Title: American Born Chinese
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Illustrator: Color by Lark Pien
Publisher: First Second
ISBN: 1596431520; 240 pages
Audience: Ages 12 and up
Summary: American Born Chinese tells three separate stories: The Monkey King, of Chinese legend, wants to be accepted in the Heavenly Council as a deity; Jin Wang, an American born Chinese boy, wants to be accepted by his peers in junior high as American; Danny, an all American blond, wants to be free of his embarrassing Chinese cousin, Chin Kee, whose yearly visit alienates Danny’s friends forcing him to move to a new school each year. The Monkey King is refused entry to the dinner party of the gods because he wears no shoes and is a monkey. He demolishes the banquet hall and most of the guests, then returns to his kingdom to master the additional disciplines of Kung Fu and ward off any punishment. He is no match, however for Tze-Yo-Tzun, the creator of the universe. Jin Wang enters a new school and spends the first half of the year without any friends until Wei Chen, a newcomer from Taiwan joins his class. With Wei Chen’s help he gets a date with Amelia and curls his thick black hair so that he’ll look more American. Chin Kee arrives, ruins Danny’s beginning romance with Melanie, and insists on accompanying him to school. Chin Kee’s actions confirm every prejudice about Asians. Unbelievably, the Monkey King, Jin Wang, Wei Chen, and Danny become part of one story in which nothing is quite as it seems.
Literary elements at work in the story: This is a graphic novel that relies on pictures more than words. But don’t underestimate this method of telling a story. A picture of solitary Jin on the playground conveys loneliness more than any words. The visual is critical in the Monkey King’s encounter with Tze-Yo-Tzun. Jin tells his story in first person. The Monkey King is a popular, well known fable in Asia with some modification in this book. Tze-Yo-Tzun is possibly a historical philosopher and poet but his words come close to our concept of God. This is a charming, complex, satisfying, story with humorous situations that any adolescent will recognize. It was a 2006 National Book Award finalist and the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award winner for excellent in young adult literature.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Racial prejudice plays a significant part in this story. Caucasian young people accept and declare inaccurate facts about Asians. Chin Kee represents prejudices Caucasians have against Asians.
The Asian characters themselves are all academically gifted.
Theological Conversation Partners: A central theme of this book is self-acceptance and the implication is that you have been created this way. An old woman tells Jin that he can become anything he wants if he will give up his soul. Psalm 139 is quoted extensively by Tze-Yo-Tzun when he is chiding the Monkey King for his refusal to be a monkey. When the monk who will lead the Monkey King to humility explains why he serves it sounds very much like, “We love because he first loved us.” The completion of the Monkey King’s test of virtue leads him to a manger, a new born babe, and his parents.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Do you know any Asian young people in your school? Are they accepted as who they are?
- What do the Monkey King, Jin, and Danny have in common?
- Psalm 139 is quoted by Tze-Yo-Tzun to remind the Monkey King that he was created in love to be a monkey. Is this a good use of the psalm?
- Do you see any problem with the idea that God created us to be who we are? How does this tie in with Christ’s call to make us something more or being a new creation in Christ?
- The old woman tells Jin that he can be whatever he wants in exchange for his soul. What does this mean?
- Why is a manger scene included in the Monkey King’s path to virtue?
- How does Jin help Wei Chen regain his identity?
- Transformers play a part in both Jin and Wei’s lives. In what way are they a good symbol for this story?
This is the second review in our series on Teens and Faith. Next week, This Gorgeous Game will be reviewed.