Book Review: Yaya Han’s World of Cosplay

My take: Yaya’s book is a tour de force through 20 years of cosplay history, an inspiring life story and a guide bursting with actionable advice for cosplayers, parents, and newbies.

Curious? Read my review of “Yaya Han’s World of Cosplay: A Guide to Fandom Costume Culture” to learn more about the who, what, and why of this cosplay book!

Who is Yaya Han?

There are a few household names that you literally cannot miss when you start looking for “cosplay” online. Kamui Cosplay or Jessica Nigri, for example, and of course Yaya Han. She has been around for longer than most: 2019 marked her 20-year anniversary of cosplay!

Yaya has been a professional cosplayer for 15 years, and her brand power has allowed her to release a cosplay fabric collection, over 40 sewing patterns and various other cosplay materials sold in mass-retail stores. You will find her cosplay photos displayed in every JoAnn’s fabric store in the U.S.A. today.

So when Yaya struck a deal with major publisher Sterling (who are owned by the huge Barnes & Noble bookstore chain) to write her first book, it was clear that the audience would be far broader than just the existing cosplay community.

Yaya’s book is an experiment: an in-depth guide to cosplay and geek culture that is much more than just the 100th crafting book.

Full disclosure before we dive into the book:
I had the honor and joy of working with Yaya as an additional editor on the book last year (March – May 2019) and I have known her personally for over a decade. So my views are naturally biased. However, I love a good story about cosplay no matter who it’s from, and I was hooked from the minute I read the first draft chapter! I can vouch for the fact that this book is 100% Yaya Han. All of the stories and feelings that she poured into her manuscript were already there, we editors just helped her polish that gem.

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Content Overview

Yaya’s book is an introduction to the world of cosplay as she sees it unfold from the moment she arrives in the U.S. in the late 90s, to the present where she owns one of the most influential brands in the cosplay industry.

Parts 1 and 2 of the book introduce us to the author, her roots in China and Germany, and how she navigated the early years of cosplay and the anime fandom in America. You get a taste of how deeply personal this book is, and at the same time, Yaya manages to tell the history of fandom conventions in an entertaining and respectful manner.

Parts 3 to 5 continue the history of cosplay, jumping back and forth on the timeline as they focus on different aspects of the hobby. Part 3, “The Creative Expression of Cosplay” looks at how conventions, photography, social media and design trends have shaped the way people cosplay and how cosplayers are perceived by the fan community as a whole.

Part 4, “The Duality of Cosplay” is the most original part of the book and it was clearly the hardest to write! These chapters provide a lucid analysis of the problematic issues we face as a community: negativity and online harassment, body shaming and sexualization, racism and the practice of blackface in cosplay. (Read my explainer on blackface which echoes some of the points Yaya makes.)

As a pioneering cosplay entrepreneur, Yaya can shine in Part 5, “The Industry of Cosplay” as we follow her own career path. It was a lot bumpier than what you’d imagine from the glamorous cover photos, which makes this journey really interesting even if you’re not personally looking to make cosplay your job. The final chapter in Part 5 examines different ways how cosplayers currently earn money, with pros and cons of each business model.

If you are looking for more hands-on advice, the 5 main parts of the book are separated by “Yaya’s Advice” pages that are packed with practical tips for costume construction and planning, how to navigate conventions and photoshoots, or how to start your own cosplay business. These advice columns are like interludes, clearly marked by a bright pink frame, and you can skip them or read them independently of the main story.

The book ends on a humble and, yet again, deeply personal note: how cosplay has helped Yaya reunite with her family and connect with geeks across continents. She reminds us of the importance of community and mutual respect, a motif that is especially powerful in these socially distanced times.

Yaya’s History of Cosplay

The retelling of the history of cosplay is intertwined with Yaya’s personal journey and her rise from an immigrant girl to one of the world’s top cosplay professionals. The book covers the past 20 years in detail, with a focus on the U.S., which in many ways acted as a pioneer for cosplay outside of Asia.

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Whenever the author introduces a new phenomenon – like cosplay contests, the advent of social media, or cosplayers selling prints and giving autographs – she shares her lived experience of what this meant for her personally, and explains why it was seen as a big deal by the fan community at the time.

This trick gives her story purpose: new developments are always met with skepticism and gatekeeping attempts by established members of the cosplay community, but they are ultimately necessary for the community to evolve into what is is today. The competitive and commercial aspects of cosplay opened up avenues for businesses, they made cosplay popular beyond the world of conventions and brought new people to the hobby.

Yaya rightly points out that this is a general “fringe culture” phenomenon that is not unique to cosplay.

She carefully weighs the negative and positive aspects of each new development, but always ends the chapter on a cheerful note. Because the book is geared towards fellow cosplayers, as well as newcomers and their guardians, Yaya includes actionable advice on how to deal with negativity in the community and with personal disappointments that you will undoubtedly encounter.

You can tell that the author is passionate about each topic and that she fiercely believes in the positivity of the cosplay community. If you are a cosplayer yourself, you may have experienced events differently, and you may not always agree with Yaya’s view. But the personal framing of key events in cosplay history makes the narrative interesting and relatable.

Yaya’s Philosophy

Another guiding principle of Yaya’s book is that cosplay is a form of self-expression, so it should be for your own personal enjoyment. Even though the story focuses on Yaya’s experience – her World of Cosplay –, she will never tell you that her way is the only way you should cosplay.

While Yaya does not include interviews or portraits of other artists, she does cite examples of cosplayers who focus on different aspects of the art form, and the photos throughout the book do a great job to show the diversity of cosplay. There is a whole chapter inviting you to explore original designs and adaptations (rather than striving for 100% accuracy) as well as gender-subverting performances (like genderbending and crossplay).

The “ultimate goal” of the art form, says Yaya, is that everyone can get along, cosplay in their own style and enjoy themselves. This mantra is repeated throughout the book, and I think it’s a very positive and empowering message to send to cosplayers and newbies alike!

Why you should buy this book!

“Yaya Han’s World of Cosplay” is a must-read for cosplayers who want to “dig deeper” in terms of learning about their community, where it comes from and where it is going.

It is also an excellent guide for newcomers, parents, teachers and journalists who would like to learn more about what cosplay actually is. I can assure you that you’ll find it fascinating, and you’ll be more at ease knowing that your kids have discovered a truly creative and supportive subculture! Yaya’s book is written with a general audience in mind, so every aspect of cosplay and fandom culture is explained really well – but without oversimplifying or sugarcoating it.

This book will be my no. 1 recommendation to anyone interested in fandom history and cosplay culture, who does not have the patience to read dull scholarly accounts (like my own). Thanks to Yaya’s 20-year experience in the field, her vast personal network and her bright mind, this book is so much more than an autobiographical account of just one cosplayer!

Yaya paints a vivid picture of an evolving subculture and how it reacts to challenges from without and within. It’s the first non-academic book on cosplay that not only dives into the discourse around controversial topics – such as: competition, racism, fat-shaming and other biases that exist in the community – but that handles them in a respectful and balanced way. She does not stop at the analysis, but gives the reader actionable advice on how to make a positive impact. So this is also a great motivational read for cosplayers and artists.

If you are an aspiring cosplayer and you would like to get more serious about your “career”, Yaya’s life story and her tips for professional cosplayers will be an excellent resource. You don’t have to make cosplay your business, of course, but this book will give you a good idea of what that entails and how you might go about it if your heart so desires.

Last but not least, Yaya’s tale of an immigrant girl turned self-made business woman and entrepreneur is an inspiring read. She recounts vulnerable moments that she hasn’t shared elsewhere, and that make her story authentic and relatable beyond the “cosplay” aspect.

Making this book a very personal project has been Yaya’s goal from the start, and I am grateful that she has found a publisher who made this possible. It’s a very unique book on cosplay, and I hope that it opens up a new path for cosplayers who want to write about more than “cosplay 101”.

What’s not to like?

If I have to come up with any criticism, it’s that Yaya’s book tries to be too much of everything at the same time: personal memoir, newbie guide, history and sociocultural analysis of a subculture, career advice, manifesto for positivity and motivational bible!

While she does a great job at weaving her own story with the history of cosplay, some of the advice parts seem a bit repetitive or might distract from the main story.

Counter to the PR text that sells it as “your one-stop cosplay resource”, this is not a craft-along tutorial book! The cosplay 101 tips in “Yaya’s Advice” chapters (that you can easily identify and skip) are probably the least interesting part of the book. They could also be overwhelming for beginners because there is so much condensed information in there.

If you would like to get into making your own cosplays right away, check out the crafting books by the likes of Kamui, Kinpatsu or Bill Doran (for crafting) or Gillian Conahan (for sewing). Or buy the Yaya Han cosplay sewing patterns by McCall’s that come with professional, step-by-step instructions.

While Yaya’s book is an excellent retelling of the history of cosplay, it focuses very much on events in America. If you want to learn more about anime cosplay in Japan or other parts of the world, you will need to read scholarly books about the topic. Although, if you’re a cosplayer in any Western country, the U.S. has probably been a pioneer for developments in your scene and many of Yaya’s stories will make sense to you.

Lastly, this book is not for you if you are opposed to the idea of professional cosplay or competitive cosplay in general. While the book’s structure allows you to skip the chapters that talk about an aspect of cosplay that you’re not interested in, I don’t think you would enjoy Yaya’s story as much if you think cosplay should never be run like a business. Yaya does not hide her ambition to be successful in what she does, and she encourages other cosplayers to dream big.

My Recommendation

“Yaya Han’s World of Cosplay” is an invaluable resource for everyone who is interested in the history and culture of modern cosplay, told in a conversational style. The way Yaya ties her autobiographical story back into the shared experiences of the cosplay community as a whole, is what makes this book so unique and compelling!

The author discusses positive and negative aspects of the fan community and gives actionable advice on how to make an impact as a cosplayer. This book should be standard reading for everyone considering a career in cosplay, as well as parents and guardians who are still on the fence about cosplay as a hobby.

There is a wealth of information in this book, drawn from 20 years of cosplay experience. Unless you expect a step-by-step crafting guide to make your own costume, you will not be disappointed by this book.

Where to Buy

“Yaya Han’s World of Cosplay” was published on August 4th and is available on amazon (in print and as a Kindle e-book) or from your local bookseller – both in the U.S. and abroad! You can also order an autographed copy from Yaya herself. Check out her website for shopping links.

With in-person book signings not being possible right now, Yaya has appeared on a number of online panels and livestreams where she read from her book and answered questions – check out her Facebook feed for videos!

Han, Yaya: Yaya Han’s World of Cosplay: A Guide to Fandom Costume Culture. New York: Sterling, 2020.
239 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4549-3265-9
US$ 24.95 / Can$ 33.95

Do you feel inspired and ready to start making your own costumes? Don’t leave just yet – I’ve got just the right tutorials for you!

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