American Born Chinese (by Gene Luen Yang)

15 10 2012

When a Graphic Novel manages to win a Printz award, as Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese did in 2007, it comes with a definite anticipatory feeling of excellence and long-lasting merit.  The same year, not only Zusak’s The Book Thief was an Honor Book, but also this book and this book (and also Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender, but the cat hasn’t read that one)! So anything that manages to “win” over those aforementioned books must be something else entirely.

And something else entirely it is: it’s a graphic novel. So in terms of ‘format’ it is definitely something else. It’s also not hard to see what the appeal is of American Born Chinese. Whenever a book includes the discussion of social and/or cultural identity and heritage, it is bound to attract the attention of committees such as that of the Printz Award. The concept of “identity” is a big issue in literature, YA or otherwise. Some of cat’s most beloved (YA) books touch upon the concept of finding and/or pursuing identity in one way or another: Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Going Bovine, Punkzilla, Octavian Nothing, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian…  So I guess, the main question for the cat is, looking beyond the fact that American Born Chinese is a Graphic Novel, is it equal to – or does it even surpass – novels that deal with the same ‘topic’? To that question, the cat would have to say no, but not because it’s a bad book or anything, just because there just aren’t that many books that are better (for the cat) than Vera Dietz or Going Bovine. Just a gut thing.

Which doesn’t mean the cat didn’t like it, because she did. To get to the core of American Born Chinese, and understand the conflict of the main character(s) of being caught between cultures (the Chinese culture of his parents and the American culture of his homeland) and finding your way to cultural and personal identity, it was advisory to get more background information about The Monkey King. Oversimplifying things, The Monkey King is a tale of transformation.  And a tale of transformation is – you guessed it – the universal tale of, well, mankind. In American Born Chinese, mankind, is not what we’re dealing with, of course, but we’re dealing a kid who doesn’t know who he is. Again, oversimplifying things, it’s one thing to be a kid growing up into a teen and then into an adult (and that in itself is a complicated and often messy affair), but it’s possibly even more complicated to do that when your family and cultural history is not the same history as everyone else’s history around you. The universal questions of ‘where do I really belong’, ‘who am I really’, ‘who do I want to be’ are all referred to here, which is why American Born Chinese will appeal to such a broad audience.

Does American Born Chinese have long-lasting merit? Yes, I’m sure it does. It will appeal to reluctant readers (always a great thing!) and it will definitely appeal to teens who have had the same (immigrant) experience (whether the heritage they have to refer to is Chinese or not). The cat recognizes all that, but she wasn’t as blown away by this tale of being caught between cultures as she was with for instance Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

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