Monday, February 9, 2009

American-born Chinese--Gene Luen Yang (book review)

Graphic novelist Gene Yang describes his book American Born Chinese as three stories in one: a realistic portrayal of a Chinese American boy growing up in a predominantly white suburb, a series of stories based on a Chinese Monkey King legend, and "a sit-com starring everybody's favorite racial stereotype, Cousin Chin-Kee." The three stories blend together and play off each other to make one of the funniest and most meaningful graphic novels I've read.

I didn't expect to like the Monkey King sequences as much--generally I go for the realism--but Yang is one of those geniuses when it comes to facial expressions and body language, and the Monkey King himself is, dare I say it? Adorable. Here he is, in all his glory, in the days before his confidence is crushed when he tries to fit in with the other deities.

The way the Monkey King story ties into the Chin-Kee story at the end was a total surprise to me. I loved it.

My older son read this as well, and the Monkey King sections were his favorite part. He thought the walking stereotype Chin-Kee was "just weird,"--at 12, he understands stereotyping but hadn't been exposed to this one enough to appreciate its portrayal in the novel. And, as a young white boy, I think a lot of the nuances of Chin-Kee's American cousin Danny's story went over his head as well.

In addition to a comic artist, Yang is a high school teacher and a dad, and his connection to kids and teens is easy to see. His website is Humble Comics. I'll definitely be seeking out more of his work.

The Soundtrack: I almost gave up, after an hour and a half last night searching for the music I wanted, with nothing to show for it but an annoyed husband. Do you know how hard it is to find a Chinese American musician on, who isn't (a) a rapper whose lyrics offend me (there were more than one of those to choose from, and I'm not quick to be offended). (b) an R&B singer who I can't bear to listen to for a full song (it's not his fault: even eclectic taste has its boundaries). (c) a female singer (not the right voice for this book) (d) Yo-Yo Ma--though I found a gorgeous version of Gabriel's Oboe by him, it's also not the right "voice" for this book.

What I finally found is perfect, and it's worth it to see this young Chinese American man rocking out with his erhu. Jack Hsu wanted to play progressive instrumental rock with the traditional Chinese instrument, so he formed his own band, Hsu-nami. Way to embrace your heritage, Jack. You're an inspiration.

American Born Chinese is also reviewed by Nymeth.


  1. I enjoyed this too, but find graphic novels too expensive in general.

  2. Yep, I'm a library girl, myself, when it comes to graphic novels.

  3. "Yang is one of those geniuses when it comes to facial expressions and body language."

    He is! I loved it too.

  4. I'll have to show this to Daniel - it seems like something he'd really like. Maybe we can read it together :)

  5. I'm so excited...I have this book checked out from the library right now. If I enjoy it even half as much as I did that song, I'm in for a treat!

  6. Nymeth, isn't it so true? My favorite thing about graphic novels is the occasional wordless panel that's all about the character's face reacting to something.

    Lenore, I can see Daniel's artistic style working well in a graphic novel, is that something that interests him?

    Debi, Thank you for saying so. Sometimes I work as hard on that little musical piece as on the whole rest of the review, and it's so worth it when I hear it's appreciated. Can't wait to read what you think of the book!

  7. Read this. Enjoyed

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