Earlier this month, I created a summer reading list that would allow me to explore topics such as racism and discrimination through academic and non-academic works including young adult books and graphic novels. Last week, I decided to kick-off my summer reading with the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006). This work was a 2006 National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature, a 2007 Bank Street Best Children’s Book of the Year, and a New York Times bestseller.
American Born Chinese tells the stories of Jin Wang, a young boy who moves to a new neighborhood with his family and soon realizes that he is the only Chinese-American student at his new school; the Monkey King and his struggle to be a god and not a monkey; and Chin-Kee, who Yang imbues with Chinese stereotypes that are embarrassing to Chin-Kee’s cousin Danny.
Yang begins by introducing the reader to each of these characters individually, and then weaves their stories together in unexpected and interesting ways. Throughout the text, Yang is constantly tackling important life lessons about identify formation and the negative repercussions of bullying and stereotyping. Although this graphic novel is geared toward younger readers, I could easily envision a high school course, or even an entry-level undergraduate course, using this text to teach about migration, discrimination, and racism. Within the first few pages, I empathized with Jin, and felt sadness for the teasing and bullying he faced on a daily basis. As Sherry Turkle discusses in her recent work, Reclaiming Conversation, learning empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly difficult for children growing up in our screen-dominated culture. Books such as American Born Chinese that help young readers develop this crucial skill are needed now more than ever.
I have only read a handful of graphic novels in my lifetime, but American Born Chinese has certainly left me curious about this genre and the power of authors to convey empathy and explore important social and cultural questions through this medium. Yang does an excellent job of developing characters and keeping the reader engaged throughout the novel. The illustrations, which are all in color, actually add a great deal of depth to the story. I had not expected the images to be so powerful, but I enjoyed having them in the text. Overall, this graphic novel was a great read and I’m looking forward to exploring this genre more in the future.
On to the next book!