WHAT I LIKED: I read this book because it is one of the Shanghai Battle of the Books selections for 2015-16. My students seem to like it quite well, so I picked it up to read on the bus on the way home. Believe it or not, this is the first graphic novel I've ever really read! As a librarian, I have flipped through many, but I have never sat down to read one from start to finish.
I loved how the Monkey King's, Danny's, and Jin Wang's stories combined as the book progressed. I did not think the stories meshed perfectly, but I liked how it all came together in the end. The very last page made me smile. :)
American Born Chinese is funny! The humor is often subtle, and I laughed out loud many times.
I love the unique way the author addresses modern Chinese stereotypes. Many of these are everyday racism, such as a white teacher introducing San-Franciscan Jin Wang as "coming all the way from China" or schoolyard bullying with racial epithets. Others, such as the character of Chin-Kee, hit the reader over the head with it. Reading the Chin-Kee sections was just painful, which brings me to...
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: People who find the classic picture book The Five Chinese Brothers racist should stay far away from American Born Chinese. The portrayal of Danny's cousin Chin-Kee is intentionally offensive toward Chinese people. He is a walking, talking Chinese stereotype. Chin-Kee is a buck-toothed, grammatically-incorrect, embarrassment to his cousin Danny. He wears his hair in a long braid and shouts things like, "Harro Amellica!" (p. 48) and "Rong time, no see" (p. 49).
I currently live and teach in Suzhou, China. I ride the city bus for about 30 minutes to school every morning and afternoon. When I read the Danny sections on the city bus, I covered my pages so none of the Chinese people sitting near me would see the illustrations of Chin-Kee. I don't want anyone to think I agree with that.
So Chin-Kee is all Chinese stereotypes rolled into one. It's obviously intentional on the author's part; I am an adult, and I get that. But would your average seventh grader understand that point? Chin-Kee is annoying, loud, and incredibly obnoxious. He pees in someone's Coke, dances and sings loudly on a table in the school library, and picks his nose. (spoilers here--highlight to see)-->The Monkey King tells Jin Wang that Chin-Kee is Jin Wang's "conscience" and a "signpost for [his] soul" (p. 221). I didn't understand this at all. How does Chin-Kee's blantant offensiveness help Jin Wang want to embrace his Chinese heritage? If Jin Wang's only tie to his heritage were crazy Chin-Kee, who can blame him for wanting to deny that?
Chin-Kee's character would make an excellent discussion point for a middle or high school English class. Does the graphic novel format of the book make Chin-Kee more offensive than he would be in a regular novel? Why might the author (who is Chinese) deliberately create such an over-the-top character? Is he trying to push our sensitivities to call attention to the stereotype? Interesting, interesting...
THE BOTTOM LINE: Highly-recommended despite the seriously offensive stereotype. Interesting and easy-to-read, American Born Chinese could foster some serious discussions of racism and stereotypes. Younger teen readers (heck, even some adults) may not understand that Chin-Kee is intentionally stereotyped to make a point, so teachers, librarians, and parents might need to point that out.
STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: We have 5 copies, and they get lots of checkout. Interestingly, though my school is in China and many of our students are Chinese, no student or parent has ever mentioned Chin-Kee's character to me. This book gets a ton of checkout, so I am surprised no one has ever mentioned it.
READALIKES: Boxers and Saints (Yang)--this is a two-volume set about the Boxer Rebellion.
- Overall: 4/5
- Creativity: 4/5
- Characters: 4/5
- Engrossing: 5/5
- Writing: 5/5
- Appeal to teens: 4/5
- Appropriate length to tell the story: 5/5
- Language: mild; hell, racial epithets (Chink, Gook)
- Sexuality: mild; kissing, indirect references to erection (I think lots of middle school readers will miss these references entirely)
- Violence: mild-medium; beheading, fighting/punching, a man is stabbed through by a demon and roasted over an open fire--these scenes are often more funny than violent
- Drugs/Alcohol: none
Discussion of American Born Chinese by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund--I love this balanced discussion of Chin-Kee's character. Also includes some of the illustrations, so you can see what all the Chin-Kee fuss is about!
Gene Luen Yang's webpage for American Born Chinese--I like how even the author recommends this for middle school "in moderated settings." I agree that many young readers will misinterpret Chin-Kee's character. They will get much more out of this book with an adult's guidance.
The Monkey King official movie trailer (2014)--I want to see this now! It can even help me with my Chinese!