Book Review: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

abcFirst published on 1st April, 2007 in StarMag 


By Gene Luen Yang

Publisher: First Second, 240 pages

I SPENT an hour yesterday laughing out loud over Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. The book just won the Michael L. Printz Award, which is awarded for excellence in young adult literature. It’s the first time a graphic novel has won this prize (the book was also nominated for the National Book Award’s Young People’s Literature prize). Fans of the format are, I’m sure, over the moon, as this is surely a huge step towards graphic novels being valued, celebrated and promoted as worthy of a teenager’s time, money and attention.

Of course, most children and teens have no doubt that comics are cool. It’s their parents and teachers who have reservations about them. (Comic books are not allowed in school and will be confiscated if found in bags during spot checks!)In the States, Britain, Australia and even Singapore, comics and graphic novels are being given much-deserved shelf space in libraries, and long overdue recognition by librarians and educators. However, there are still those who are dismissive about this medium of storytelling, seeing it as inferior to “real” books.

In Malaysia, most of our teachers and librarians still have negative opinions about graphic novels. They are seen as “rubbish”, “uneducational”, “violent”, “immoral”. There are graphic novels which are just those things. There are also “real” books that could be described thus. The term graphic novel/comic (I use it interchangeably) refers to a format. Within this format there are many genres. So, not all comics are violent and not all are pornographic. And not all are just for kids.

In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s comic book about the Jewish Holocaust, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, won a Pulitzer Prize special award for literature.

It’s just one of many graphic novels that tell stories as powerfully, compellingly and creatively as any Booker Prize-winning novel.

Gene Luen Yang (Picture credit: Sherry LaVars/Contra Costa Times)

Yang’s American Born Chinese is a funny and sensitive portrayal of a young boy’s struggle to come terms with who he is. You don’t need to be an American-Chinese, an immigrant, or belong to any kind of ethnic minority group to appreciate the story or relate to the main protagonist, Jin Wang. We’ve all had moments of self-doubt. And most of us have struggled with peer pressure.

Two other stories run alongside Jin Yang’s: The fable of the Monkey King and a kind of comic farce in which an American boy becomes a social outcast when his Chinese cousin, Chin Kee, comes to town! All three tales merge, surprisingly and cleverly, if somewhat abruptly, in the end.

I’m one of those people who gets a headache when they read manga (scoff all you want) because of the (I’ll call it) excessive action on the page: panels of different sizes, no clear sequence to the narrative, speech and thought bubbles everywhere, graphics that burst out of their boxes, etc, etc. Yang’s book didn’t give my head a single twinge. It’s so … neat: Clean artwork with simple lines and just enough colour (not too gaudy, not too dull); orderly arrangement of panels, with nice white spaces between each of them (no feelings of claustrophobia, yay!); and conversations that you can follow because the speech bubbles aren’t placed in arty (read: annoying) angles. (This may be a good graphic novel for comics virgin to start with!)

Parents, teachers and librarians, reading graphic novels will not ruin your child’s chances of scoring 13As for his SPM. In fact, comics can be used to turn reluctant readers on to books.

Many children are turned off by huge blocks of text in books. All those words can be very intimidating and so comics solve that problem right away by presenting less text and in smaller, manageable chunks (bite-size servings, so to speak, of narrative and dialogue) to children. And if language is a  problem, the pictures help kids figure out what’s going on.

Booklist, the American Library Association’s publication, recently announced its 2007 Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youths. American Born Chinese is on the list and, guess what, so is Kampung Boy by our very own Lat.

The American Library Association’s 2007 Top 10 Graphic Novels for Youths:

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (Roaring Brook/First Second)

Bumperboy and the Loud, Loud Mountain by Debbie Huey (AdHouse)

Castle Waiting by Linda Medley (Fantagraphics)

Girl Stories by Lauren Weinstein (Holt)

Kampung Boy by Lat (Roaring Brook/First Second)

Kristy’s Great Idea (Babysitters Club Series) by Ann M. Martin and Raina Telgemeier (Scholastic/Graphix)

Missouri Boy by Leland Myrick (Roaring Brook/First Second)

Oddly Normal Vol. 1 by Otis Frampton (Viper)

The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea by Anne Sibley O’Brien (Charlesbridge)

To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel (Simon & Schuster/Richard  Jackson

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