And the Winner Is… American Born Chinese

Chin-Kee Reflecting on all that we’ve read this semester, I’ve got to say: American Born Chinese was my favorite read. There are a few reasons for this. First, it’s funny. Really funny. I’m not sure that any other book we read this semester made me laugh out loud the way American Born Chinese did. There are all sorts of graphic and linguistic details that evoked this laughter. On page 89, for instance, out of frustration, Jin calls Wei-Chen an “F.O.B.” and an asterisk directs the reader to the bottom-right corner of the panel where the author, Gene Luen Yang, informs the reader that “F.O.B.” stands for “fresh off the boat.” Then, on page 208, as Chin-Kee lays a beating on the white Jin, he names his moves after typical American Chinese food dishes, e.g., “General Tsao rooster punch” and “House special kick in nards!”

Second, the illustrations of this graphic novel are wonderful. As we discussed in class, every detail is thought-out. For instance, on page 37, the colors draw the reader’s eye to Wei-Chen and Jin and demonstrate the dreariness of their environment. Then, on page 72, Yang innovates in having the Monkey King break through the frame to signify its “[flying through the boundaries of reality itself.]” The images are therefore not only creative and meaningful, but also original.MonkeyKing_AmericanBornChinese

Next, as a result of reading American Born Chinese and Yang’s NCTE article entitled “Graphic Novels in the Classroom,” I discovered that graphic novels can be a great resource for English language learners and others because the images can act as aids and because students can spend as little or as much time with individual panels as desired. I really love the idea of teaching this novel in a class with a high percentage of English language learners.

Finally, American Born Chinese informs its readers about the experiences of Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans through Wei-Chen and Jin’s stories while also delivering universal messages. Some of the novel’s central ideas were even neatly packaged in speech bubbles, such as the herbalist’s declaration: “It’s easy to become anything you wish… So long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” This message is timeless and not limited to any one cultural ideology. This is yet another reason why I would love to teach American Born Chinese.


Cynthia Kadohata’s Work Reviewed and Highly Recommended

kira-kiraAfter our discussion of Cynthia Kadohata’s kira-kira, it was clear to me that kira-kira was among our favorite novels of the semester. This is especially significant when you consider that we’ve read several Y.A. classics and bestsellers from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Outsiders. Kadohata’s prose is simple yet profound, and her story is universal yet infused with Japanese culture. Not to mention the fact that her protagonist, an elementary school-aged middle child named Katie, is perfectly loveable. Kira-kira deals with topics as difficult as growing up Japanese-American in 1960s Georgia and caring for a terminally ill sibling, who, it should be said, is Katie’s beautiful and charismatic sister and best friend, while also dealing with topics as commonplace as parent-child conflict. It is the sort of Newbery Medal-winning novel that might be enjoyed and analyzed in a middle school classroom or just as easily swallowed whole on a rainy afternoon, no matter the reader’s age.

the thing about luck

Kadohata’s most recent publication—the National Book Award-winning The Thing About Luck—has all the charm of kira-kira. Its 12-year-old, Japanese-American protagonist, Summer, is much like kira-kira’s Katie. In fact, you might think of Summer as an older Katie—one who is sometimes embarrassed by her Japanese-American grandparents in her pursuit of the attention of a cute teenage boy. But Summer’s story takes place during the wheat-harvesting season in the Midwest, rather than in and around the Georgian poultry farms. Like Katie, Summer makes mistakes, and her family is rather poor. As a result, Summer has to find a way to turn her family’s luck around—an endeavor that leads to an exciting finale.


Reading from a different angle



Our class recently discussed S E Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), considering it in the light of Erik Erikson’s views (1963) on American identity, which he believes developed under the pressures of various “polarities”: individualism vs. loyalty to the community, hard vs. soft (“better a sinner than a sucker”), etc. If you’ve read Hinton’s breakout novel, published when she was just 17 years old, you know Ponyboy’s struggles as he negotiates the embattled line between the Greasers and the Socs.

It’s a popular book, riffing off of West Side Story, The Wild Ones, Rebel Without a Cause and other outsider/insider texts. Hinton’s novel highlights the lower-class and middle-class divide: what kind of cars the members of the two gangs own, where they live, where they hang out, what they wear. To modern readers, the divide is visible, felt, continually contested. There is no DMZ, only “our turf” and “their turf”.

Which brings me to my point. While Erikson allows us to see Ponyboy’s struggle as a metaphor for every American’s struggle, it’s a monochromatic and monogendered struggle. That is, Hinton’s characters (and Erikson’s examples) are all white and mostly male.

Do modern teens, living in a more integrated country (albeit still haunted by racism and its consequences), notice the missing people? Is it enough to argue that Hinton’s purpose was NOT to address issues of race or gender? Is there any benefit in asking students to consider the novel from the stance of a woman or a person of color?

9780060243647_xlgDown-These-Mean-Streets-9780679781424Because my job requires me to think about diversity – among the teachers in my courses and their current and future students – I read with such questions in mind. It may be that the way to make the omissions visible is to pair Hinton’s book with something like Walter Dean Myers’ Scorpions, featuring African American and Puerto Rican characters. Set in Harlem the 1980s, Myers’ novel is closer to the experiences of students in NYC classrooms. Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets is another, perhaps even more interesting option, since it was published the same year as The Outsiders.

Whichever book I select, it will at least address one part of diversity, helping readers to see and wonder about what’s missing.