Book Review (American Born Chinese)

Bibliography: Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York, New York: Square Fish, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0312384487.

Plot Summary: At first, you see three unrelated tales. You have the tale of the Monkey King, a famous figure in Chinese storytelling that can’t enter a dinner party because, despite being a deity and a king, he is still a monkey. The second story is about a first generation-Chinese-American, Jin Wang, grappling with living a white-majority area and wanting to belong. The third story is about a white boy, Danny feeling his idealized life getting thrown into shambles when a foreign cousin comes to visit. These tales have more in common than the reader finds initially and as the graphic novel moves forward, the reader finds themselves horrified by the characters’ mistakes but enthused when they succeed or learn.

Critical Analysis: This is not a comfortable book. It’s not. There is a racial caricature that is its own character within the third story, and it will make American readers in particular squirm in discomfort, given the history and prevalence of anti-Asian racism the United States. This book will especially feel uncomfortable now during COVID-19 when there are hate crimes toward Asian-Americans. The caricature is even given the name of what is a pun of a racial slur, and, so, I will only refer to the character as the cousin. The graphic novel is uncomfortable, but that is what makes it an important read for adults and youth alike. It is contemporary in that it shows that the United States still needs to learn from its mistakes. It also tells children a lot on self-image in American culture. The art by Gene Luen Yang is clean lines and simple colors, with a highlight usually used to mark people’s eyes. It has a rather Sunday comics sort of feel, which seems suitable to the graphic novel as it drives that Asian-Americans are as part of the American life and culture like everybody else. Its setting is set no particular year for the most part, beyond clothes that indicate it is somewhere in the 21st century. Therefore, the art does not truly age and it will be interesting to see how readers interpret that for years to come.

As a child, Jin is told by an elderly Chinese woman, “It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” The elderly lady says no more, concentrating on her work, leaving Jin befuddled. Not too soon after that, Jin is taken to a mostly-white elementary school. From there, he faces dog-eating jokes from his peers, and the teacher tries to help but ends up making it worse, countering, “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!” This graphic novel may be meant for younger readers to learn to unpack racism, but it is also a great teaching tool for adults, namely instructors, of how not to defend a student dealing with racism.

Jin’s story is the heart of the entire graphic novel, with the Monkey King story and the story of Danny complementing it in a way I will not reveal as it is what will conclude the graphic novel. However, I will say that readers may not initially like Jin and how he treats his friend Wei-Chen, but they may still nonetheless sympathize and enjoy when he grows and develops into himself. They might also laugh and sympathize with the ways Jin tries to assimilate, such as when he decides to perm his hair to copy a popular boy’s hairstyle (“Why is his hair a broccoli?!” Wei-Chen exclaims to his girlfriend, Suzy when they find out). Readers of all ages have been through that experience of following a trend to belong, only for the whole endeavor to backfire. I remember being obsessed with straightening my Middle Eastern wavy-curly hair back in high school and having to spend much of my early twenties undoing all that heat damage.

As the Monkey King says, “You know…I would have saved myself from five hundred years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.”

My only reservation is the handling of Suzy Nakamura, one of the few other Asian characters that Jin befriends and Wei-Chen dates. She’s also the only speaking Asian American girl. In her last appearance, she talks to Jin and shares that she feels she doesn’t belong anywhere and how she felt when a classmate called her a slur. She tears up and Jin kisses her. She is upset, hits Jin, and walks off. While Wei-Chen confronts Jin and they have a fallout, she is not mentioned again. Even when Wei-Chen and Jin make up, she is never talked about again. It is a little disappointing that we do not get to hear more perspective from Suzy, especially as she can provide input on how it feels to be Asian and female and what micro- and macro-aggressions she deals in that.

That said, this is a story about accepting and embracing yourself and not choosing to let others define you. Whether the reader is Asian or not, it matters not except that maybe they will see similar struggles through these characters and see if they need to change their views of themselves.

Review Excerpt and Awards Won:

Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature (2007) (this is the first graphic novel to win this), Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults (2013), and the 2006/2007 Chinese American Librarians Association Best Book Award.

Following excerpt is from Publishers Weekly, reviewed on June 12, 2006:

“This much-anticipated, affecting story about growing up different is more than just the story of a Chinese-American childhood; it’s a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape…True to its origin as a Web comic, this story’s clear, concise lines and expert coloring are deceptively simple yet expressive. Even when Yang slips in an occasional Chinese ideogram or myth, the sentiments he’s depicting need no translation. Yang accomplishes the remarkable feat of practicing what he preaches with this book: accept who you are and you’ll already have reached out to others.”

Connections: Have readers partner up. Have the first partner and second partner draw the first partner and anything they would associate with them (if they like cats, put cats, if they are fashionable, have clothes drawn around them, etc.) Then have them show each other the pictures they drew of the first partner. They will discuss how their perceptions may differ and what will be similar, showcasing that self-image and other people’s perceptions may contrast each other. Once they are done, have the first partner and second partner draw the second partner and what they would associate with them and repeat the discussion. Another connection can be of having the readers make a comic to ask what is Suzy Nakamura doing at the end of the graphic novel and how it would fit with the canon.

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