Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. Square Fish, 2006. 233p. Grades 6-12. Graphic Novel. (2007 Printz Award)
Told in a distinct and colorful style, this graphic novel interweaves the stories of three seemingly disconnected characters—the Chinese folk hero the Monkey King, the second-generation American Jin Wang, and the all-American boy Danny—to create a powerful tale that speaks not only to the specific immigrant experience of Asian-Americans but also to the universal search for identity and self-acceptance. Fast-paced, funny, and visually stunning, American Born Chinese masterfully combines traditional Chinese folklore, contemporary story-telling, and magical realism in a unique and compelling fashion.
Thoughts– When I first started reading American Born Chinese, I was very, very confused. Who was this Monkey King? Why was he training in kung fu? What did this have to do with anything? I found both the narrative and the panels humorous, but I wasn’t sure quite what to make of them. As I continued reading, I had multiple “A-ha!” moments where things started to come together and all the pieces began to fit perfectly, but I still found myself flipping back to make sure I “got it.” What a journey Yang takes his readers on! What a puzzle to put together! I loved it (because I love a book that makes me work), and I just felt like everything—the illustrations, the three stories, the moment that everything falls into place—just worked SO WELL. Yang manages to make his novel funny, heart-wrenching, touching, and thought-provoking all at the same time, an impressive feat.
In addition to all the story lines being juggled and the tonal shifts from one story to the next, the visual style of this book really stood out to me. The bright colors and stylized illustrations are certainly attention grabbing, and they definitely add to the reader’s experience of the narrative. You can see the Monkey King’s desire for recognition, Jin Wang’s need to fit in, and Danny’s humiliation (and the ways in which stereotypes play into our perceptions) through Yang’s drawings, and I think the comic book style makes the reader buy into the more unrealistic features of the book. It is easier to accept the “reality” of the Monkey King, and Chin Kee, and Danny turning back into Jin Wang when it’s all quite obviously (to me, at least) fictionalized and fable-like. I also really liked how Yang uses traditional Chinese folklore to connect his contemporary characters to their heritage and to the overall theme of the book. The Monkey King storyline had echoes for me of a lot of the spirit-guides in Native American culture as well as hearkening back to the animistic religions of ancient Asian cultures.
Ultimately, I think I was most impressed by just how much Yang manages to pack into American Born Chinese—plot-wise, thematically, visually, and tonally. There is just SO MUCH happening in this book, and I had to read it twice before I felt like I really had a handle on it. I think this complexity would make it work well in a classroom setting, especially because most teachers do not do anything with graphic novels, and I definitely feel like it is a great bridge for students interested in other graphic novel genres, like manga, to more complex graphic works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus books. I think it could go a long way in dispelling the myth of the graphic novel as just “comic books” with no substance, and I think its appeal cuts across age, ethnicity, and reading level—I’ve been talking it up to people for several weeks now.