Even if you’re not a fan of graphic novels and think comic books are “just for kids” (like I used to), you should still pick up a copy of Gene Luen Yang’s book, American Born Chinese. Yes, it’s geared for the YA crowd (or even younger), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant and valuable for us more “mature” readers. And it’s beautifully done.
American Born Chinese is a blend of three different stories: Jin Wang is starting a new school where he is the only Chinese American student; although the school is welcoming (perhaps too welcoming) he has to deal with the stereotypes and cultural misidentifications that, while commonplace in his life, are still never easy. Danny is an All-American Boy with a very embarrassing Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, who comes to visit every year; and every year, the visit is an unmitigated disaster, culminating in Danny’s having to transfer yet again to another school and start all over again. And in ancient China, the Monkey King has mastered many different martial arts and disciplines in an effort to make himself worthy of joining the ranks of the eternal gods in heaven. But when he is thrown out of a dinner party attended by the gods, he turns his sole focus towards making himself separate from and better than those who chose to lord themselves over him.
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All three of these stories are kept very separate from each other throughout most of the book, not intersecting until the end, which keeps the lessons that are being taught from being obvious or meted out with a heavy hand. And, wonderfully, the lessons are not the “happily ever after” kind, but the kind that makes life easier to deal with, regardless of what gets thrown your way.
While American Born Chinese is not autobiographical, author and illustrator Gene Luen Yang draws on personal experience and insight to come up with a strong yet tender story. When talking about the book, he says, “Since my own ethnic heritage is such an important part of how I understand myself, I knew I wanted to… (deal) with the Asian-American experience head-on.”
But you don’t need to take my word for how good this book is. Not only has American Born Chinese won the Michael L. Prinz Award (from the American Library Association), an Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Album (the Eisners being the highest awards given in the comic book industry), finalist for the National Book Award along with a whole slew of other prestigious awards and accolades, Mr. Yang himself was just awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant for 2016, one of the few comic book writers to be handed such an honor.
So whether or not graphic novels are your normal cup of tea, I would urge you to read American Born Chinese. In this day and age when it is so important to be aware of the diverse struggles of those around us, this book is both relatable and eye opening. Highly, highly recommended.