Sonderbooks Stand-out

Sonderbooks Book Review of

American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang


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American Born Chinese

by Gene Luen Yang

Reviewed October 11, 2008.
First Second, New York, 2006. 233 pages.
Starred Review.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2007: #1, Contemporary Teen Fiction Winner of the 2007 Printz Medal

My son loves graphic novels, but I haven’t read many myself. However, when American Born Chinese won the Printz Medal for an outstanding Young Adult Novel, I decided this was one I should read.

I checked it out, but didn’t get around to reading it until it was due the next day. I loved it! I knew my son just had to read it. Fortunately, graphic novels are quick reading, so he finished it before the day was over and I could turn it in.

This book is done beautifully. The author uses the graphic novel form in a way that makes the story better than it would be as a regular novel. I love the expressions on faces, and the way he uses visual storytelling and creative formats to tell the story.

There are three parallel stories in this book. First is the story of the Monkey King. He goes to a party with other gods, and they laugh at him for being a monkey. He shows them. Then we see Jin Yang, a boy born in America to Chinese parents. They move from Chinatown in San Francisco to a place where he is the only Chinese kid in his class. The third story has the format of a television show. An American high school kid named Danny somehow has a cousin Chin Kee who’s terribly Chinese. He visits Danny every year and embarrasses him so badly at his school that Danny’s been switching schools every year.

All the stories beautifully and unexpectedly come together at the end, with a well-told theme of being who you truly are.

At one point in the story of the Monkey King, he meets Tze-Yo-Tzuh, He Who Is, a God more powerful than any other gods. At first, I was a bit offended when he started describing himself with words used from the Bible: “I was, I am, and I shall forever be. I have searched your soul, little monkey. I know your most hidden thoughts. I know when you sit and when you stand, when you journey and when you rest. Even before a word is upon your tongue, I have known it. My eyes have seen all your days.”

However, as I read on, I realized the author had beautifully placed the God Who Is into this tale about being the person (or monkey god) whom you were created to be. This is a beautifully told, powerfully presented tale of the individuality God has lovingly placed in each one of us. Yet it doesn’t come across as a religious story at all. On the contrary, it comes across as a laugh-out-loud light-hearted comic book story. Magnificent!