age-old war and fighting on the side of the Seelie — the good fairies.

Review: I love this graphic novel for so many reasons but let me elaborate on two in particular. First the story and illustrations are absolutely charming. Maria is a shy girl from a wealthy family where obedience and manners are valued over individuality. She feels invisible to her mother and father. By chance she stumbles upon a fairy world parallel to her own where she makes friends, embarks on an adventure and finds her courage. The illustrations are super adorable and eye catching (mushroom sidekick!) and the story is a heartwarming portal fantasy with a big scoop of whimsy. Think a Hayao Miyazaki film with the darker elements toned down a bit. It is perfect for advanced elementary readers and up although it can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. I certainly enjoyed it!

The thing that I love is the element of quiet radicalism of having a Hispanic girl as protagonist with a Filipino boy (and a mushroom) as a sidekick. There is a phenomena in genre and historical fiction of erasing PoC characters. We can partially blame our whitewashed school curricula but there is zero excuse/factual basis for excluding PoC based on “historical accuracy”. This is is a separate rant that will have to wait for another day but my point is that seeing people of color in non-stereotypical roles is not something that you see very often. This graphic novel isn’t in your face rather is simply shows history as it was with people of color in the world living out their own stories in different contexts. When asked why she made her protagonist Hispanic Scott answered:

"Is it wrong to say I just wanted to be accurate? I knew I wanted to write about San Francisco, and Isabel’s story arc was set very early on, but I didn’t settle on what race she should be until I learned that there were a lot of wealthy Hispanic families in San Francisco at that time (though they often liked to insist their ancestry was purely from European Spain and not Mexico. Hence, Isabel’s mom being obsessed with Europe). As a writer, I get annoyed that so many people still like to think women and minorities didn’t exist in the past."

 It is so refreshing and necessary to see PoC take space accurately in historical fiction The City on the Other Side also playfully pokes at the fantasy trope of the chosen one; Isabel happens to stumble upon someone in need and decides to help she is not the predetermined “Hero” but rather acts heroically to help her friends and people in need. The story shows us that we can all be heroes through the actions we choose to take. 

Lately given the dumpster fire state of the world I’ve been looking for comfort and escapism in my reads, maybe this is why I have binge-watched the Great British Baking show. This isn’t to say there isn’t tension or adventures. This is a quest story from start to finish but it also feels like the graphic novel equivalent of drinking a woke cup of hot chocolate which is exactly what I needed.