My friend Ariel has this knack for recommending books I end up enjoying immensely, so when she recommended Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese through e-mail, I bought it on Amazon blind. And when the book came in this evening, I sat down and read the whole thing cover to cover.
First thing first: the book is targeted towards “young adults” — it won a Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, and it’s a very quick read for that reason; those of you that are expecting a version of “My Dinner with Andre” in comic book quotes will probably be more comfortable with something like Derek Kirk Kim’s Same Difference. (Which I also totally recommend, by the way.)
All of that said, it’s a very good graphic novel. American Born Chinese consists of three seemingly non-tangential stories: a tale about the Monkey King, a story involving a Chinese American teenager adjusting in an all-white school, and a faux-sitcom-with-laugh-track plot line involving a white guy and his stereotype Asian cousin named Chin-Kee. The three stories touch on topics that we’ve all been through growing up and still go through as adults: the desperate feeling of wanting to fit in somewhere, racism, both subtle and overt, one-way crushes that make you want to stab your face with an icepick. (And a out-of-the-blue one-panel reference to Western Christianity, but that’s kind of a spoiler of sorts. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.)
Because it’s a graphic novel, the plot lines of the three stories tie together neatly at the end, and because it won an award in Young Adult Literature, you can expect healthy doses of self-identity exploration, and the resonating theme that it’s okay to be yourself, whether monkey or Chinese American. That said, I wholly recommend the book for any adult who can appreciate a good story in comic book format, and I certainly recommend the book for Asian Americans, as this book certainly resonated with me.
You can buy the book at Amazon, or you can read a short sample of the book as well as get the artist’s renditions of the story — kind of a DVD commentary of sorts, except on a blog and about the graphic novel.