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.


Article about American Born Chinese

Gene Luen Yang's self portrait

Gene Luen Yang’s self portrait

In the May 2014 issue of English Journal, Melissa Schieble discusses how to teach “racial literacy” via Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel. “Racial literacy” is Lani Guinier’s term for a critical stance that “moves citizens to explore race as less about interpersonal injustices and more ‘about the distribution of power’ and resources” (p. 49).

Schieble also proposes a list of questions to help students develop skills in critical visual literacy — in other words, how to read graphic novels as more than just entertainment.

Schieble’s list includes questions that look at “image syntax, shot distance, angles, and color” (p. 50). These questions work just as well when viewing film, sculpture, photography, or any other form of visual art.

These are the types of questions that will make APs happy to see students addressing in your classroom, especially if they see you moving the students from graphic novels to more complex informational texts which must also be read critically.

So find this article and read it, pen and paper at hand for the notes you’ll want to take.