Girl Giant and the Monkey King

Book review by
JK Sooja, Common Sense Media
Girl Giant and the Monkey King Book Poster Image
Middle school girl uses trickster god's help in fun fantasy.

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A lot or a little?

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

Stands out for positive role models.

Educational Value

Lots of baked-in insight into Vietnamese American life. Histories, mythologies, and stories of Vietnamese and Chinese cultures, their nuances, traditions, and approaches to various aspects of daily life. Extensive play and fun with legendary mythical antihero, the Monkey King. Lightly critiques traditionalism and sexism in some aspects of Chinese and Vietnamese mythology. Provides instances of overcoming overt, subtle, and complicit forms of racism. 

Positive Messages

Strong messages of perseverance, courage, family, and friendship. Highlights anxieties and difficulties Asian American kids may experience in predominantly White cultures, schools, and communities. Stay true to yourself, don't be ashamed of your culture, and accept who you are. Some curses can be turned into gifts. 

Positive Role Models

Main character Thom Ngho is kind, brave, and inquisitive. She also hides a secret that requires her to be incredibly self-disciplined, especially when being bullied, because Thom has incredible strength. Many times Thom doesn't retaliate when she could easily harm those bullying her with a simple flick of her finger. She shows great courage facing demons, gods, demon-gods, odd monsters and animals, grand uncertainty, and difficult situations aplenty. Thom shows the Monkey King what true friendship is. Thom's mother goes against stereotypes by not liking to cook and being the primary breadwinner.

Violence

Some accidental punches, hits, and knock downs involving immortal gods and demons. Scenes of bullying, name calling, and laughing at Vietnamese main character for being "weird" and bringing "smelly food to lunch." A soccer goalie's ribs are broken when hit with a ball.

Sex

Brief acknowledgment and discussion of a human coupling with a god.

Language

A short discussion of the anti-immigrant slurs "fresh off the boat," "fob," and "fobby."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Van Hoang's Girl Giant and the Monkey King is a middle grade adventure that features a strong and admirable girl role model and proud engagement with Vietnamese and Chinese culture, history, and mythology. In a very modern American middle school, Thom Ngho, 11, is the new kid in town -- in small-town Georgia -- but unlike California where she came from, her new school treats her differently. As one of only two Asian kids in a predominantly White school, Thom suddenly knows what it's like to feel different. For example, she doesn't want to participate in the school's Culture Day, where surely all the kids will make fun of her traditional Vietnamese dress. But before that happens, Thom releases notorious trickster god the Monkey King from his 500-year prison sentence, learns how to control a mighty power, and decides who to trust, all while navigating middle school. There are scenes of bullying, teasing, name calling, and laughing at others. In one scene, a girl tries to bully Thom into cleaning her shoe. Most of the bullying is racist and targets only Thom. Kids call her "weird" and make fun of her food and her mother's accent.

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What's the story?

In GIRL GIANT AND THE MONKEY KING, Thom Ngho, 11, is unhappy in her new school. She's one of only two Asian kids in her mostly  White school, and things that weren't weird back home in California are weird here in small-town Georgia. Like how her lunch food smells bad to everyone or how suddenly embarrassing her mother's accent is. Thom also loves soccer and was quite good back home, but in her new school she is bullied daily and otherwise treated as nonexistent. Which is actually fine by Thom, except that she desperately wants to be "normal" and get rid of her inexplicable super strength. She has no idea where it came from and hides it the best she can, even from bullying kids at school. But soon Thom accidentally frees the long-imprisoned Monkey King from inside a magical gourd she found in a temple. And the Monkey King claims he can rid her of her curse of super strength. All she has to do is retrieve a magical staff that weighs a gazillion tons and can be any size. And it's locked in the armory of a holy academy in the Heavens, a place where mortals cannot go without dying within days. Even if Thom succeeds and escapes, can she trust the Monkey King to grant her wish?

Is it any good?

This playful and captivating fantasy adventure features a brave and kind Vietnamese American girl who hides an incredible power. Girl Giant and the Monkey King has a lot of fun with the Monkey King legend and the characteristic humor, mischievousness, and uncertainty surrounding him. It is a joy romping back and forth from school to the Heavens and other magical locations, like through the fabled waterfall where the Monkey King and other monkeys have made their idyllic home. Thom meets various gods, half-gods, demons, and magical creatures. Back at school and at home, she has to deal with an increasingly intrusive Monkey King and his whimsical antics. The adventure part of this book is great, paced well and with little pieces of mystery strewn about. Who really is the boy next door, Kha? Who is Thom's father? Should the Monkey King be trusted?

But this book is also about family, what real friendship is, and what it can be like to be an Asian American kid. The foundation of Thom and her mother's relationship is strong, loving, and independent from the dominant White and male world. The Monkey King points out how similar he is to Thom by suggesting that while she constantly feels like an outsider because of her Asianness, but also doesn't feel Asian enough, he has always likewise never been fully god or fully demon and never fully accepted by either group. The organic depictions and open engagement with various elements of Asian American and specifically Vietnamese American life, including cultural traditions, histories, and mythologies, are all woven into the fabric of the story, rather than layered on or presented as a token of difference.  

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how being Asian affects Thom's social life vs. how it affects her magical life in Girl Giant and the Monkey King. How do kids at her new school perceive Thom? How do the various magical creatures, animals, gods, and demons see her? How does Thom feel about being Asian by the end of the book?

  • What did you know about the Monkey King before reading this book? How did you like seeing the legendary figure of the Monkey King in the modern setting of an American middle school? By the end, do you feel the Monkey King is a hero or villain? Why?

  • Why did Thom not react more to being bullied? What could she have done? What could others have done? If you got bullied or saw someone getting bullied, what  would you do? Who could you turn to?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy and stories with Asian characters

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