himawari house

I heard lovely things about Harmony Becker’s young adult graphic novel Himawari House all last year, and that lead me to put it on my Christmas wishlist. If you’re wondering, yes, my wishlist each year is mostly comprised of books (with some music & baking implements sprinkled in here and there). My sister and I spent the holiday together, and she gifted me my very own copy – which has been waiting patiently for the end of the school year, and more time and headspace to read. I read it last week and absolutely loved it.

himawari house by harmony becker book cover
Living in a new country is no walk in the park—Nao, Hyejung, and Tina can all attest to that. The three of them became fast friends through living together in the Himawari House in Tokyo and attending the same Japanese cram school. Nao came to Japan to reconnect with her Japanese heritage, while Hyejung and Tina came to find freedom and their own paths. Though each of them has her own motivations and challenges, they all deal with language barriers, being a fish out of water, self discovery, love, and family.

Nao was born in Japan, but moved to America as a young child and lost most of her Japanese language skills. For a gap year between high school and college she moves to Japan to take language lessons and reconnect with her extended family and culture. In Himawari House, her home base for the year, she’ll connect with housemates Hyejung and Tina (from Korea and Singapore, respectively), and Japanese brothers Shinsan and Masaki. The girls bond immediately over shared food, Japanese language school, and exchange student experiences. Following the occupants of Himawari House as they experience various coming of age moments is both bittersweet and a vivid reminder (or reflection, depending on the age of the reader) of the trials of surviving your late teenage years and early twenties. Becker’s text lovingly explores the depths of each character and their emotions, and combined with manga-style illustrations, has created a standout graphic novel.


I know others have said this in reviews, but Himawari House authentically captures what it is like to study abroad, and the range of experiences you might have as someone who doesn’t know the primary language of the place you are living in. That true-to-life feeling of confusion, excitement, only catching half of a conversation, and muddling through while your brain is working overdrive hit my memories and heart hard. It also made me an instant fan of the inhabitants of Himawari House and author-artist Becker.


Favorite bits: elderly neighbor Baachan, who is lonely now that her husband has passed away, and makes the young crew of Himawari House a delicious dinner. And I loved Nao’s time with her family and flashbacks to her childhood, and the funny little side illustrations (not true panels) that show characters’ emotions – freaking out over something a girl or boy said, internal thoughts, etc. I also enjoyed the musing on food, the moments of introspection followed by group activities and fellow-feeling, the expressions of the characters – basically, I liked it all a whole lot!!


As mentioned above, Becker's style has a distinct manga flavor, and the backmatter of the book indicates that her black and white art was all completed digitally in Clip Studio Paint. I was impressed by the variety of textures that contribute to the scenes – the linework is excellent, and it makes small details in the setting, and facial expressions especially, pop. In addition, the lettering is done in whatever language is spoken on-page, and translated below in English if the character understands. This means that sometimes there are whole parts of conversations that the character, and thus the reader, just don’t get. Decisions and pieces like these feel the most representative of a real life language learning situation.


In all, Himawari House is a note-perfect rendering of what studying abroad/leaving the nest/entering adulthood feels like. It’s a sensitive, funny, and sweet ode to cultural and linguistic confusion, friendship, and finding oneself.


Recommended for: fans of Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, contemporary graphic novel readers, and anyone who likes quiet fiction that speaks to the heart.

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