Sloane Leong’s A Map to the Sun (First Second) is a rich tapestry of complex emotions and ideologies that reach past the slice-of-life genre or basketball bildungsroman its trappings suggest. Set during the throes of adolescent strife and following a reluctant band of basketball-playing misfits, A Map to the Sun uses the archetypical constructs of the coming-of-age tale to interrogate who is permitted to achieve success in society and determine what personal obstacles deter us from making the most of ourselves.
The most immediate aspect of Leong’s work is its distinctive use of color. Heavily relying on secondary tones and complimentary color combinations, Leong creates a stunning and sometimes garish storyworld that is akin to staring at the sun and suddenly looking away. Such color use would be less compelling if it didn’t bolster Leong’s underlying themes. Set in an urban Los Angeles landscape, the nearly-neon colors of Leong’s storyworld evoke California’s celebrated sunsets and surf culture aesthetic. However, this colouration masks the characters’ dark, dilapidated surroundings and their underlying emotions: Nell’s working during school hours to help make ends meet; Ren’s deep-seated fear of abandonment; Luna’s absent mother; a school district that can’t afford a girls’ athletic program because its classrooms are in disrepair; a pervasive and destructive drug culture. Leong’s storytelling, however, frequently invites us to look beyond the pleasing aesthetics of surface appearances, into the complicated beauty that lies within imperfection. Likewise, her vivid colouration responds to the surrounding darkness with a relentless brightness – a call “[t]o warm and be warmed. To shine and be shined on” (357). The most impressive use of Leong’s colouration, however, lies within the page margins themselves, which seem to form a map of sorts throughout the book. Each page subtly shifts in saturation and hue, lightening and darkening with the sunrise or sunset of the scene, often cueing the appearance or disappearance of characters and matching a scene’s underlying emotional landscape. In this way, Leong’s sublime coloration transcends both panel and page borders to shine on and warm the reader, extending the storyworld’s and the characters’ emotional landscape beyond the book and into our own through the sensual connection between book and reader.
Creating an extremely sensual storyworld through color is just one of the many visual techniques Leong uses to challenge ideological boundaries. Leong also highlights the sensuality of the female body both by visually emphasizing the invisible barriers around female bodies and through her visualization of female bodies breaking barriers. Throughout the text, female characters’ abilities and desires are considered secondary to male characters’ abilities and desires. This is expressed through oft-repeated sentiments such as the girls’ team being a drain of valuable resources or superfluous because post-secondary professional athletic opportunities are limited for women. Such dialogue points to larger systemic disparities between the perceived capital of men versus women, which create barriers to female achievement. Visual echoes of this idea are seen in female bodies that are often cut off by the panel frames – only shown as legs, or hands, or torsos without faces – emphasizing their construction as a collection of parts, an object, rather than a whole person.
However, Leong emphasizes the inherent power of female embodiment. She creates dynamic layouts of female athletes in action – layouts which become more sophisticated as the athletes improve. She also works to counter the internalized, female body-shaming expressed by male characters throughout the text, instead highlighting the pleasure of everyday bodily movements such as brushing hair and teeth; flexing in front of the mirror; balancing, bike-riding, swimming, or skateboarding. Leong emphasizes the freedom, strength, and pleasure of using the female body no matter its shape, size, color, or appearance. She continually shows that the female body is an instrument of emancipation focusing on its ability to break through environmental barriers – the surface of the water or a dark cloud of smoke. This imagery is repeatedly followed by an image showing the female character gasping for air, emphasizing both the suffocating nature of internalized, socially oppressive barriers that can hold women back from reaching their full potential and the elation that breaking these barriers brings.
Such barrier imagery is especially suited to an adolescent coming-of-age tale like Leong’s as it emphasizes the liminality of the character’s in-between position. The characters are not girls, but not yet women; they are on the cusp of becoming who they are; they want independence but still need support. However, the yearning for something greater, something more – the desire not only to understand your place in the world but to achieve a place greater than what an oppressive society deems you should – is a tale that should not be strictly limited to the coming-of-age genre. Such a tale is universal and of special importance to a contemporary society fraught with unrest, injustice, and inequity. Leong does not only tell the story of a basketball team or of adolescent girls coming-of-age. Rather, she reminds us that we all are in a perpetually liminal position, that we are bound to each other, and that our bonds to others remain our greatest source of strength. A Map to the Sun is truly about overcoming personal and social limitations by working for each other with each other – and that is a tale which defies age and genre.