American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang
Even if you’re not a fan of graphic novels and even if you 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. Just because it’s geared for the YA crowd, doesn’t negate its relevance for more “mature” readers.
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 still must deal with the stereotypes and cultural misidentifications that, while for him are commonplace, are never easy. Then there’s Danny, an All American Boy with a very embarrassing Chinese cousin. Chin-Kee comes to visit every year; and every year that visit is an unmitigated disaster, culminating in Danny’s having to transfer yet again to another school and start all over. And finally, in ancient China, the Monkey King masters many different martial arts disciplines in order to make himself worthy of joining the ranks of the eternal gods in heaven. But when he is rebuffed, his sole focus turns towards making himself not just separate from but better than those who deign to lord themselves over him.
All three of these stories are kept separate from each other throughout most of the book, intersecting only at the end, keeping the lessons that are being taught from being too obvious or meted out with too heavy a hand. And, wonderfully, the lessons are not the “happily ever after” kind, but instead the kind that makes life easier to deal with, regardless of what gets thrown your way.
While American Born Chinese is not autobiographical, author/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 awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2016, one of the few comic book writers ever to be handed such an honor.
Plus, less than a week ago it was announced that Disney+ has given a straight-to-series development order for American Born Chinese, with Destin Daniel Cretton – who was at the helm of Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – tapped as executive producer and director of this very exciting television venture.
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.