American Panda

Book review by
Amanda Nojadera, Common Sense Media
American Panda Book Poster Image
Hilarious story of MIT freshman juggling culture, freedom.

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

Chinese and Taiwanese culture, traditions, and history. Mandarin words and phrases are sprinkled throughout, but there isn't a glossary to define them. Also plenty of science and math concepts mentioned.

Positive Messages

It's important to respect your family and your culture, but equally important to establish your independence and clearly communicate your values. Find the courage to do what makes you happy.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Although Mei lies to her family, she eventually finds the courage to pursue her passions and always stands up for the underdog. She and her brother, Xing, express their issues regarding outdated cultural traditions. Mei's love interest Darren's kindness and acceptance helps Mei feel like a normal teen instead of an outcast. Although there are many rumors about Ying-Na, she shows Mei that you can still be successful if you don't follow your parents' life plan. Mei's mother begins to understand Mei's point of view, supports her daughter even though it goes against her husband's wishes.

Violence

Family arguments lead to parents disowning their children and claiming that their disobedience killed their grandma.

Sex

Mei's mom constantly warns her not to do "the sex" before marriage. College students kiss. There are mentions of birth control pills and chlamydia, and a rumor about a girl becoming a stripper and "giving head" to support herself.

Language

Variations of "s--t," "f--k," "bitch," and "hell."

Consumerism

Pop culture mentions include Star Wars, Edward Scissorhands, American Pie, Grease, The BachelorDoraemon, Hello Kitty, and the Kardashians.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Mei's dad smokes, and there's a rumor about a girl dealing heroin.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Gloria Chao's American Panda is about Mei Lu, a 17-year-old Taiwanese American freshman at MIT whose parents want her to become a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer. Chinese and Taiwanese culture play a large part in Mei's coming-of-age story, and there are Mandarin words and phrases sprinkled throughout the book. Strong language includes variations of "s--t," "f--k," "bitch," and "hell." Mei's mom constantly reminds her not to do "the sex" before marriage. College students get STDs, and there's a rumor about a girl becoming a stripper and "giving head" to support herself. Mei's dad is a smoker, and there's a rumor about a girl dealing heroin. Although Mei lies to her family throughout the book, her story has plenty of positive messages for teens about communication and courage.

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What's the story?

In AMERICAN PANDA, 17-year-old Mei Lu's parents have already planned the perfect life for her: graduate from MIT, become a doctor, and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer. But her parents don't know about her fear of germs, her passion for dance, or her crush on Darren, her Japanese American classmate. When she reconnects with her estranged older brother, Mei begins to wonder if she'll ever be able to truly be herself without disappointing her parents or abandoning her Taiwanese culture.

Is it any good?

The emotional mother-daughter relationship, sweet interracial romance, and vivid college setting make this hilarious coming-of-age tale a must-read for teens. Mei's awkwardness plus her fear of germs and her mom's overprotective voicemails provide plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Some of the Mandarin words can be confusing, but you don't need to be Asian or a child of an immigrant to relate to American Panda. It's clear Mei has a deep respect for her family and culture, but her longing for independence is equally strong. Readers will root for her as she figures out a way to embrace both cultures while staying true to herself.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the generational conflict in American Panda. Do your grandparents or parents have values or traditions you think are old-fashioned and have no place in today's world?

  • Talk about the various kinds of diversity in the novel. Why are diverse representations important in children's and young adult literature?

  • Mother-daughter relationships can be fraught with tension and strong bonds. Do any of the conflicts in the book sound familiar to you?

  • How do the characters demonstrate courage and communication? Why are these important character strengths?

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