Imagine: you're one of a tiny handful of Asians (and by tiny we mean three) in a mostly white, suburban, American junior high school. All you want in life is to get with your crush, the super-popular, hot blonde, but you're nothing special as far as teenagers go. Plus, you're not just Asian; you're Chinese. Cue: a stream of classic Chinese stereotypes. Okay sure, technically you're Chinese-American, but do you think anyone at school, never mind Miss Hottie, understands or cares about that distinction?
Gene Yang's betting that, even if you don't understand, you still might care about what Jin, his teenaged boy protagonist, is all about. After all, what Jin goes through isn't all that different from what a lot of teenagers, especially those who feel like they're misfits, go through.
And if that doesn't grab you, how about the fact that American Born Chinese is a cool comic book (sorry, we mean graphic novel)—so cool, in fact, that it's won Yang a bunch of awards, including the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award (an American Library Association award, given to the best book for teens) and the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) for Great Graphic Novel award. Oh, and if you think the book is just for kids, think again: it was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award too—the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the award, we might add.
But we know you're not just about the awards. You're way deeper than that. So here's the deal: this book manages to do more than show the life of a typical Chinese American teen boy. It incorporates the Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King and parades through a bunch of classic stereotypes about Chinese people at the same time. And all to critical and humorous effect. That's not easy to do folks, and takes some serious storytelling skills, something Yang's got in spades in addition to his mad artistic talent.
Which is why American Born Chinese is a total favorite of high school English teachers. It's the holy grail of required English reading: it's relatable, current, deep and culturally diverse. And—of course—it's a fun read, too. What more could you ask for?
Unless you somehow managed to skip those awkward, painful years spent as a teenager in school, there's just no way that you can't relate to Jin Wang's struggles to fit in at mostly-white junior high school. All right, maybe there is a way not to relate to Jin, but you would kind of need to try not to relate to him because, after all, who hasn't felt the pressure of needing to fit in?
If you're not convinced, here's another way to look at American Born Chinese: It's basically a John Hughes movie made into a comic, only instead of a white, teenaged misfit at the center, you get a Chinese American teenaged misfit.
Of course, that doesn't mean that somehow Jin's race doesn't matter. It completely matters because it's his racial background and the cultural stereotypes that surround that background which turn him into a social outcast at his school. Whereas a John Hughes character has to deal with differences in class or taste in clothing, Jin has to deal with something he really can't do anything about: his biological makeup.
And deal he does. Jin's journey through the novel intersects with the story of the Monkey King, a classic Chinese folk tale, as well as encounters with the thing he fears the most—his Chineseness—in order to show us how it is possible to survive the teen years and still turn out the better for it.
Jin's story isn't exactly pretty or simple. It is, however, deep and—we think—pretty inspirational in the end. Plus, can you really say no to a comic book? Yeah—we didn't think so.
Inside Gene Yang
If you want to know what the author of ABC is up to, check out his blog—it has everything from recent artwork to reviews he's written. Bonus: he actually responds to comments.
An Oldie but a Goodie
And here's an older, retired blog he wrote—with lots of cool stuff on ABC.
The Monkey King, Yang-style
Anything and everything you want to know about Sun Wukong, a.k.a. the Monkey King, can be found at this website which the author created.
All you've ever wanted to know about the rice rocket phenomenon.
A Comic Response
Here's Yang's unique take on the whole Tiger Mom debate.
All About ABC (in Less than Five Minutes)
This YouTube clip interviews the author and a few experts on comic books—don't miss the part where Yang explains the title of the book.
A is for Animation
If the cartoons in ABC aren't enough for you, you can watch the book come alive as an animated book trailer on YouTube.
Gene Yang Talk at Princeton
Yang isn't just an awesome cartoonist; he's an awesome (and hilarious) speaker too.
Gene Yang Talk at UC Berkeley
Here's a variation of his Princeton talk, but longer and with a reading from his book Prime Baby.
William Hung's American Idol Audition
Here's that infamous audition—be prepared to cringe.
The Author Reads
Even though this is actually a YouTube clip of the author at an ABC book reading, listen to the author read the book and engage the audience as his chorus.
Gene Yang gets honest about his childhood on NPR's The Bryant Park Project.
ABC Cover, in Chinese
Curious how a book about being Chinese American looks, translated into Chinese? Here you go.
The Original Fu Manchu
Here's a picture of the actor Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu.