Favorite Quote: Returning to your true form is not an exercise of Kung-Fu, but a release of it.

I run a graphic novel club for tween girls. Originally, we thought about doing a straight up regular ol’ book club, but with everyone’s busy schedules we decided that doing graphic novels would ensure that everyone could participate most of the time.  The pros of graphic novels is that they are quick and easy to read, they often contain a lot of thematic gems that are easy to parse and discuss, and most kids really like them.  The cons are that they can lack some depth and some kids really DO NOT like them.  My club, for better or worse, seems to be split almost evenly between the graphic novel lovers and haters.

A short synopsis – This graphic novel features three parallel storylines.  In what I consider to be the main storyline,  Jin starts a new school where he is one of only three Asian-American students.  Like most kids he just wants to be ‘normal’ and tries to distance himself from being associated with his ethnicity which predictably leads to some pretty painful consequences. The second story is about the Monkey King and his struggles with the immortal gods who don’t believe monkeys belong in Heaven. The third is about an Angl0-American boy dealing with a visit from an outlandish and embarrassing Chinese relative named Chin-Kee.  It’s no spoiler to say that these stories eventually come together in the end.  All of the girls predicted this, but I don’t think any of us predicted how they would come together.

I knew as I read that the Chin-Kee storyline was going to be the most challenging for the girls.  The Chin-Kee character is based on an old stereotype that was fairly common in the 20th century when mocking Asians was still considered somewhat acceptable.  Think Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Long Duck Dong from Sixteen Candles.  The girls, however, were completely unfamiliar with this type of caricature and so I think this section fell a little flat for them.   They had a particularly hard time reading his dialogue which was written in a very colloquial and stereotypical Asian accent. I have to say that it made me more than a little happy that this generation hasn’t been as exposed to this kind of casual racism.

Chin-Kee character from ‘American Born Chinese’ by Gene Luen Yang

I personally loved this book.  I thought it was interesting, clever and very, very funny.  As such, I really thought that my pick this month was going to win over the haters.  I was wrong.  They all responded to the humor and the message of being yourself, but the haters of the group remained firm in their dislike of the overall genre.  They didn’t like the illustrations.  One of them said she doesn’t like ANY pictures in ANY book. They said they had a hard time reading the font.  The list goes on and on.  The lovers enjoyed it well enough, however.  They thought it was funny and interesting.

Even when all the girls don’t like the book, I try to plan an activity that will get them all engaged and reinforce the themes of the book.  For this book, we took some time examining stereotypes in their lives.  I had them brainstorm stereotypes for some of the groups they belong to – Girls, Tweens, Americans, and Homeschoolers.  They, of course, had a lot to say about all of these!  We talked about how stereotypes can be contradictory (homeschoolers are lazy, homeschoolers are overacheivers); and how they can even seem positive on the surface (Americans are rich, Women are nurturers), but that even seemingly positive stereotypes can be limiting and painful.  For example, not all women want to be or can be mothers/nurturers.

After we compiled a good list, each girl created a cartoon character based on one or more of the stereotypes that we listed.  We had a loud, fat, brash American man who may or may not have resembled a certain orange president-elect; a woman obsessed with her looks staring into the mirror;  a homeschooler stuck at a desk doing endless schoolwork; and a shopping obsessed teen.  And, of course, we wrapped up the session with some Chinese food!

Even though it wasn’t a slam dunk with my particular group of girls, I still maintain this is a great graphic novel and a great pick to read with tweens/teens.  It’s never a bad idea to have kids walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and literature is a great way to do that.  Also, this book deals with some pretty painful and serious stuff in a light and humorous way that I think will really appeal to most kids.

Our next graphic novel is Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson.  The girls voted on this so I’m crossing my fingers that it’s a bigger hit than this one was!

Title: American Born Chinese

Author: Gene Luen Yang

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars