American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang | Review
In case you haven’t been watching the National Book Awards this year as closely as I have, Gene Luen Yang’s pair of graphic novels, Boxers and Saints, has been selected as a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. This pick has been causing some buzz because this isn’t Yang’s first time at the rodeo! In 2006, American Born Chinese became the first graphic novel to be selected as a finalist for a National Book Award. The book went on to win the Michael L. Printz award from the American Library Association, the first graphic novel to receive such an honor.
American Born Chinese is a graphic novel about Chinese-American identity and the struggles of multiple identities in youth. The story is told through three parallel tales, intertwined throughout the book:
First is the story of Jin Wang, a modern teenager. He gets picked on for being the only Chinese-American student at his school and has a huuuuuuuuge crush on a white girl in his class.
The second story is the Chinese fable of the Monkey King. He may be king, but his true ambition is to be a god.
And finally, the third story is of a Chinese-American student named Danny and his outrageously stereotypical Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee is a caricature and he embarrasses Danny by revealing his inner fears about his classmates’ perceptions of his identity.
The three stories begin as individual tales, but Yang expertly weaves them together to create a cohesive, creative story. Each seems jarring at first, as they are only given a few pages at a time and the plot jumps around. It’s also confusing that the second two stories seem to involve a magical realism (Yang’s specialty!) that is not present in the first tale. But, readers, I promise all will be revealed by the end. The end of the graphic novel is a delight, one that inspired me to actually go back and read the whole book a second time.
Almost every stereotype of Chinese-American people is addressed here, including both negative and positive ones. Characters embody the stereotypes of physical appearance, dress, language, accent, academic performance, hobbies, and culinary tastes. Though Chin-Kee’s character in particular has been criticized for embodying these stereotypes, Yang’s intention is to address these head-on and crush these assumptions. Even the seemingly positive stereotype of Chinese-American students as high achievers is explored through the negative effects on students who feel they can never live up to expectations set for them. Yang wrote an excellent blog about misconceptions of Chin-Kee’s character that is worth checking out if you are interested in the perception of these stereotypes.
Though American Born Chinese is about Chinese-American identity, the story can be appreciated by all. We all straddle multiple cultures and wear multiple hats, and we’ve all struggled with our identities within those cultures. Yang brings humor and an element of universality to his storytelling that sets this story apart from the pack.
This fall in What’s New in YA, I‘ve been covering the Michael L. Printz award and the notion of a literary fiction genre in young adult literature. Interested in more Printz-caliber reading? Check out my review of John Corey Whaley’s stellar Alabama mystery Where Things Come Back, winner of the 2012 Printz!