*THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE*
American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang is a Young Adult Graphic Novel that follows three seemingly unrelated story lines that intersect in an interesting way near the conclusion of the story. The stories are not told back-to-back, instead they are broken up into various chapters, where each chapter contains a portion of each story. One story follows the main character Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy who goes to a school where he is picked on. All Jin wants is to fit in at this school where he is the only Chinese-American student. The second story is a retelling of a Chinese fable of the Monkey King. Although the Monkey King is the ruler of all monkeys and a master of kung-fu, he wants to be recognized as a god and not a mere monkey. Lastly, there is the story of Danny. He is a basketball star and he’s popular but every year he is forced to switch schools when his ‘very Chinese’ cousin Chin-Kee comes to visit.
Although this book is technically young adult it could easily be enjoyed and digested by an older middle-grade reader. The theme and concept of ‘true-identity’ runs through the entire story. Overall, my favorite of the three stories contained in this book was that of the Monkey King. To me, this story also happens to be the one that best portrays the importance of accepting oneself and being true to your self.
Gene Luen Yang does an outstanding job of not only exploring how we self-identify, but also cultural identity. Although, if you dig deeply you will realize that cultural identity can be seen in the story of the Monkey King, if you swap out race (Chinese/Caucasian) for the idea of being a god/monkey, it is most apparent in Jin’s story as Jin desperately wants to culturally fit in. There is a scene within the first few chapters of this book where Wei-Chen, a new student who has immigrated from Taiwan approaches Jin and Jin’s first comment to him is “You’re in America. Speak English”. This is slightly heartbreaking as you can clearly see Jin’s ‘cultural self shaming’ (for a lack of a better term…I decided to make one up!) and embarrassment to potentially be overheard understanding/speaking in a language other than English at school.
American Born Chinese, wholeheartedly and without a doubt deserves 9, of the shiniest and brightest, unicorn horns! This is a book that I would suggest that any adult who has a child/young adult in their life should buy for said young human. It is amazing to see Asian, and more specifically Chinese-American representation that is honest. The book is an important read, not only for readers who can culturally/racially identify with the main characters and plot points, but for all young humans (and unicorns alike) who are growing up/grew up racially ‘othered’.