MY FATHER, THE PANDA KILLER, by Jamie Jo Hoang, Crown Books for Young Readers, Aug. 29, 2023, Hardcover, $18.99 (young adult, ages 14 and up)
My Father, The Panda Killer, by Jamie Jo Hoang, explores intergenerational trauma through the lens of a Californian teen and her Vietnamese father.
San Jose, 1999. Jane knows her Vietnamese dad can’t control his temper. Lost in a stupid daydream, she forgot to pick up her 7-year-old brother, Paul, from school. Inside their home, she hands her dad the stick he hits her with. This is how it’s always been. She deserves this. Not because she forgot to pick up Paul, but because at the end of the summer she’s going to leave him when she goes away to college. As Paul retreats inward, Jane realizes she must explain where their dad’s anger comes from. The problem is, she doesn’t quite understand it herself.
Đà Nẵng, 1975. Phúc (pronounced /fo͞ok/, rhymes with duke) is 11 the first time his mother walks him through a field of mines he’s always been warned never to enter. Guided by cracks of moonlight, Phúc moves past fallen airplanes and battle debris to a refugee boat. But before the sun even has a chance to rise, more than half the people aboard will perish. This is only the beginning of Phúc’s perilous journey across the Pacific, which will be fraught with Thai pirates, an unrelenting ocean, starvation, hallucination, and the unfortunate murder of a panda. —Synopsis provided by Crown Books for Young Readers
My Father, The Panda Killer is kind of a brutal read, and there’s a reason why the suggested age is 14 and up. But it’s also one of contemplation and hope.
The story unfolds through the alternating voices of Jane and Phúc — father and daughter who are both products of the situations in which they grew up. Neither childhood is great, and the stories of child physical and emotional abuse and the horrors of war can be hard to stomach.
What keeps you reading, however, is author Jamie Jo Hoang’s vulnerable and honest writing. She counters violence with forgiveness and highlights the complexities within relationships. It’s masterfully done, and has you rooting for both Jane and Phúc.
Hoang says My Father, The Panda Killer was inspired by her own personal relationships. “Looking for my father’s humanity has been one of the most humbling experiences of my life,” she writes in her letter to readers at the beginning of the book. She also notes that this complex dynamic between parents and children is not unique to Vietnam. The same can be said of Afghans and Ukrainians and many others.
My Father, The Panda Killer is a story that will stick with you a long time after finishing it.
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