Yang, G.L. (2006). American Born Chinese. New York: First Second.
So, I recently had to reread American Born Chinese and I figured I may as well write a review this time around.
Appetizer: American Born Chinese shares the story of the Monkey King who has been excluded from a party by the other gods, Jin Wang who is having trouble adjusting to being one of the few Chinese-American student at his new school and his friendship with a "fresh off the boat" new student named Wei-Chen. AND it's the story of Danny, who seems like the typical white-American teen, who must suffer through a visit from his (intentionally) stereotypical cousin, Chin-Kee.
It's a lot of stories, my friends.
Rereading the graphic novel, I was impressed by how expertly woven the themes and images of identity, inclusion exclusion and transformation are. Lots of details all add to the overarching significance. I can see why this pretty-baby won the Printz award (and thereby made a name for graphic novels everywhere)!.
I really like how vivid Yang's illustrations are throughout the graphic novel. At the same time, his style is relatively simple, faces are made up of clear shapes, that seventh and eighth graders would be able to copy to create their own sketches (if they wished). I like how essential the images are to make meaning. It actually made it hard to pull quotes for this review, since the characters' expression really contribute to the meaning of the dialogue and narration.
For better or worse (worse!), this graphic novel did give me a flashback to grade school. At one point, Chin-Kee sings the rhyme "Me Chinese, Me play joke, Me go pee-pee in his coke" (p. 118). I can remember hearing this in grade school. From what I remember it was just a fun rhyme (I liked the pee-pee part), there was no consideration of the inherent racism. I didn't think to myself, "why this runs counter to the treat everyone with respect, we're all equal" type of messages that I heard during school. Although I probably wouldn't use this book with two many groups of middle graders, I do wish someone would have taken up this moment in the book and rhyme when I was in high school. It presents a valuable opportunity to reflect and consider the more subtle racisms that go down on the playgrounds and in the halls.
One of the chief difficulties of this graphic novel is the fact that the chapters are seemingly unrelated to one another. That's actually not the case. And it turns out that some characters are the same person, but in disguise. But there are few to no hints of this until the end of the book, when suddenly you're given this moment of "Woah, wait..." and you have to mentally go back and see if all the parts of the story still make sense together (they do! But it's a bit of mental gymnastics to get there). But some readers may not like going to all the trouble of integrating all the separate pieces into one whole.
American Born Chinese can also do an excellent job of beginning conversation on Chinese mythology, racial stereotypes, racism, Americanization, identity and on and on.
"One bright and starry night, the gods, the goddesses, the demons, and the spirits gathered in heaven for a dinner party" (p. 7).
Guard: " Look. You may be a king--you may even be a deity--but you are still a monkey" (p. 15).
"It's easy to become anything you wish...so long as you're willing to forfeit your soul" (p. 29).
Ma: "I have some exciting news! Guess who's coming to visit!"
Ma: Your cousin Chin-Kee!"
Tasty Rating: !!!!