American Born Chinese

I found American Born Chinese in the “Frequently Bought Together” section of the Amazon listing for Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. I included it because I felt I didn’t have enough titles which dealt with race in America. I was also eager to further explore the graphic novel genre. American Born Chinese is on the ALA Ultimate YA Bookshelf (retrieved August 4th, 2009 from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/yabookshelf.cfm) and won the 2007 Michael L. Printz award (retrieved August 4th, 2009 from http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/yalsa/booklistsawards/printzaward/previouswinners/printz07.cfm).

Author: Gene Luen Yang
ISBN-10: 1596431520 ISBN-13: 9781596431522
City and Publisher: New York: First Second
Copyright Date: 2006
Author’s Website: http://humblecomics.com/

Reader’s Annotation: Three stories run through this volume: a divine monkey king is spurned in heaven and masters kung fu in order to take his revenge, Danny’s Cousin Chinky visits and embarrasses him horribly, and Jin Wang deals with his schoolmates’ taunts and a crush on a girl. This book weaves allegory and illustration to illuminate an experience of being American Born Chinese.

Plot Summary: When the divine monkey king smells a dinner party in heaven, he rushes to attend. The doorman throws him out for having no shoes, and the monkey king decides to become more than just a monkey. When Jin Wang moves to a new (almost all white) school, the other kids don’t exactly embrace his heritage. In between the taunts about eating dog and having funny eyes, he finds a friend and gets a crush on a girl. When Danny is about to tell the girl he likes about his affections, Cousin Chinky comes to visit. His hilariously stereotypical antics seem to amuse the studio audience, but Danny shrinks with embarrassment. These three stories, colorfully and cleanly illustrated, reveal the experience of being American Born Chinese.

Critical Evaluation: Yang’s novel reads quickly. The characters are interesting, and incredibly understandable. While none of them engage in long soliloquies describing their motives, their inner feelings come alive in the mind of the reader. The illustrations are clean and colorful, managing to convey nuance and subtext without baroque embellishment. The three stories unfurl together expertly, eventually tying a message of self acceptance to a surprising plot twist. At the end, modern life and myth converge into a more harmonious meaning.

Reading Level/Interest Age: 11 and up
Curriculum Ties: American Born Chinese would be a great addition to studies of multiculturalism, because it illuminates many feelings particular to second generation immigrants. Its use of the monkey king story might also be useful in classes exploring folk tales, particularly because Yang includes his own allegory in the plot line of Cousin Chinky.
Booktalking Ideas: Being able to show some of the illustrations would be a great selling point for this graphic novel. Page 30, which shows Jin’s introduction to his class, as well as page 64 which shows the giant Monkey King, would be good samples.

Genre: Graphic Novel
Influences from Other Genres: Folktale

Challenge Issues:
Yang’s use of a racial slur in naming his character Cousin Chinky might be misunderstood by parents who have not read the novel. This character’s broad portrayal is a reflection of Jin Wang’s self image. Cousin Chinky is the monkey king in disguise just as Danny is Jin Wang in disguise. Both characters are fulfilling stereotypes, but in the end accept themselves for who they are. The book’s themes encourage readers to overcome racism.

About the Author: Gene Luen Yang began publishing comics in 1996. He lives in Fremont, California and also teaches high school computer science. (More details at http://humblecomics.com/about.htm)

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