Yehudi Mercado’s new graphic novel presents two endearing characters to readers middle-grade and older. Hudi is a bright, funny kid with little athletic ability but incredible charm and intelligence. He is also both Jewish and Mexican-American, living with his working class family in Houston, Texas. To add another challenge, ongoing health problems have caused his well-meaning parents to have concerns about Hudi’s weight. In response to all of these dilemmas, the artistic Hudi creates a cartoon mascot, Chunky, to help him through the stresses of baseball, football, and every other sport proposed to improve his health. Hudi and Chunky’s ongoing dialogue combines humor and introspection, allowing Hudi to develop the self-acceptance that he needs to survive.
The book is organized into chapters based on Hudi’s participation in each different sport, followed by a “Postgame Wrap-Up.” This structure not only maintains a consistent theme throughout Hudi’s story, but it also allows Hudi and Chunky to engage in an ongoing exchange about the meaning of each event in Hudi’s life. Exaggerated cartoon-like images and rapid action scenes advance the story, along with quieter segments about Hudi’s family and his medical condition. By breaking the fourth wall, Hudi and Chunky step out of the book, revealing its mechanisms and considering whether they are working effectively. When fictional Chunky asks real-life Hudi how the chapter went, Hudi responds that it went well, and that “the real MVP was Chunky.” Readers are invited to identify with Hudi’s physical and emotional difficulties and also to participate in his development as an author and artist.
Each sport offers a new terror, and sometimes a new opportunity. Swimming exposes the scar resulting from Hudi’s surgery to remove a lung, while football has the ironic effect of possibly rewarding Hudi’s large physical size. Nothing is completely predictable in Hudi’s world, least of all the responses of adults in authority. His parents are sympathetic, loving people, although they often fail to grasp the pressures placed on Hudi as they struggle to keep him well. There is no bitterness in Mercado’s account; annoying siblings, frightening bullies, and obtuse coaches are all just humans operating within a particular set of circumstances. The overwhelming generosity of Hudi’s explanations for everything that happens to him is one of the book’s defining qualities.
Performance, successful and otherwise, is at the center of Hudi’s life. He aspires to be an actor and comedian, but he is repeatedly cast against type as an athlete. His sister’s bat mitzvah also forces him to play a challenging role, from reciting prayers in public to dancing at the reception. Meanwhile, his family’s financial problems lurk in the background of this supposedly joyful event. No wonder that Hudi associates a degree of “desperation” with the whole project. Mercado succeeds in weaving Hudi’s Jewishness into all the ways in which he feels different. As in every other part of the book, ambivalence is part of the picture; Hudi accepts the reality of a situation in which he has no choice but uses humor and flexibility to adapt it as his own. Young readers, whether or not they have faced a brutal sports match or insecurities about their appearance, will relate to Hudi and Chunky’s quest to thrive.
This highly recommended graphic novel includes a note to the reader, explaining the book’s autobiographical premise.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.