I've made it my personal quest to find a children's graphic novel that can prove to naysayers anywhere the literary possibilities of the genre. When, "American Born Chinese", was placed merrily into my hands, however, I fairly ignorant of its potential. The name Gene Luen Yang didn't mean anything to me. The style was not one that immediately leapt out at me. But I'm a sucker for a good graphic novel and this book had something going for it: The Monkey King. I love love love any stories, legends, picture books, what have you, that contain that most legendary of all gods and goddesses, the king of the monkeys himself. Lured in by the promise of some serious fantasy (as, I am sure, many kids who pick up this book will as well) I found a story about assimilation that is so brilliantly penned and carefully plotted that it rivals every notion of what a graphic novel can and can't do. Do you know someone who couldn't care less about this new format? Someone who thinks comic books can't convey the weight and intelligence of a proper novel? Thrust "American Born Chinese" into their arms immediately, if not sooner. If I were to choose a single graphic novel to grace every library's children's room nationwide, you can bet that this is the puppy I'd put my faith in.
Three storylines. Three different characters. One single idea. At the heart of our first story is Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants, who just wants to fit in. He wants to date the cute blond girl in the overalls and to perm his hair. What he wants, and how far he's willing to go to get it, is the center of the story itself. The second storyline concerns the tales of the Monkey King. Not content to be merely a monkey, the Monkey King did everything in his power to become a Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. This was all well and good until he was informed by Tze-Yo-Tzuh, creator of all existence, that he was a monkey after all. It's not until the King can accept what he is that he is able to free himself from his own self-induced prison. The third storyline is the riskiest of the three. It plays out like a bad sitcom, with a kid named Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee is every horrible Chinese stereotype ever concocted and rolled into a single character. His story slowly continues until it becomes clear that the three different tales we've been reading have merged into a single narrative. And at the heart of the narrative is the idea that assimilation is a question of forfeiting your soul. A forfeit that no one should want to make.
Yang skillfully brings together all kinds of elements that relate to the idea of wanting to become someone you're not. When we first see Jin Wang, he's just a little kid playing with a Transformer. Jin Wang loves Transformers so much that he wants to be one when he grows up. It seems like a typical kid-like thing to say, but Yang understands the essential lure of what a Transformer was. It changed from one thing to another according to the situation. So when you see Jin and his young Chinese-American friends gathered on Saturday mornings with their Transformers to watch the tv show of the same name and then act it out, you know precisely what Yang's saying. The book is full of small details like this that kids, even if they don't entirely understand what is being said, will contemplate on a much deeper level.
My husband snatched up and read this book just before I was able to (he's a grapic novel fan), and he complained a little that the Monkey King storyline wasn't in more of the book. I feel torn on the issue. On the one hand, I think that Yang has given just the right amount of weight and time to each tale in this book. On the other hand, it's hard not to want more Monkey King. I'm kind of ashamed to say it, but the first time I ever heard of the legend was when I read, "The Sign of Qin" by L.G. Bass. After that I found other Monkey King picture books, and came to the slow realization that here was an amazing character. A trickster, but with a kind of gravity that makes him a more understandable character than your usual Pucks, Pans, and Coyotes.
The art itself is simple enough to lure in the kiddies right from the start, without ever becoming too simple or failing to convey the storyline. In the end, this book is one of the subtler discussions of race, racism, and trying to fit in. Fellow author Derek Kirk Kim is blurbed as saying, "As an Asian American, American Born Chinese is the book I've been waiting for all my life". The book goes beyond just the Asian American community, though. It's a smart witty treatise that needs to be read and understood by all kids. The best graphic novel of 2006 for children, bar none.
This book is a truly stellar contribution to the graphic novel genre. Jin Wang's coming-of-age story is pitch-perfect in its attention to visual detail as well as its "feel" for adolescent dialogue. Not content to tell this story "straight," Gene Yang introduces two other narratives -- those of the legendary Monkey King and of the sitcom characters Danny and Chin-Kee -- to add multiple layers of meaning to Jin's struggles to fit in.
It shoud be noted that, even though Yang balances three stories (which ultimately converge) in this book, Jin's story serves as the emotional core of the novel. The Monkey King's and Chin-Kee's stories represent different poles of Jin's identity as a Chinese American -- extreme, identity-negating self-reliance, on the one hand, and extreme, caricatured self-hatred, on the other. The novel does a brilliant job of drawing us into the world of a teenager who engages these extremes as a matter of "growing up Asian American" -- a paradoxical subject of repulsion and desire, exclusion and belonging.
Don't get me wrong, though: while Yang's themes are undeniably powerful, his writing is just really, really funny. The Monkey King is raucously self-involved; Chin-Kee is both sad and strangely self-aware of his own caricaturedness (i.e., his "kung fu" moves are all named after "Chinese" dishes, like "Mooshu Fist"), and one scene involving Jin, bathroom soap, and his love interest Amelia had me in stitches. Which is to say it's nice to see that important themes of identity and cultural belonging can be explored in such a playful manner.
Credit to Yang, then, for not taking himself so seriously, and for giving us a profound meditation on "growing up ethnic" that looks, sounds, and *feels* right.
This beautifully produced graphic novel contains three storylines which come together in a well-constructed final chapter. The first storyline concerns the classic Chinese tale of the Monkey King (Sun Wukong) and his egotistical quest to become a god above all others. The second storyline is a about a Taiwanese-American kid raised in San Francisco's Chinatown who moves with his family to the suburbs. There he tries to fit in at his new elementary school, and goes through the usual loneliness of the outsider, endures bullying, makes friends with the other two Asian kids, and falls in love with a pretty white girl. The third storyline is delivered as a tasteless sitcom about an all-American high-school boy whose life gets turned upside down when his bucktoothed stereotype of a Chinese cousin comes to visit. Although the tone is very different in each storyline, they all have something to say about being different and coming to terms with one's identity, and the way they morph into a single climax at the end is quite clever and effective. It's a nice book to give any kid who's struggling with trying to find their place in the nasty world. The artwork is very clean and simple, with traditional lettering, crisp colors, and very simple paneling (which is nicely framed by generous white space above and below). The printing is beautiful and the paper and binding is top-notch.
on August 29, 2007
American Born Chinese by Gene Yang was the Printz Award winner for 2007. It's been sitting in my pile for a few months now, even though I was told it would take me no more than an hour to read. All the reviews I read about this graphic novel have been very positive, and I must agree it is a masterpiece.
But, as usual, I have a different viewpoint to bring to this discussion. We all have filters we view the world through, and this is also true of the way we approach media, whether it be books, movies, poetry, etc. My Christian faith is a large filter for me, and it impacts the way I view books.
American Born Chinese is a story told in three separate stories that eventually converge. Remember Holes? Louis Sachar did the same thing. The three plotlines came together in surprising ways that add to the enjoyment of the story. It is part of the mystery of the book.
In plotline one, Jin Wang has started a new life in a new home and a new school. He struggles to fit in with his new classmates who only see his differences. His classmates focus only on the negative stereotypes they have heard about the Chinese people. He is mocked and picked on, and the only friend he can find is a bully who threatens to make Jin eat his boogers if he won't share his food. I found myself cringing a little as I remembered a classmate that was in my elementary school. His name was Nguyen Ly, but later on he changed his name to an American name. Now I understand why he wanted to do that. It is hard to be different. One more important aspect to this story is that Jin loves his transformer robot. One day, he wants to be a transformer himself.
In plot two, the King of the Monkeys is angered when he is turned away at a party for being a monkey. No matter how much skill he acquires, he is belittled for being a monkey. In his anger, he beats the tar out of multiple people using his kung fu skills. Finally, he receives a visit from the great Tze-Yo-Tzuh, a god, who encourages the Monkey King to accept his role in life and to take enjoyment in that role. Be proud you are a monkey, he seems to be saying. The Monkey King won't listen and is "punished" for his refusal.
In plot three, a teenage boy named Danny feels humiliated everytime his cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit him. Chin-Kee goes around at Danny's school seemingly encouraging all the negative stereotypes people have towards Asians. He has buck teeth, can't correctly pronounce his l's and r's, and just makes a fool of himself.
First, the technical elements: The artwork is amazing. Each drawing contains amazing colors and good use of frames to create motion and time. Also, the author uses a creative device that shows us when a person is speaking in a language other than English. The text is written in English but the quotation is surrounded by angular parentheses. This way, the reader knows the speaker is not speaking English, but we can still read the conversation.
One thing no one has pointed out is that many of the speeches made by Tze-Yo-Tzuh are taken directly from the Bible. Most of it is from Psalm 139. This is the passage where it talks about God knowing us completely, when we get up and when we lie down. We cannot escape him. I am linking the whole chapter in this for anyone who wants to read it.
What I got out of this story is that God created us each to be something, and he does not make mistakes. We can fight against it, but we usually just hurt ourselves. I am thinking of a very dear friend of mine. He is a wonderful person, but has been fighting God for years.
When the monkey was fighting and striving, he was always angry and never got what he wanted. It was only by accepting his role in the world that he found himself. And notice his role was unselfishly giving of himself to help others. And the reason I put punished in quotes above is that I don't really think the god in this book punished the Monkey King out of anger. I believe he did it for his own good to lead him to the truth. Tze-Yo-Tzuh tried everything before he buried him in a mountain of rock.
Please don't think I am immune to the cultural implications of this book. When we see the cruelty with which the world treats Jin and his friends, it is heartbreaking. I hope people will read this work and re-think these stereotypes. But I also know that stereotypes exist, and you can only change yourself. Jin, the Monkey King, and anyone else who is discriminated against cannot wait for the world to change in order to find the happiness we all deserve. We must each act with integrity and take joy in the roles we have been given in this world, whether they are received with praise or hostility.
A surprising interweaving of Chinese myth and legend, prejudice and self-acceptance, and the coming of age of a first generation American-born boy of Chinese descent, make AMERICAN BORN CHINESE an exceptionally entertaining and thought-provoking graphic novel.
More than halfway though reading the vividly illustrated story, I still had no idea how the three distinct and alternating tales that make up the book were going to eventually come together as promised on the flap copy.
One of the three threads involves the Monkey King, who wants to be a god and literally gets himself buried in trouble. Another is the story of Jin Wang, whose previously blissful childhood, spent in San Francisco's Chinatown, is transformed when his family moves to a very different community and Jin starts attending Mayflower Elementary School. The third thread is about Danny, a popular (and non-Asian) basketball player whose school life is annually disrupted by the arrival of his cousin Chin-Kee, who physical characteristics, dress, and mannerisms epitomize the extremes of Chinese stereotyping.
I cannot imagine a reader not being sucked into this one after the scene in which Jin gets his first hit of Mayflower Elementary. The teacher introduces him as Jing Jang (instead of Jin Wang), tells her students that he moved from China (instead of Chinatown), and then when one of the kids immediately raises his hand to tell the class that 'Momma says Chinese people eat dogs," the teacher responds, "Now be nice, Timmy! I'm sure Jin doesn't do that! In fact, Jin's family probably stopped that sort of thing as soon as they came to the United States."
I've never gotten to do a graphic novel read aloud. Now I can't wait to figure out how to make it happen. I can easily imagine assigning parts to students each day and doing AMERICAN BORN CHINESE as readers theater. (All I need now is a way to scam a class set.)
In any case, this is a graphic novel that belongs in every middle school collection.
on June 23, 2008
Here's how this book came to be in my hands: I attended teacher training, was given a list of 50 "great" young adult titles, and decided that my reluctant readers would be attracted to the graphic novel format. I gurgled a bit when I saw the retail price, but decided that between the Amazon discount and the fact that this book could very well get my kids reading, I made the decision to choke up the change.
I am so glad I did.
The book came in the mail today, and I pulled it out and tossed it at my mom while telling her she had to read it. She complied readily, out of curiosity I think. I wondered at her when I heard occasional chuckles, but I knew I was on to something special when, teary-eyed, she put the book down and sat musing for some time.
I snatched it up from her and let my toddler run amok as I held my two-month-old in my arms and devoured the book over the next 45 minutes. It was worth the ensuing chaos by aforementioned toddler! Three seemingly unrelated story lines are artfully told and then bound together with wisdom, humor and skill. The difficult topics of racism, growing up, identity, power, and belonging are addressed with the greatest sensitivity and impact. The story gets deeper and larger, yet it narrows to a precision point at the end that leaves the reader quite a bit of meat to chew on afterward. The characters are wonderfully portrayed, and the art is truly communicative and inspiring.
I realized as my mom was reclaiming the book that I couldn't take this copy up to school--I would have to purchase a second copy so I could keep this one. I can guarantee that this book will get stolen off my shelves before next May, and it will be worth it. If one of my students truly 'gets' it, I'll buy a copy every year for the express purpose of having it taken.
It's that good.
on November 4, 2006
I am a young Asian American (just over twenty) and I thought this story was very intriguing. I was born in America and actually spent high school in Taiwan. I could however relate to racism as a Chinese kid growing up in a predominantly white suburb (palo alto). It's almost amazing what kind of cruelities can come out of kids so young. I'm surprised not more kids snap under such wanton cruelty. It just kind of shows the resilience of children.
Anyways, back to the book. It is nicely executed and I love the integration of the three stories. The writing reminiscint of what it like to be a asian american kid again and the art wonderfully entertaining and clean.
However, the conclusion left something to be wanted. The novel wants to break from stereotypes (i believe) yet one of the characters ends up as a ricer with diamond studs. I don't know, i just felt the ending could have been more than it was. So much could have been said that was left unsaid I think.
on December 18, 2006
I love it. This finely illustrated book deals with identity crisis, rebellions against limitations and finally coming to terms with who you are. The story lines are clever. The analogy of the monkey king is surprising (deviation from traditional interpretations) but interesting. I found the words of the "wicked" herbalist's wife to be profound: "It is easy to become anything you wish...so long as you're willing to forfeit your soul." And I don't view it as a discouragement because you may have to relinquish a few cherished things and go through some transformations before you find yourself.
on November 9, 2006
Earlier this year I reviewed several other graphic novels (comic books made into a book form), most of high quality in every way, including content. This one is all that and more--it's earning honors already.
The National Book Award is one of the most prestigious awards in literature and American Born Chinese is the first graphic novel to be nominated in any category in its 57-year history--and has just been selected as one of the 20 finalist. The book has also been nominated for Best Book for Young Adults and has received praise from Scholl Library Journal.
This inch-thick, 235-page graphic novel consists of several separate stories that seem disconnected until the very end.
The themes are:
-- Jin Wang is the new kid and the only Chinese-American student
-- The ancient fable of the Monkey King
-- Chin-Kee, the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype
Jin has a new Chinese-American friend, who when Jin gets angry at him, he calls him a FOB (fresh off the boat) because his friend's speech and mannerisms are more Chinese than American. Jin is embarrassed by his friend (the other new kid) because Jin wants to "fit in."
The modern fable is hilarious, poignant and action packed.
The bullying and name calling, the desire to fit in (and what one might do to make that happen), interracial dating and prejudice, parental expectations of old-world ideals--and many can relate to these feelings and situations.
Children and teenagers who are "different" from the others will appreciate the message of having friends, loneliness, becoming accepted, stereotypes, prejudice, parental expectations--what so many deal with.
Armchair Interviews says: Gene Luen Yang is a talent we'll hear more of.
on December 28, 2006
Gene Luen Yang's insightful and incisive look at racism and self-acceptance is fully deserving of the accolades it has received and is a legitimate candidate for best graphic novel of the year.
Yang deftly weaves three seemingly unnconnected stories -- the fabled Monkey King who wants to be a god; Jin Wang, the only Chinese-American student at his school, and his attempts to fit in; and Chin-Kee, the jaw-dropping Asian stereotype (complete with his own laugh track), who shows up every summer to embarass his white American cousin, Danny -- into a powerful, modern parable that's accessible to all ages and cultures.
On the surface, it's an empowering spin on the classic tale of the ugly duckling, with an emphasis on self-acceptance over finding one's place in society. Underneath, though, it's a surprisingly subversive indictment of the concept of cultural assimilation, aka the "melting pot".
The Monkey King's efforts to become a god and Chin-Kee's appalling adventures in humiliation seem, at first, to fit awkwardly in the midst of Jin Wang's more straightforward coming of age tale, as Yang alternates between each one a few times, never tipping his hand as to how they intersect until the very end. His visual presentation holds the three stories together, with clean, crisp and colorful images, while his square layouts -- revealing its webcomic roots -- only take up 2/3rds of a page but never feel compressed. (Or decompressed, for that matter.)
When it does all come together, it has the same effect as when a magician successfully pulls off "the prestige", to the sheer delight of the audience.
My copy of American Born Chinese sports a nice silver "National Book Award Finalist" sticker on its cover, a unique and distinctive honor in the comics field, one Yang should be incredibly proud of receiving, and the rest of the industry should be aspiring to. For First Second, it's nothing less than the crown jewel in a first year of publishing that has been remarkable by any measure.