In his graphic young adult novel, American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang tells three unique stories with three unique protagonists but each story shares a single message: Be yourself. To make his point crystal clear, Yang brings together various elements, including illustrations, to highlight the idea of wanting to become someone you’re not just for the sake of fitting in.
The first story is about the Monkey King who was “a deity in his own right” and “monkeys from the four corners of the world flocked to him” but when he is refused admission to a dinner party outside his kingdom for not wearing shoes (a human trait), he loses his mind, kills everyone at the party and decides he no longer wants to be a monkey. Angry and embarrassed, he goes to great lengths to become the Great Sage Equal of Heaven instead. As the story unfolds, as punishment for what he did, the Monkey King is inevitably banished by Tze-Yo-Tzuh, creator of all existence, and forced to live under a mountain of rock. He eventually realizes the only way to free himself from his self-induced prison is to embrace who he is and accept being a monkey.
The second story is about Jin Wang, the son of Chinese immigrants, who just wants to fit in and is willing to go to great lengths to do so. Even as a young boy, when the herbalist’s wife asks him what he wants to be when he grows up, he says he wants to be a Transformer, a kid’s toy that is symbolic to the story. The old woman replies, “It’s easy to become anything you wish so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” When Jin enters middle school and notices the cute blond, Amelia Harris, from that point on Jin transforms himself hoping she’ll fall in love with him. He even dyes and perms his hair to look more like Amelia’s (platonic) male friend in an attempt to win her over. That’s ironic not only because Amelia and the boy were just friends but later the boy makes it clear that he looks down on Jin when he asks him to stop dating Amelia for the sake of her reputation. Basically Jin started out disliking himself and being ashamed of his culture and he transformed himself into someone who also disliked him and his culture.
The third story brings the other two stories together. It features a white kid named Danny and his Chinese “cousin” Chin-Kee. Not only is Chin-Kee’s name a racist slang term but Chin-Kee, the character, is the epitome of every Chinese stereotype. Danny is embarrassed of Chin-Kee and tries to get rid of him but Chin-Kee refuses to leave and turns out to be stronger physically and spiritually. As this story progresses, we learn that Danny is the transformed version of Jin Wang from story #2 and we learn that Chin-Kee is the Monkey King from story #1. We also learn that Jin Wang’s friend Wei-Chen is in fact the Monkey King’s son being tested in human form. On page 217, the Monkey King even gives his son a Transformer toy and says “Let it remind you of who you are.” As this tale progresses Wei-Chen turns his back on his culture, too. And in the end it becomes Jin Wan’s responsibility to find Wei-Chen so each can embrace who they really are.
American Born Chinese is an insightful story about discrimination and transformation. It teaches us that one of the worst forms of discrimination is when we discriminate against ourselves.
In American Born Chinese, Yang uses pictures to get his points across to the reader. With so many confusing spiritual and religious themes and unfamiliar multicultural perspectives, without pictures many young readers may have found themselves confused. The pictures help the reader better understand the content of the story and, in turn, reinforces the author’s messages.
On page 93 of Writing & Selling the YA Novel, K.L. Going writes: “You’ll want to choose the very best descriptions so your setting seems real and has the most impact possible… settings can shape our stories and create a tone that helps an author achieve his or her goals.”
In this case, graphic novelists have the advantage because rather than finding the best descriptions in the hopes that readers will see what authors want them to see, the graphic novelist can literally draw the picture he or she wants the reader to see instead.
There’s truth to the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words.” By adding visuals, graphic novels open new possibilities in storytelling. If a writer is able to offer words with illustrations, his or her points and messages are far less likely to be misconstrued or missed altogether.
While I think Yang was successful in general with his graphic novel, in some ways I think the pictures held him back. There were moments when the illustrations were so over the top that some readers may miss a message because they’re busy laughing. Or because they are hyper-focused on one element they may miss the surrounding elements. There were also moments when the characters were so cartoonish that it was challenging at times to take them seriously.
Personally, I struggled to get through this book. In fact, I lost count of how many times I put it down and procrastinated finishing it. It gave me the same feeling of exhaustion I get when I watch a movie with subtitles. Maybe it was all the multitasking that made reading American Born Chinese feel more like work than art to me. Or maybe it was the simple fact that as an active reader one of my favorite things about reading is picturing the story in my mind. There were times when I felt like the images were being forced down my throat and other times when I felt like I had to study every picture to fully understand the story.
Still I can’t imagine this book without the illustrations and even though they weren’t exactly my cup of tea, I think they served a valuable purpose. From an author’s POV, what a great way to “show” rather than “tell” our stories while underlining the points we are trying to make. That said; I can see why so many people, and young adults in particular, enjoy reading them. Pictures are fun and illustrations are a great way to connect with those young adults who dislike books or those who struggle with reading. In this way, graphic novels are able to reach people which other novels cannot. And if they spark a love for reading, then graphic novels are okay in my book!
Going, K.L. Writing & Selling the YA Novel. Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books. 2008. Print.
Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. New York: Square Fish. 2006. Print.