September 19, 2010

Review - American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang / In praise of graphic novels in the library

Recently, my Materials for Youth class read and discussed Printz Award winners. I had already read Going Bovine by Libba Bray for my YA Literature Class this summer, and I've read Looking for Alaska by John Green for fun. After looking over the list of other books to choose from, I decided to pick up American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang because it looked really interesting. I'm glad I did! Here's the plot summary from Goodreads:

"A tour-de-force by rising indy comics star Gene Yang, American Born Chinese tells the story of three apparently unrelated characters: Jin Wang, who moves to a new neighborhood with his family only to discover that he’s the only Chinese-American student at his new school; the powerful Monkey King, subject of one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables; and Chin-Kee, a personification of the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, who is ruining his cousin Danny’s life with his yearly visits. Their lives and stories come together with an unexpected twist in this action-packed modern fable. American Born Chinese is an amazing ride, all the way up to the astonishing climax."

Here were my thoughts that I shared on my class's discussion forum (with references at the end):

This was an enjoyable and visually engaging read which also made me think deeply about cultural identity. The Monkey King, Jin Wang, and Danny are all humiliated by other people's prejudices while they search for their identity and fear exclusion. The characters undergo transformations in the wrong direction before finally learning to accept who they truly are.

In a book review for MELUS, Binbin Fu describes that historically, graphic novels have been "more damaging than uplifting to the Asian American communities," and asserts that Yang's graphic novel "might have just changed the tide in a significant way" (274).  Negative portrayals can create positive learning experiences. While some readers may find the character of Chin-Kee offensive at first glance, it is important to look at the book as a whole to see how the characters grow and reject cultural stereotypes.

In 2007, American Born Chinese became the first graphic novel to be recognized by the Printz committee. Yang did an incredible job of weaving together three narratives and reimagining a mythological character. I can certainly see why he won the award for literary excellence. I think the fact that it won the Printz is significant because it shows that graphic novels for young adults are beginning to gain recognition for their high quality, not just their popularity. Also, 2007 was the same year that YALSA started putting out a list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens.

As Jud points out in an article from Knowledge Quest, there are some people in the schools who wish to keep graphic novels off the shelves, deeming them "inappropriate" or not "real reading" (31). However, it is important to remember that graphic novels may appeal to reluctant readers or visual learners ("Graphic Novels and Reading"). As American Born Chinese proves, graphic novels can demonstrate literary excellence and focus on themes such as "ethnic self-acceptance and empowerment" (Fu, 275). Librarians should include graphic novels in their collection development policies and be prepared to defend them.

Rating: 4/5 


Fu, Binbin. (2007). American Born Chinese. MELUS, 32, (3), 274-276. Retrieved September 6, 2010 from Academic Search Premier.

Graphic novels and reading. University at Buffalo Libraries. Retrieved September 6, 2010 from


Katie said...

That's so funny that we both posted this book on the same day! I have been trying to get the teachers of the multicultural lit class to adopt this book into their curriculum, but so far... no luck. They seemed pretty confused that I was suggesting a "comic book" in the first place. Now I'm on a mini-mission to get my school to recognize the importance and relevance of graphic novels.

Super said...

I'll admit that when I was a teacher, I didn't have much knowledge of graphic novels either. I thought they were just comics that probably didn't have much literary merit. It's definitely a good idea to educate your coworkers about how great graphic novels can be! There's tons of research out there about how they can be effective in the classroom.

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