American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Image from IndieBound, where you can purchase your own copy.

I chose and read this book for the long-distance book club Mom and I do with my sister. It had been on my list for a few years out of an interest in reading more graphic novels that “proved” the genre’s literary merit. And I loved ABC and have been thinking about it ever since our discussion. I’ve decided to include some of the points from our discussion in this review to show some of the reasons why I love ABC and why it works.

The story structure is intricate, but easy to follow.

The graphic novel is the (somewhat autobiographical) story of Jin Wang, an American Born Chinese (roll credits) trying to fit in to his school where he is the only Chinese American student. This story is also weaved with two seemingly unrelated tales: the fable of the Monkey King, the most powerful monkey in the world who wants to be recognized as a god, and the sitcom-like story of Chin Kee, the culmination of all the terrible Chinese stereotypes who constantly follows his cousin Danny and finds ways to ruin his life. But in true, masterful fashion, these three tales come together in a cohesive and powerful ending. The three storylines are separate enough that I never felt confused what happened to which characters. The illustrations worked as an effective tool in both distinguishing the stories apart but also drawing the three characters at the end. I never felt like Yang pulled the ending out of nowhere, because the visual aspects served as connections from story to story. Essentially, the story is simple enough to keep straight and serve the intended YA audience, yet interesting enough to keep me occupied with the way Yang structured the story.

It’s short, but powerful.

It’s a really quick read. It’s about 240 pages, but most of those pages are illustrated, with small bubbles of text. Its brevity was a selling point for our book group, especially considering we had three schedules across three timezones to work around. But I never felt like the story itself fell short. Each story felt well-developed, but never too stretched or padded. And I love the way Yang and other graphic novelists balance textual details with visual ones; both contribute to the story and help create believable characters and the world around them.

It also deals with a heavy topic that never felt heavy-handed. Any art form that wrestles with racism is going to inevitably deal with difficult topics, and I never felt like Yang shied away from the difficult questions. As a person who has never faced racism, implicit or explicit, the graphic novel was a look into how many people of color (specifically Asian Americans) experience day-to-day life. Yang combines many of the stereotypes we hold about the Chinese into one cringe-inducing character, which forces us to confront our assumptions and the damage they have head on. The power of the novel isn’t in just shaming American prejudice, but rather helping readers understand how it is hurtful and how to begin to approach these kinds of topics (learning about racism and learning from other cultures is a first step). Yang also presents the tension many immigrants face of assimilating into American culture while staying true to their heritage, but doesn’t provide an answer, merely suggesting that there is no one way to engage simultaneously with cultures, but that there is something to be gained and lost in each approach. His combination of contemporary coming-of-age stories and traditional Chinese folklore demonstrate the value in knowing stories about our past and learning from fables of other countries.

It’s just a joy to read.

Again, this is all done masterfully. There are moments where I laughed out loud or felt the anxiety of a school-age crush or even just lost myself in the story. Yang is a quick, snappy writer with clean, polished illustrations as an accompaniment. I reread ABC 1) because it was easy to and 2) because I wanted to make sure I soaked up all of the details.

I give American Born Chinese the full five stars, which is my way to saying, “Everyone needs to read this book.” It’s simple, a great introduction to graphic novels, and a way to begin discussions about racism in a accessible way, all delivered in under 300 pages.

What do you think about graphic novels? Do you consider them to be literature? Have you read any books that made you reconsider something about race? What’s a great immigrant story you’ve read? Let me know in the comments!


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