American Born Chinese--Gene Luen Yang
September 2006 by First Second
A tour-de-force by rising indy comics star Gene Yang, American Born Chinese tells the story of three apparently unrelated characters: Jin Wang, who moves to a new neighborhood with his family only to discover that he’s the only Chinese-American student at his new school; the powerful Monkey King, subject of one of the oldest and greatest Chinese fables; and Chin-Kee, a personification of the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype, who is ruining his cousin Danny’s life with his yearly visits. Their lives and stories come together with an unexpected twist in this action-packed modern fable. American Born Chinese is an amazing ride, all the way up to the astonishing climax.
This was my second try with graphic novels, and this time it turned out quite well. Balancing the themes of identity, isolation, assimilation, and friendship, Yang's graphic novel is split between three seemingly unrelated stories that come together in the end.
What I loved most about the book was that this is not a story just for Chinese Americans or even just for recent immigrants. Danny's and Jin's and even the Monkey King's stories are relate-to-able to anyone who has ever felt like they didn't fit in, which is pretty much everyone. The whole point of the book is to be what you are, but that theme is not presented like a preachy self-confidence lesson. The novel recognizes how hard it is to be yourself when yourself doesn't fit in. It acknowledges that some people are and will always be jerks. It captures awkward and sometimes rocky teenage friendships in such a way that we can all see something reflected from ourselves.
Yang's illustration style is a bit more comic-book-like than I am used to. The characters are drawn with rounded edges, and the whole book uses a bright color palate. However, the illustrations are deep in their simplicity. They say a lot with few or no words.
A few minor complaints. I was annoyed by the body humor (fart jokes and the like), but the book is about teenage boys. You can't teach Jr. High kids a lesson on onomatopoeia without "fart" and "burp" causing giggles. Also, I think the Monkey King's reversal was too swift; we aren't prepared for his complete change in his personality. I can see why it happened, given the ending, but I would have liked a bit more development in his change.
This book can be enjoyed on many different levels. Some readers will pick up American Born Chines expecting a light, easy read, and I think they'll be surprised at how deep it is. I liked it. I can see why it won the Printz.