Group Discussion: Lunar New Year Love Story

Illustrated cover for Lunar New Year Love Story. Two Asian teenagers stand overlooking a waist-high railing. The girl has her arm hooked through the boy's, and she is facing the viewer and has black hair in a long bob. She is wearing a blue jacket, orange shirt, and purple pants. The boy is looking away from the viewer so you can only see his back, and he is wearing a long-sleeved red shirt and black pants and has short black hair. Behind them is the night sky, lit up by stars and streaks of red, yellow, and pink lines that form a lion dancer.

Welcome to our group discussion of Lunar New Year Love Story by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by LeUyen Pham.

Please note that this is a full spoiler discussion! You will be spoiled if you continue reading.

Valentina Tran was named after Valentine’s Day, which used to be her favorite holiday. But when Val learns the truth behind what happened with her parents and why she’s being raised by a single father, she realizes true love is a lie. This is reinforced when she meets the spirit of Saint Valentine, who tells her she and her family are cursed to always be unlucky in love. Val is ready to give into her fate, until one Lunar New Year festival, where a mysterious lion dancer hands her a paper heart, and ZING. Val becomes determined to change her destiny, prove Saint Valentine wrong, and give her heart to the right person.

Meanwhile, lion dancing is the only thing that has given Jae peace after his dad passed away. It’s also what keeps him connected to his father’s side of the family. Both Jae and his cousin Leslie notice Val at the Lunar New Year festival, and for some inexplicable reason, Jae hands Val a paper heart. But it’s Leslie, with his K-Pop good looks, who starts to date Val. Jae still feels this connection with Val and feels it’s somehow tied to how he feels about losing his father.

Both Val and Jae struggle with the spirits who haunt them as they are inextricably brought together in a love story that is satisfying, sweet, and moving.

Audrey: I had so much fun reading LUNAR NEW YEAR LOVE STORY. It’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to really dig into a graphic novel, and this was a great one. Gene Luen Yang’s story was compelling, and LeUyen Pham did such a great job illustrating characters’ expressions and conveying movement. I really loved how the lion dances were illustrated. What did you think?

K. Imani: I agree Audrey, I had so much fun reading this novel as well. There were so many moments where I had a huge grin on my face and moments where I laughed out loud. The storytelling was so on point with a number of twists that I did not see coming. I love when a story keeps me on my toes. I had an ARC so the paper quality of my book was not that great, but the art was still beautiful so I can only imagine what the final product looked like.

Jessica: I’m a huge fan of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novels so I knew I would be in for a treat! And I was not wrong. I’d just attended the Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown the prior weekend to reading this, so it felt very fitting to read this. I just adore stories about lion dancing – Audrey, I also loved how the lion dances were illustrated.

Crystal: I really loved the whole experience. The lion dancing was super interesting. It was great to see them, but also to learn about the how and why of the dancing. The artwork was gorgeous and like you said Audrey, LeUyen Pham was able to show so much movement. The color palette was beautiful and rich and followed the feng shui color wheel that is connected to the elements of nature. You can read more about Pham’s illustrations and her very deliberate choices with the colors in this BookPage interview.

Audrey: Let’s start with Valentina! What did you like about her? I have a soft spot for characters who get disillusioned about something but then forge onward anyway. I appreciated her determination to break her family’s romantic love curse, but I also really liked her journeys with familial love and friendship, too.

Jessica: She was a really interesting character! I didn’t expect to get a window into her childhood first thing, and the change from her childhood to when she is a teen in the present day was fascinating and really served to give us a full picture of who she is — it made me feel for her, too! Yet, at the same time, the way she throws herself into whatever she does – whether that’s making valentines or learning lion dancing – makes you really want to root for her.

K. Imani: I found Valentina so compelling. She had such a caring heart at the beginning of the book and to have it broken in such a way made me really feel for her. I really enjoyed traveling with her on her journey as she learned the difference between fantasy love and what real love is. Like Jessica said Ioved that she was so open to trying new things and when she put her mind to something, she went all in.

Crystal: I too appreciated seeing her relationships over time. It was good to see some of her childhood and to see her keep moving forward even when things were difficult. She picked herself up many times and kept on going. She was scared, but did the hard things.

Audrey: We can’t forget about Jae! He and Val didn’t have a great start, so I appreciated the slow burn of their friendship and eventual romance. He was quieter compared to Val, but he clearly was observant and thoughtful, and I appreciated how the two of them complemented each other.

Jessica: Jae! I love Jae so much. I love how much they complemented each other, and how Jae had his own struggles and his own story running parallel to Val. When they performed the lion dance together at the end – I loved that scene. And I cannot say enough about how fabulous the lion dancing illustrations in particular were. I went around showing it to people like, “hey, you should really read this – LOOK AT THESE ILLUSTRATIONS.” Another of my favorite scenes was when Jae’s uncle showed them Korean lion dancing and talked about eum and yang, and how the lion is 100% yang. That was so much fun. It makes me curious about the different kinds of lion dancing in the world beyond the style I’m familiar with.

K. Imani: Yes, we cannot forget about Jae. He was such a perfect balance for Valentina because he was the quiet to her loud.  I liked that he was surrounded by so much love so he was able to recognize that Val wouldn’t be ready for a real relationship and that she had to find her own way. I loved that they both had the same reasons, somewhat, for doing the lion dance and when they danced together it was a powerful experience. I loved those scenes and the happiness that came across through the illustrations just brought a smile to my face.

Crystal: I really adored Jae. He paid close attention to others and really tried to be respectful in his choices. Like Jessica, I totally loved the lion dance with Jae and Val at the end. It visually reminded us how much they complemented each other.

Audrey: Family and grief/loss were huge parts of this book as both Val and Jae were dealing with the loss of a parent and complications in their relationships with other family members and friends. What was most memorable for you? I really loved Val’s grandmother—she was great as a comedic character, but she also had some great moments with Val that showcased her depth and her love for her family.

Jessica: I found the different ways people processed loss so compelling – how Val coped versus how Val’s father went into full denial mode and lied to Val about her mother versus Val’s grandmother. Val’s grandmother bursting into their lives was a breath of fresh air. And both Jae and Val finding solace in lion dancing, something that brings good luck and joy to others, was such a powerful image. It makes me really appreciate the local organizations in my community that keep these traditions alive and provide this outlet for teens in my area.

K. Imani: What stood out to me with the theme of love & grief were tied together in the novel. I like how Val had to learn to love her father again after her hurt, how she was beginning to love her mother in a new way, and the relationship with her grandmother. On the other hand what motivated Jae to dance was his love for his father. This subtle theme was a lovely contrast to Val’s search for true love as it made her realize the difference between a fantasy type of love and what real, true, actual love is.

Crystal: With their losses, what stands out to me is how avoiding things compounds the problems. The lies and the silence only makes the grief and pain stretch out. As Jae’s uncle encouraged, being straightforward and direct can bring healing in a relationship.

Audrey: To wrap up, what YA graphic novels, romances, or contemporary fantasies are on your radar this year? I think The Marble Queen by Anna Kopp and illustrated by Gabrielle Kari looks fun! It just came out last week, and I’m a sucker for arranged/political marriages, and this one is set in a fantasy world with a sapphic main couple. Four Eids and a Funeral by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé and Adiba Jaigirdar also sounds delightful.

Jessica: I’m really, really excited for Bunt! by Ngozi Ukazu and Mad Rupert (which Crystal has reviewed here). I’m a huge fan of the webcomic OMG, Check Please by Ngozi Ukazu, so of course I’m on board for Bunt! as well. And since we’re on the topic of lion dancing in this discussion, I’m going to shout out these two short stories (read them here and here) about lion dancing by Zen Cho, which I adore.

Crystal: I really enjoyed A Magic Steeped in Poison and its sequel by Judy I. Lin, so I’m excited to get my hands on her romantic fantasy Song of the Six Realms. I’m also looking forward to the contemporary romance True Love and Other Impossible Odds by Christine Li. The supernatural romance Hearts of Fire and Snow by David Bowles and Guadalupe Garcia McCall is also on my list. As for graphic novels, I’m eager to read The Worst Ronin by Maggie Tokuda-Hall. So many books!

K. Imani: There are a number of fantasy trilogies that I’m looking forward to reading when I finally have some free time. All the Twisted Glory, the 3rd book  in the This Woven Kingdom series by Tahereh Mafi,and The Merciless Ones, the last of the Gilded Ones series by Namina Forna, is on my TBR list so far.