Everyone has bad days—and when you’re growing up and discovering yourself, those bad days are magnified times a thousand. Gene Luen Yang, author and illustrator of American Born Chinese (color by Lark Pien), turns that teenage angst into a wonderful, vivid tale that both teaches and tickles the funny bone, without being heavy-handed.
Three seemingly unrelated stories are woven together, starting with the Chinese fable of the Monkey King, the lord of the monkeys that doesn’t want to be a monkey at all; a “sitcom” about Danny’s wacky cousin Chin-Kee in the style of Leave it to Beaver, complete with laugh-track, which confronts all the negative Chinese (and Asian) stereotyping; and a straightforward depiction of a child, Jin Wang, a first-generation American, who desperately wants to fit in and get the girl. These stories ultimately merge, culminating in an ending that leaves the reader feeling satisfied and refreshed. Yang deftly handles sensitive topics, namely friendship, young love, family, and, most importantly, self-assurance.
Yang’s artwork is geometrical and flat, with no shading. There aren’t many changes in perspective—most panels have all the characters in full view, without much depth. Details are reminiscent to anime and manga. Particularly lovely are the nods to Chinese papercut artwork, and modern takes on traditional Chinese artwork of flowers and landscape, particularly in the Monkey King chapters. Not only does Yang explore what it means to be of two worlds in the prose, the conflict is also apparent in the mix of “western-meets-eastern” illustration.
The phrase “American-born Chinese” can be used either as a compliment for those that are Chinese but have vast knowledge of American culture, or as an insult to those that have “lost their pride” in being Chinese—an apt title for a narrative that explores exactly that dichotomy.
Yang keeps the novel free from strong language, depicts only light violence, and hints vaguely at sex.