Friday, March 25, 2011

Review: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

In American Born Chinese three tales are woven together, contributing to one overarching theme. Unlike a traditional short story collection, in which a story can be read at random, Yang’s short story cycle works best when the tales are read chronologically. Each story builds on the last story’s theme or lesson. Yang uses three characters to explore the construction of identity.

Opening the cycle is the Chinese folktale of The Monkey King. Yang’s adaptation of this “journey to the west” myth is hilarious and surprising. The Monkey King works hard mastering Kung Fu and wants to be recognized as an equal among other deities. Alas, his superiors are not impressed and The Monkey King undergoes many trials before realizing who he is and who he wants to be. The second story introduces Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants, living in California and combating stereotypes as he tries to fit in, make friends and woo an all-American girl at high school. Chin-Kee visits his cousin Danny every year. Danny is horrified to be seen with Chin-Kee who exhibits extremely stereotypical Chinese behaviors.

Adaptation is a major theme connecting each story. The characters realize they must adapt to the culture already established. Each character struggles to adapt while deciding whether or not to embrace his own cultural heritage. Eventually, they take control of their identity but not before making a few mistakes. The text explores what it means to be a nation of immigrants and how the American identity is continuously forged. The three tales are linked in a surprising way which is slowly revealed.

When reading a short story the reader must look for information left off the page. Similarly, graphic novel readers must interpret the narrative when the full story is not supplied in text. In other words, you can’t skip over the pictures without losing significant parts of the narrative. This is true of American Born Chinese. The words and pictures complement each other. American Born Chinese leans heavily on its comic roots. Yang uses onomatopoeia with words like “SMACK” and “WHUMP” creating a fun sensorial reading experience.

Yang manages to bring humor and tenderness to a serious subject. While the format is sure to draw reluctant readers I would not hesitate to hand American Born Chinese to any teen reader. It has a little something for everyone.  Yang speaks about A.B.C. in the video found below!

Publisher: First Second, 2006     Pages: 233   
Rating: 4 Stars     Source: IC Public Library
This text counts towards the POC Reading Challenge!


  1. I can't believe I still haven't read this book! This summer for sure. Gotta love when authors use humor to address a sensitive topic. It's interesting that you mention the fact that you must pay attention to the graphics. I've read some graphic novels in which the graphics enhance the book certainly, but you might not miss anything if you don't look at them. I like that in this book the cartoons are vital to the story.

    Great review!

  2. American Born Chinese is like nothing else I've ever read! Yes, it's somewhat unique in that it's a graphic novel, but more than that, the story is just so out of the "typical" realm of YA. I can't say it's a favorite of mine, but I can certainly appreciate it for it's blend of truth and humor. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. I really enjoyed "American Born Chinese". I loved how each of the stories were connected and brought the theme of identity and stereotypes forward. Great review!