Saturday, April 23, 2011

American Born Chinese

"From then on, she became a tangible presence in my life. Whenever she entered the room I was aware of her, even if I wasn't looking directly at her. I would lie awake late at night analyzing my feelings for her. She wasn't exceptionally beautiful and she spoke with a slight lisp. But when she smiled..."

Title: American Born Chinese

Author: Gene Luen Yang


Publisher: First Second

Copyright: 2006

Plot Summary: American Born Chinese is a set of three short stories, centering around the Monkey King in Heaven, a boy named Jin, and an American boy and his cousin Chin-Kee. While seemingly unrelated, the three short stories have common themes and their plots become intertwined by the end of the collection. The Monkey King in Heaven rules the monkeys and trains himself in the martial arts, becoming a Divine Being by skill if not by appearance. When the other Divinities call him a common Monkey, he is enraged and defeats them all. Soon, after more training, the Monkey King perfects his ability to transform into a more human-like being. Jin is a second generation Chinese boy who does not relate to his Chinese heritage and tries to avoid befriending a "fresh-off-the-boat" new student from China. Jin's sudden crush on a girl in his class leads him to start changing his physical appearance as he believes she is attracted to an American boy. Chin-Kee and his American cousin Danny's short story centers around Danny's complete embarrassment over his cousin Chin-Kee, who is the worst version of a Chinese stereotype ever, both in speech, appearance, and behavior.

Critical Evaluation: American Born Chinese uses the format of a graphic novel to its greatest strength by covering the theme of self acceptance, whether of physical appearance as the Monkey King disliking his monkey form, Jin and him perming his hair to appear more American, or Danny who cannot tolerate his cousin's behavior and becomes ashamed of him to the point of hatred. This common theme was easily depicted through Jin's change in hair and the Monkey King's transformation into his more human, upright form, the description of which could have been awkward or felt forced if described in prose. The main protagonists were all sympathetic including the Divine Monkey King whose powers may have incited awe but his insecurity in himself that caused him to lash out at the other Divinities is familiar to many readers. The plot twist at the end of American Born Chinese was unpredictable but worked extremely well, tying in together the three very different stories. Instead of writing a "happily ever after" epilogue, Gene Luen Yang ends with a single panel that sums it up succinctly through showing the reader without even including descriptive prose or dialog.

Reader's Annotation: The Monkey King, a second-generation Chinese boy named Jin, and an American boy named Danny with a horribly stereotypical Chinese cousin Chin-Kee all have their own seemingly unrelated stories and lives. But when they cannot accept themselves for who they are, their stories all come together.

Information About the Author: Gene Luen Yang has been publishing graphic novels since 1996 and has won multiple awards for his work. His other popular titles are Gordon Yamamoto: King of the Geeks, which was awarded the Xeric Grant, and The Eternal Smile.
Yang's newest upcoming project is another graphic novel called Level Up, which is due out in June of this year. Read more about the author/artist at his website.

Genre: Graphic Novel; Asian Americans; Cultural Identity

Curriculum Ties: Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month

Booktalking Ideas:
  • How does the format of the graphic novel impact and change the storytelling technique that Gene Luen Yang uses for his three stories? Do you believe that it could have been told in another manner without losing any of the impact of the story, especially near the end?
  • How do the three protagonists differ from each other and how are they similar? How is the theme of self-acceptance reinforced by the fact that they are so different and yet none of them can accept how they are?
Reading Level: 15+

Challenge Issues N/A

Why This Book?: Michael L. Printz Award Winner

Reference Page:
Yang, G. L. (2006). American Born Chinese. New York: First Second.

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