Review of the Day: American Born Chinese
I’ve made it my personal quest to find a children’s graphic novel that can prove to naysayers anywhere the literary possibilities of the genre. When, “American Born Chinese”, was placed merrily into my hands, however, I fairly ignorant of its potential. The name Gene Luen Yang didn’t mean anything to me. The style was not one that immediately leapt out at me. But I’m a sucker for a good graphic novel and this book had something going for it: The Monkey King. I love love love any stories, legends, picture books, what have you, that contain that most legendary of all gods and goddesses, the king of the monkeys himself. Lured in by the promise of some serious fantasy (as, I am sure, many kids who pick up this book will as well) I found a story about assimilation that is so brilliantly penned and carefully plotted that it rivals every notion of what a graphic novel can and can’t do. Do you know someone who couldn’t care less about this new format? Someone who thinks comic books can’t convey the weight and intelligence of a proper novel? Thrust “American Born Chinese” into their arms immediately, if not sooner. If I were to choose a single graphic novel to grace every library’s children’s room nationwide, you can bet that this is the puppy I’d put my faith in.
Three storylines. Three different characters. One single idea. At the heart of our first story is Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants, who just wants to fit in. He wants to date the cute blond girl in the overalls and to perm his hair. What he wants, and how far he’s willing to go to get it, is the center of the story itself. The second storyline concerns the tales of the Monkey King. Not content to be merely a monkey, the Monkey King did everything in his power to become a Great Sage, Equal of Heaven. This was all well and good until he was informed by Tze-Yo-Tzuh, creator of all existence, that he was a monkey after all. It’s not until the King can accept what he is that he is able to free himself from his own self-induced prison. The third storyline is the riskiest of the three. It plays out like a bad sitcom, with a kid named Danny and his cousin Chin-Kee. Chin-Kee is every horrible Chinese stereotype ever concocted and rolled into a single character. His story slowly continues until it becomes clear that the three different tales we’ve been reading have merged into a single narrative. And at the heart of the narrative is the idea that assimilation is a question of forfeiting your soul. A forfeit that no one should want to make.
Yang skillfully brings together all kinds of elements that relate to the idea of wanting to become someone you’re not. When we first see Jin Wang, he’s just a little kid playing with a Transformer. Jin Wang loves Transformers so much that he wants to be one when he grows up. It seems like a typical kid-like thing to say, but Yang understands the essential lure of what a Transformer was. It changed from one thing to another according to the situation. So when you see Jin and his young Chinese-American friends gathered on Saturday mornings with their Transformers to watch the tv show of the same name and then act it out, you know precisely what Yang’s saying. The book is full of small details like this that kids, even if they don’t entirely understand what is being said, will contemplate on a much deeper level.
My husband snatched up and read this book just before I was able to (he's a grapic novel fan), and he complained a little that the Monkey King storyline wasn’t in more of the book. I feel torn on the issue. On the one hand, I think that Yang has given just the right amount of weight and time to each tale in this book. On the other hand, it’s hard not to want more Monkey King. I’m kind of ashamed to say it, but the first time I ever heard of the legend was when I read, “The Sign of Qin” by L.G. Bass. After that I found other Monkey King picture books, and came to the slow realization that here was an amazing character. A trickster, but with a kind of gravity that makes him a more understandable character than your usual Pucks, Pans, and Coyotes.
The art itself is simple enough to lure in the kiddies right from the start, without ever becoming too simple or failing to convey the storyline. In the end, this book is one of the subtler discussions of race, racism, and trying to fit in. Fellow author Derek Kirk Kim is blurbed as saying, “As an Asian American, American Born Chinese is the book I’ve been waiting for all my life”. The book goes beyond just the Asian American community, though. It’s a smart witty treatise that needs to be read and understood by all kids. The best graphic novel of 2006 for children, bar none.
On shelves September 5th.