JMV- Very often when given a graphic novel students, and at times, their parents, think it isn’t “really reading.” Graphic novels are not necessarily light reading, just because they have pictures. In fact, in many instances, graphic novels require more effort on the part of the reader than a traditional novel does. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is one of these novels.
The Monkey King is disrespected by the other gods, and studies kung-fu until he masters it, and is even attempts to transform himself. He encounters the god, Tze-Yo-Tzuh, who tried to get him to accept himself as he is. When the Monkey King refuses Tze-Yo-Tzuh imprisons him under a mountain of rocks where the Monkey King stays until he returns to his true form, and works as a disciple of the monk, Jiang Tao.
Jin Wang is one of three Asian students in his school. He struggles to fit in with the rest of his Caucasian peers, although he develops a strong friendship with Wei-Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant. Wei-Chen starts dating one of the other Asian students in the school, Suzy Nakamura, while Jin Wang attempts to start a relationship with Amelia Harris, a Caucasian girl he has a crush on. After one of Amelia’s friends asks Jin not to date her, he kisses Suzy, damaging his relationship with Wei-Chen.
Danny is an “All-American Boy,” but he has a cousin Chin-Kee, who is a Chinese caricature. Danny believes that Chin-Kee is an embarrassment. Eventually, all the stories intertwine, and we find out that Chin-Kee is really the Monkey King, Danny is Jin Wang, and Wei-Chen is the Monkey King’s estranged son.
Yang blends three independent stories together with deftness and ease. In fact, the stories are so casually intertwined, that if a reader is not paying attention s/he may become confused at how they intersect. This can be a problem for even the most practiced of readers. The way Jin Wang, Danny, and the Monkey King’s stories connect in a way that only works in a visual medium. Reading about the transformations and dual identities would not have the same effect as seeing them.
As teachers we need to help our students develop all sorts of reading skills, and as we enter an increasingly graphic world, reading these sorts of stories can only help them. Infographics, blogs, and websites are only a fraction of the texts our students will be exposed to, and they should notice things, such as when characters break through the frames of the page.