Re-Gifters is an involving coming-of-age story with a distinct sense of place. Writer Mike Carey introduces the elements of his story quickly, beginning with a sparring match. Dik Seong Jen — better known as “Dixie” — is a promising hapkido student preparing for an upcoming tournament, but she’s distracted by her crush on classmate Adam, which leads her to make stupid decisions, both financially and emotionally.
The art is by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel. With Carey, the three previously worked together on My Faith in Frankie, and their whimsical-yet-grounded approach also fits well here. The story’s packed with events and characterization, making the time spent on it feel worthwhile and fulfilling, and their quirky style makes the book distinctive while keeping it easy to read. The book’s inhabitants radiate their emotions, drawing the reader in, especially when help comes from unexpected places.
The short chapters focus on key ideas and incidents. Get in, be amusing, get out and move on. Often, as the quickest way to get to the point, Dixie narrates to the reader. Her best friend Avril calls her “spiky”, and so she is, making her much more interesting than the typical generic teen protagonist. Dixie feels things deeply, has a temper, and acts out when she can’t help it; she’s a realistic girl, and a likable one. (Avril is pretty cool, too, especially when she quotes Dorothy Parker on LA: “thirty-two suburbs in search of a city.”)
The cultures Dixie navigates likely won’t be familiar to many readers, between her Korean family interested in maintaining their traditions while being successful in America; the expectations of the martial art she practices; and the urban LA neighborhood she lives in. That’s a bonus, that the settings are unusual. It helps the reader feel informed as well as entertained. What’s the point of experiencing key events in a life just like yours? Someone different but relatable is much more of a stretch for both reader and creator.
The best part of the story is the way Dixie’s biggest reward comes after she finds and becomes comfortable with herself and her strength. Romantic success isn’t shown as fulfilling in itself, but a reward that comes after you know what you want and can do. That’s a refreshing take on teen crushes and a healthier message than many other stories aimed at and featuring that age group.
But the book isn’t some kind of disguised medicine, a moral lesson learned, or travelogue to say “why can’t we all get along?” It’s quite funny and deeply entertaining. Dixie puts the emotions she can’t express into her martial art, as well as enjoying beating people up. (She’s quite good at it.) She’s a tough girl with a family who loves her and drives her crazy (especially the younger twin brothers), learning what matters to her.