Strange Things In American Born Chinese Novel
American Born Chinese starts out very strangely, with a tale of a Monkey King being kicked out of banquet hosted in heaven. However, the book quickly evolves into a heartwarming tale of three unrelated characters’ quest to change their outsider status. The book was written by Gene Luen Yang, and published by Square Fish Publishing. American Born Chinese has won numerous awards such as the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, and was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award. Like Persepolis, it challenges cultural stereotypes about people of other nationalities. When I was researching this book, I was excited that Amazon listed Persepolis and Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian as other selections purchased with this book. These were two of my favorite books last year, and I can now add American Born Chinese to my favorites list.
The book follows three main characters named Jin, Danny, and the Monkey King in what seems to be three very unique stories. The author switches back and forth between the three distinct main characters. However, the three stories share a common journey as each character attempts to go from an outsider to fitting into their environment. The Monkey King tries to become a superhero like figure to rule over others after an embarrassing conversation. The Monkey King’s quest for change begins when a guard tells the Monkey King, “Look. You may be a King- you may even be a deity – but you are still a monkey” and denies him entry into the dinner party in heaven. From that point on, he tries to deny his basic self by changing every monkey thing about himself. Jin is the son of Chinese immigrants and struggles to fit into his white majority school. He is short, skinny, and is friendless until another Asian student comes to his school. His story starts when he is a young boy wishing he could be a Transformer toy. A wise old woman tells him that “it’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul”. Her words are true for all three characters in the book. Jin even attempts to win over a girl at his school by changing his appearance. The third main character introduced is Danny. Danny appears to be like everyone else at his school with his blond hair and athletic skills, but suffers through his Chinese cousin’s yearly visit. He shares with a friend that his cousin’s visits have resulted in him transferring schools three different times since eighth grade. His cousin, Chin-kee, enforces every terrible Asian stereotype with his views on women, dialect, and overbearing classroom behavior. Chin-kee even pees in a student’s Coke and then says “Me Chinese, Me play joke, Me go pee-pee in his Coke” . Unlike the other Asian characters in the graphic novel, Chin-kee is drawn like an offensive Chinese stereotype with unopened eyes, buck teeth, and a long braid. All of the main characters try their best to hide their authentic self . Although the characters seem unconnected throughout the book, in the end their worlds collide. The character development is excellent despite the book being a quick read. By the end of the book, all three of the main characters have changed from seeking acceptance from others to accepting themselves.
While American Born Chinese seems to be three very different stories with three distinct settings and time periods, the Monkey King, Jin, and Danny all share a journey to try to change who they are. The Monkey King’s fable like tale set in a far away land contrasts with the modern high school setting in Danny and Jin’s world. However, they will all discover that to succeed you have to be yourself. The genre is young adult fiction and swaps between two time periods present day and early Chinese folklore. While the book is filled with humor, there is a sad undertone to the stories as the main characters struggle with racism, bullying, barriers and acceptance. The illustrations are bright and entertaining. The lesson learned is to always be true to yourself, even in the toughest times.
Yang’s style is amazing in both writing and illustrating. He is always pushing the boundary and the 4th wall which really engages the audience. On page 72, the Monkey King flies through and breaks the panel edge and goes to the next blank page as “he flew past the planets and the stars… he flew past the edges of the universe…he flew through the boundaries of reality itself.” The artwork is bright, simple, and cheery and gets the point across. Yang uses the illustrations of the characters to enhance the story especially in the sections with Danny and his cousin. The whole book is very relatable and it captures a teen life extraordinarily well. The pace was very quick. The theme of the story is to just be yourself.
I loved this book and would totally recommend it, but read it until the last page. Even though it is confusing, it will all make sense by the end of the book. If readers enjoy Chinese folklore, graphic novels, or young adult books, they should definitely read American Born Chinese. I would rate this 9/10 for theme and quality of writing. I deducted a point for the pacing and length, because I would have liked it to be longer and more in depth.
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