Thursday, May 7, 2009

American Born Chinese

Like many that follow this blog, I’m a Caucasian mom of children adopted from China and an ardent supporter of the philosophy and work of Love Without Boundaries. I also happen to be a student of School Library Media Science….which sometimes puts an interesting spin on my world. And, sometimes, these spins bump someone else—maybe even you today. You’ll have to let me know.

Recently, as part of my coursework I was listening to a presentation about a new genre of literature that our kids are reading but we parents are mostly clueless about: graphic novels. Like most moms of a certain age that grew up reading and re-reading all the Little House on the Prairie books I could get my hands on, I was intrigued by the historical background and current merits of what to me look like comic books on steroids. There were slides to view, statistics to consider and sample novels. My ears really perked up when the presenter passed around American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang.

I had heard of American Born Chinese. It won the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award, which honors literary excellence in Young Adult literature, and other accolades such as being named an honor book of the National Book Award in 2006 for Young People’s literature. As a future librarian and mom to Chinese children it had been on my radar as one to read and know about but I hadn’t gotten to it yet.

Imagine my surprise when I randomly opened the book during the very nice, calm, professional presentation and read: “ Would cousin Da-Nee rike to tly Chin-Kee’s clispy flied cat gizzards wiff noodle?” This speech bubble was illustrated with images of a buck-toothed, Mao-suited, squinty eyed character that unknowingly drinks soda that a white kid had peed in. NO KIDDING. What?! Holy racism batman! What on earth was this book about? I paged through the book a bit and had…..well for lack of any better term….a reaction.

Class was ending and I returned the book to the presenter who was standing next to the professor and cautiously asked: “Is this book actually allowed in public schools today?”

Now, if you don’t know about librarians…you have to know one thing. We are the guardians of freedom of speech. We students of Library Science spend classes discussing censorship, defense of books against banning and how to handle those parents that approach us wanting those books removed. And here I was, all of a sudden, one of those parents not wanting my kids to ever have a chance to see racism, that with all my heart, wish to be such a part of their ancient history as Americans that they will never discover them in the library of their school!

The presenter and professor said, “yes” and left class with everyone else jingling keys and tossing backpacks over their shoulders. What could I do? As I drove home, I stopped off at my public library and checked out the book. That same evening I read American Born Chinese in its entirety and discovered something. The book is a great read. For a young adult novel, the story is complex, evokes a range of emotions in the reader and centered around the Chinese American experience. This graphic novel is a perfect braid of three stories involving: The Monkey King, a young Chinese American boy living in a mostly Caucasian community and a Caucasian teenager who hosts his embarrassingly stereotypical cousin from China. As each individual story twists through its plot, it picks up threads of the other two so that by the end, like a dramatic opera, all stories become one. As American Born Chinese explores each character who experiences life outside what is most desired, the final message is one of acceptance.

I wish someone had given me a heads up on the nitty-gritty of this novel before I unwisely formed an opinion and reaction from reading just a few pages. As a parent of Chinese born daughters and a son (and an additional homegrown son proud of “HIS” Chinese family) this is a book that you and we all should know about. My children are likely going to feel the reality of their minority status at some point. They swim through the stereotypes and racism of our times like everyone else. I wondered, as I finished the book, if the main characters were Hispanic, Dominican, Native American, Indian---would the story hold the same impact? I think yes. American Born Chinese portrays racism toward Asians in a way that I can use as a discussion point for stereotyping and racism that my children and I deal with in our lives.

As for graphic novels, it appears they are here to stay and are multiplying. A little reading on our parts will make for a lot of understanding between ourselves and our kids. For a good description of what a graphic novel is, I recommend starting with good ole Wikipedia for a definition of the genre. A website that reviews graphic novels for teens: No flying, No Tights gives plenty of interesting and wild reading. Every day, there are more and more graphic novels for young children as well. Check out the new genre the next time you and your children visit the library!

We’d love to know if my experience with American Born Chinese bumped you today. Is this a book that you were already familiar with? If so, what are your thoughts? Did you have a reaction the first time you read through it? If not, check it out….see if your reaction was like mine and tell me about it. I plan to discuss another book that’s good for Moms, Dads and kids ages 10-12 to know about next month. If you’d like to keep up, check out Rules by Cynthia Lord and let’s chat about what the sister of an autistic boy and friend of a paraplegic teaches us as we contemplate this life of giving.

Linda Mitchell

Linda Mitchell is a wife and mom to four, Associate Director of Education for Love Without Boundaries, volunteer at her kid’s school, student of School Library Media, K-1st Sunday School Teacher…..and creative writer when she can get a word in edgewise.


  1. Thanks for the heads-up and very thoughtful post. I previewed the book on Google Books and will try to get a copy to read it in it's entirety. Your response was different than what I anticipated as I read through the post. Very well done.

  2. Uuuuuuuhhhh no. Chin-Kee pees in the bullies Coke. Didn't you hear that rhyme as a child?

  3. Ack! I stand corrected about who peed in who's coke. Linda

  4. I was always considering this novel for my adopted chinese daughter. I had the same reaction you did from just previewing the book. Thank you for reading it and sharing the details. I can now make a better decision. Great blog.