July 01, 2024

Age 16

illustrated by Rosena Fung
Review by
With its unique multigenerational approach, Age 16 expertly tackles perceptions of weight, self-worth and parental conflict.
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Rosena Fung’s much-lauded debut, Living with Viola, explored the mental health and cultural challenges faced by a middle school girl. Her second graphic novel, Age 16, is an excellent examination of a familiar theme—a teenage girl trying to find herself—which Fung explores more fully through depicting the inheritance of trauma and misunderstandings over generations.

In Toronto in 2000, Rosalind (Roz) begins her morning by stepping on the scale before heading off to high school. It’s a dizzying time, with friends applying to college and talking about prom, the latter of which causes Roz to fantasize about a slimmer version of herself attending. But at home, her mother, Lydia, chastises her for her eating habits and claims Roz “inherited my slow metabolism and bad genes.” Then Roz’s grandmother, Mei Laan, appears unannounced from Hong Kong after an absence of 10 years. This thin but clearly unhappy woman offers nothing but criticism to her daughter and granddaughter.

Two additional timelines, following Roz’s mother and grandmother in their own youths, are naturally woven into this present narrative. Readers travel to Hong Kong in 1972, where 16-year-old Lydia loves to dance but faces nonstop barbs about her weight: “Get your head out of the clouds,” Mei Laan advises. “A girl like you can’t be a star.” Thankfully, a family friend, Auntie Ping, provides encouragement and guidance. In scenes from Guangdong, China, 1954, miserable Mei Laan works in the fields and is always hungry. When she complains, her anguished mother cries, “We didn’t survive the Japanese only to have our family ruined by a big mouth!”

“I wanted to make sure each place was a character in its own right.” Read our Q&A with Rosena Fung here. 

The graphic novel format is the perfect medium to succinctly convey Age 16’s heavy themes of inherited trauma, and how Roz, her mother and grandmother share dreams, doubts and difficulties as they make their own way regardless of absent fathers and husbands. Fung’s lively art makes each generation’s needs feel urgent and relevant. She expertly glides between time periods, making Roz the focus, while examining how all three women’s behaviors are tied together by their shared history. Roz is a likable, realistic character who dreams of going to art school, perhaps becoming a photographer. Alongside her, a cast of high school girls, including Roz’s best friend Victoria, worry about their futures—especially their prom dreams.

With its unique multigenerational approach, Age 16 expertly tackles perceptions of weight, self-worth and parental conflict. In the face of seemingly impossible relationship repair and resolution, Fung offers an engaging, naturally evolving conclusion. As Roz’s mother explains, “When things get tough and you feel like you don’t belong, you can make the world fit you.”

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Age 16

Age 16

illustrated by Rosena Fung
ISBN 9781773218335

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