American Born Chinese

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
American Born Chinese Book Poster Image
Teen confronts Asian myths, stereotypes in quest to fit in.

Parents say

age 14+
Based on 6 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 9 reviews

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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: Why would the author make that choice? There also are a range of other topics that the book raises, from the value of graphic novels to the importance of acceptance. 

Positive Messages

Strong messages about the importance of tolerance and self-acceptance.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jin Wang is the only Chinese American at his middle school and doesn't want associate with Wei-Chen, a newcomer from Taiwan. All-American boy Danny is embarrassed by his cousin from China, whom he sees as obnoxious and backward. Both boys have something to learn from the stubborn Monkey King, a figure from Chinese mythology. 

Violence

Several fights and kung-fu punches are more emotionally hurtful than physically so. A monk is impaled by a spear and prepared for roasting (he's saved). 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." Another compliments a girl on her "bountiful Amellican bosom" and directs a subtle sexual reference at her. There are instances of dating and kissing as well.

Language

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

Consumerism

Fast-food outlet mentioned. Children are shown playing with Transformers toys as well as watching Transformers on TV.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A teen 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 for young-adult literature. It's easy to see why: The art, clever story lines, and thoughtful messages about tolerance and acceptance make it a winner. There's some sexual innuendo, potty humor, kung fu 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 over-the-top, stereopypical depiction of a Chinese character -- and each of the protagonists' 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 bybeverlychurchill April 9, 2008
Adult Written byThis book is Of... June 17, 2020

Degrading Book

This book is not good for anybody. It depicts an ugly Chinese figure (the cousin) who doesn't represent the Chinese people's characters at all, but is... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byRandom Gatherin... May 15, 2020

Nicely paced story with plenty of good-hearted messages.

This book is quite interesting, and it's just well-written in general. One thing that really struck me while reading it, for any religious people out there... Continue reading
Teen, 17 years old Written bywizardortitan August 27, 2018

A great graphic novel for anyone old enough to understand/relate to it.

I studied this graphic novel for a class and greatly enjoyed it. It has a strong message about being true to yourself and the circumstances of your birth. i rec... Continue reading

What's the story?

As AMERICAN BORN CHINESE opens, the title character, Jin Wang, 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 he feels 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 story concerns Danny, a popular White boy who's visited by his cousin, Chin-Kee, a walking, talking example of the most extreme Asian stereotypes. Author-illustrator Gene Luen Yang weaves all three plotlines into one satisfying whole.

Is it any good?

This superb blending of art and story broke barriers and won awards, and will speak to any reader who's felt like an outsider and struggeled to fit in. In American Born Chinese, author-illustrator Gene Luen Yang uses a rather complex narrative structure that blends folklore and school drama. The first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, it was also 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. 

In addition to its literary complexity, the book promotes solid values of tolerance and self-acceptance. Readers should be savvy enough to understand why Yang introduces a character that embodies negative stereotypes of Chinese people (buck teeth, squinty eyes, bright yellow skin, and he can't pronounce his "r's" or "l's"). American Born Chinese is thoughtful, funny, heartbreaking, and rich in compassion. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how feeling like an outsider is portrayed in American Born Chinese. How do Jin, Danny, and the Monkey King try to fit in? What do they learn about acceptance?

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

  • How do the fantastical elements of the book reinforce the more realistic ones, and vice versa?

  • Are some stories better-suited to prose than to comics? What sorts of narrative effects are possible in a graphic novel that might not work in another medium?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love graphic novels and Asian stories

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