Saturday, October 8, 2011


By Adrian Neibauer

Staff Writer

AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is an amazing feat of writing. Gene Yang successfully intertwines three seemingly unrelated stories: The Monkey King, Jin Wang, and Chin Kee. The Monkey King is an allegorical Chinese rendition of the journey made by the famous Chinese monk, Xuan Zang (602-664).  The original story has Chinese fables, fairy tales, legends, superstitions, and other Taoist and Buddhist themes. Jin Wang is a new Chinese American student who doesn’t fit in at his predominately White school. He befriends Wei Chen, another Chinese American boy who is struggling with the same.  Throughout this story, Jin Wang desperately wants to assimilate and abandon his Chinese culture. Chin Kee is the most stereotypical Chinese person: loud, obnoxious, strong accent.  When he visits his cousin Danny –– the epitome of White, high school boys: athletic, popular with girls, etc. –– he is completely embarrassed. 

Not only does Gene Yang knit these three stories together masterfully, he forces the reader to constantly examine what they are reading and combines it with evidence he has already presented in order to infer what will happen next. The character development is amazing.  No character distracts from the overall story of finding acceptance in a world different from theirs. 

I am, by no means, an art expert.  However, as an avid graphic novel reader and teacher who uses graphic novels in my classroom, there are a few things about AMERICAN BORN CHINESE that I really appreciate:

Gene Yang’s illustrations are simple and in color.  There is just enough detail to make it look realistic without seeming like a cartoon.

Yang illustrates each page in the same sized 4-6 panels. This may not seem relevant, but when introducing fifth graders to the elements of graphic literature (gutters, panels, speech and thought bubbles), this simplicity is very helpful. It is also effective at forcing the reader to slow down while reading.

My students may not pick up on this, but I really appreciate the subtle Chinese symbols embedded in each section. Each character’s story has their Chinese pin-yin character stamped on each page in the traditional red-colored dye. 

Without spoiling the ending, this story could not have been told in straight prose. Characters changing from the beginning of the story to the end could only be told in a graphic novel format.

Here is where the fun begins. Depending on the age level of your students, there are tons of applications for AMERICAN BORN CHINESE.  You can focus on Chinese mythology, racism, stereotypes, intertwining separate narratives, and character development. However, for my particular needs, I wanted to use AMERICAN BORN CHINESE to teach the reading strategy of making an inference.

Inferencing is a particularly difficult reading strategy to teach. I have always struggled with illustrating how readers need to “read between the lines” and combining your schema (what you already know) with what you read.  It is very abstract for students to grasp. This is why I love using graphic novels to teach reading, especially AMERICAN BORN CHINESE.

Since the character development is so strong in this book, I use each character as an example in inferring character traits.  For example, on page 37, Wei Chen introduces himself to Jin Wang. 

This is a perfect opportunity for students to try and discover more about Wei Chen. As a class, we examine Wei’s body language, his speech bubbles, his thought bubbles, his actions (panel illustrations); all to infer what characteristics he possesses.


The same chart can be used for any character; and can be modified for making inferences about the setting and plot. 

In The Monkey King sections, there is a fair amount of new vocabulary for students.  Using a simple chart (Table 1), you can have students make inferences for new vocabulary words.

There are a ton of possibilities for using AMERICAN BORN CHINESE in the classroom. Nevertheless, using effective reading strategies for comprehending text is a skill that can be (and should be) taught at any grade level. 

Author & Illustrator: Gene Yang
Format: Paperback
Pages: 233
Color: Full color
Publisher: First Second Books
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-38448-7

If you are selective about which sections to use in the classroom, AMERICAN BORN CHINESE can be used effectively to teach inferencing in as early as grades 4-5. However, if you intend to teach the entire book, whether as a novel study or lesson in character development throughout the story, I would recommend middle school to high school.  There is some occasional profanity (“hell” spoken), cigarette smoking, some gross boy humor, and some bloody violence (when the demons stab the monk on page  148). 

Although some would disagree, I think it is entirely appropriate to begin conversations in sixth grade classrooms about racial bullying and the idea of having a double consciousness (when one’s identity is divided into two opposing facets). In fifth grade, the discussion may look more like an anti-bullying lesson, but I think middle school students can handle many of the themes presented throughout: humility, fitting in, and one’s identity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i see a grammar issue!(subject-verb agreement.) Chin Kee is the most stereotypical Chinese person: loud, obnoxious, strong accent. When he visits his cousin Danny –– the epitome of White, high school boys: athletic, popular with girls, etc. –– he is completely embarrassed. It is not Chin Kee who is embarrassed, it is Danny who is. A correct way to write the sentence would be: When he visits his cousin Danny –– the epitome of White, high school boys: athletic, popular with girls, etc. –– Danny is completely embarrassed.