Book: Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: First Second, 2006.
Genre: Fantasy/Graphic Novel
Audience: Grades 10-12
Read Aloud: A.B.C. it’s easy as 1-2-3
Summary: A.B.C. is about three seemingly unrelated stories about the Monkey King, an Asian American boy named Jin, and an American kid named Danny with an annoying Asian cousin. Although Jin is an American, he has a hard time fitting in at school due to his peers believing in negative stereotypes. He does everything he can to fit in, but eventually he assimilates into American culture by not only changing his identity, but also his name. As Danny, Jin is seen as popular and has no problem making friends, however, when Chin-Kee (asian cousin) comes to visit, he reminds “Danny” of who he really is. The Monkey King wants to fit in with the gods and changes his form to fit in: it didn’t work and he was still considered a monkey by the deities. Once he changed back into a monkey, he realized it was better to be himself instead.
Exploration of ethnic identity: In all three stories, there is a struggle with the concept of being Asian, whether the character is embracing their heritage or trying to tolerate it. Chin-Kee has no problem with his ethnicity, and although he reflects every negative Asian stereotype that exists, he still remains true to himself. Danny is ashamed of Chin-Kee, but in the end we realize it’s because he is also Asian but he has put a lot work into assimilating into the American culture.
Self Image: Although this novel is largely about ethnicity, the characters also experience feelings of dissatisfaction with their physical image in general. Jin first has a problem with his identity because he believes the girl he likes is into someone else, someone who looks more American. He first perms his hair, then ends up with an entire Caucasian identity (Danny). The Monkey King is discouraged after the gods throw him out of a dinner party because he is a monkey. Instead of going back to his mountain and doing his own thing, he goes into isolation and masters various disciplines that help him change his body form.
Discrimination: When new children enter Jin’s school, they are picked on for being racially different rather than for being a new kid. The teachers assume he and Wei Chen are from China (although Jin was born in the U.S.) and one student comments that Jin eats dogs. They are picked on, well into high school, and Jin is even asked not to date one of his peers because “she has to start paying attention to who she hangs out with,” (Yang 179).
Connections: This book could be used in classes to discuss prejudice in our society and how people are still discriminated against based on their place of origin. Some people pretend that we are living in a post racist society when the fact of the matter is that we don’t. Yang’s novel shows that discrimination is present everywhere, even in our classrooms. It also shows that everyone is aware of the stereotypes and no matter how old a person is, they still may play into them. Besides telling a humorous tale of self acceptance (or lack thereof) in America’s modern day society, the novel also provides rich, cultural references that would allow the teacher to give a few, brief, history lessons about acts of prejudice (against Asians and others).
Reactions: I liked this book a lot! While I love graphic novels because they mainly provide a quick read, this novel is very entertaining. The characters were very well developed and it was easy to understand why they made the decisions they made; the story did not leave me inferring about anything. I especially enjoyed this novel because many authors try to cover the topic of self acceptance in a “different” environment, but Yang has had the most unique approach. He uses a lot of fantastical qualities in the novel, but at the same time, he ties them together with the opposing realistic qualities which make for a beautiful and exciting read.
Reception: The critics at Publishers Weekly found the book to be a great read. They deliver a small summary of the book and finds Yang’s writing and colors to be very concise and expressive. While the book does deliver the coming of age story of one Asian-American boy, Publisher’s Weekly believe “it’s a fable for every kid born into a body and a life they wished they could escape”.
Jesse Karp believes Yang’s novel is excellent! They give a brief summary of the piece before discussing the “clever” and sophisticated way in which he handles the weaving of the three stories into one. Karp finds the novel humorous and believes Yang’s work proves him to be an accomplished author. The critic ends his post by stating, “The stories have a simple, engaging sweep to them, but their weighty subjects receive thoughtful, powerful examination.