Level Up is definitely proof of the old adage that you should never judge a book by its cover. Take one glance at its charming Game Boy-inspired cover design and you might assume you’re about to read a graphic novel about video games. In fact, that’s actually what attracted me to the book in the first place!
However, while video games definitely fit into Level Up’s plot, they are a source of symbolism more than anything else, representing the individuality and free will protagonist Dennis Ouyang desperately tries to cling to. Despite Dennis’s passion for games, his parents (in particular his father) are fixated on the idea that it is their son’s destiny to put his hobby aside and attend medical school and become a gastroenterologist. The core theme of the book is the struggle between making one’s own decisions versus accepting a predetermined path in life.
Author Gene Luen Yang, who made quite a name for himself with previous efforts like American Born Chinese and The Eternal Smile, delivers a lighter read this time around, yet Level Up is every bit as powerful as his other works. It also shares similar storytelling techniques. Specifically, Yang often mixes fantastical elements into his works, and Level Up is no exception. When four angels mysteriously appear after his father’s death, Dennis believes they were sent to ensure he follows his destined path. Readers will begin to question if the angels are simply figments of Dennis’s imagination or something more real than that.
Of special mention is the accompanying artwork by Thien Pham. Pham illustrated Level Up with an almost sketch-like quality and painted the book’s world with soft watercolor shades that effectively match the mood of the text. Dennis Ouyang’s life is at times messy and in upheaval, and Pham’s art appropriately follows suit by being wonderfully imperfect yet full of complexity.
Level Up raises a number of issues that are ripe for discussion. Should we choose our own paths in life or should we follow those that are laid out for us? Is there such a thing as destiny? Why do our parents make the choices for us that they do? Level Up may not take long to finish, but readers will have plenty to ponder and converse about long after they reach the last page, making it an ideal selection for a Young Adult or adult book club.
by Gene Luen Yang
Art by Thien Pham
First Second, 2011
Publisher Age Rating: (16+)