American Born Chinese

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
American Born Chinese Book Poster Image
First graphic novel to win major child lit awards.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 5 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 8 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Teens who read this book might be inspired to learn more about the Monkey King and may be inspired to learn about fables from China and other cultures. An over-the-top stereotypically Chinese character will give sophisticated readers something to talk about. Library Journal called Chin-Kee a "bitingly funny bundle of racist stereotypes"; do you agree with this description? There also are a range of other topics that the book raises, from the value of graphic novels to the importance of acceptance. See our "Families Can Talk About" section for some ideas to get started.

Positive Messages

This book imparts solid messages about the importance of tolerance and self-acceptance. The characters in the three stories go through their own trials regarding identity and self-confidence that have the potential to encourage optimism in these particular areas among readers.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Teen readers will be able to relate to the protagonists' quest for acceptance, and readers with identities outside the mainstream will particularly appreciate their struggles. 

Violence

Several fights and punches; a monk is impaled by a spear and prepared for roasting (he's saved); and Chin-Kee carries a fried cat gizzard in a takeout box as his lunch.

Sex

Some innuendo and nonspecific fantasies. A boy gives a girl permission to "pet my lizard anytime," while another compliments a girl on her "bountiful Amellican bosom." He proceeds to make a subtle sexual reference directed at her. There are instances of dating and kissing as well.

Language

Characters are taunted with ethnic slurs, including "chink," "nippy," and "gook." Chin-Kee's name can be seen as a subtle reference to an ethnic insult as well.

Consumerism

Fast-food outlet mentioned. Children are shown playing with Transformers toys as well as watching the same brand on television.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A character smokes a cigarette.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese is the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association's Michael L. Printz Award, in addition to several other literary awards and honors. It's easy to see why: The art, clever story lines, and thoughtful messages about tolerance and acceptance mark it as a winner. There's some sexual innuendo, potty humor, fighting, and a fairly graphic scene in which a monk is impaled on a spear and put on a spit over a fire, though he's rescued. An intentionally over-the-top stereotypical Chinese character -- and every protagonist's search for acceptance -- make this a better fit for teen readers who have the sophistication to understand the author's intent.  

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written bymsagne January 22, 2014

Perfect to Teach Satire!

This book is a great example of satire but needs to be accompanied by explanations as to why the inappropriate language and stereotypical images shown throughou... Continue reading
Adult Written bymostle April 9, 2008
Teen, 17 years old Written byoctober1985 July 24, 2009
Funny graphic novel, may have some objectional content but it's fairly tame
Teen, 15 years old Written byDechean November 30, 2008

What's the story?

Three parallel stories interlock in this graphic novel. In the first, the American-born Chinese boy of the title, Jin, moves with his family from San Francisco's Chinatown to a mostly white suburb. There he's exposed to racism (from children and adults), bullying, and taunts and is isolated until a Taiwanese boy, Wei-Chen Sun, moves in and they become friends. But Jin develops a crush on a white girl and longs to fit in. The second story is a retelling of the story of the Monkey King, a fabled Chinese character who develops extraordinary powers in his quest to be accepted as a god. The third concerns Danny, a popular Anglo boy who's visited by his cousin, Chin-Kee, a walking, talking example of the most pernicious Asian stereotypes.

Is it any good?

Though visually similar to a comic book, this superb blending of art and story is in every sense a novel -- and, with its three-story parallel structure, a rather complex one at that. This is the first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, as well as the first to be a finalist for the National Book Award -- truly marking the coming of age and acceptance of the graphic novel as a branch of children's literature. 

It's easy to see why AMERICAN BORN CHINESE was chosen to break the barrier: In addition to its literary complexity, it promotes solid values of tolerance and self-acceptance. This is a good introduction to the world of graphic novels, and those who are already fans will rejoice at the mainstream acceptance they've won.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about graphic novels. What's the difference between a comic and a graphic novel? Do graphic novels deserve to be treated as literature?

  • Are you surprised that this book won several literary awards? What do you think that means for the future of graphic novels?

  • How does the book approach the theme of self-acceptance? Why are all the characters trying to be something they're not? Why, especially, would a Chinese boy want to be a blond American?

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