American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

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Plot Summary: This graphic novel tells three thematically related narratives that involve their protagonists coming to terms with their relationship to their otherness. Jin Wang is a Chinese-American who feels that he cannot fit in with his peers because of his ethnic and cultural background. Danny is a white student who is embarrassed by his cousin Chin-Kee who Yang writes as a caricature of Chinese people who fits stereotypes that Americans have for Chinese people. Finally, Yang tells the more fantastical story of the Monkey King, who attempts to live among the gods who reject him for being a monkey. Yang alternates between these narratives throughout.

Accessibility:

  • Written primarily in English but makes use of Mandarin Chinese characters throughout
  • Lexile level is relatively low: 530
  • Some difficult vocabulary in the Monkey King sections related to deities or spirituality. These words are usually repeated several times, which aids comprehension.
  • Features a complex narrative structure that may be challenging for some students.
  • The simple, clean artwork provides visual support throughout to aid comprehension and to help convey the text’s themes.

Relevance:

  • All three narratives involve one or more characters trying to overcome feeling othered due to conflicts of culture or, in the Monkey King’s case, species.
  • Challenges stereotypes Americans have for Chinese and other Asian people.
  • Challenges the pressure for immigrants or the children of immigrants to adhere to the cultural norms of both mainstream America and their families’ cultures.
  • Most of the central characters are adolescents themselves.

Goodness:

  • An approachable way to teach students about complex narrative structures. The texts images provide visual supports and clearly indicate when shifts between narratives occur.
  • Yang incorporates elements of mythology in interesting ways.
  • Although the language itself is not overly difficult, the structure of the text, as well as its themes, make it more appropriate for 8th-10th graders.

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