In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Graphic novels: for emerging readers and book fiends alike

Dear Aunt Debbie,

While my father may have exaggerated a little about Michael's pre-high school reading habits, my memory confirms that that was pretty much the case.  Michael and I grew up in the same house, book-filled and created by readers.  I read everything I could get my hands on starting at a very early age (including all those Archie comics my dad mentioned), while Michael was much happier endlessly going through albums of baseball cards, or baking and then eating cookies.  My parents bought him books on tape, which were a big hit: he'd listen to Treasure Island over and over while rearranging his albums of baseball cards.  He didn't seem to be picking up on literature for much of his childhood, but clearly he was, as his later reading habits showed.

Do you ever recommend graphic novels?  There are so many good ones out right now, with the pull and ease of a comic book and, in the best cases, a novel's richness and depth.  I've just finished an excellent one, recommended to me by my student teacher this semester (she's a former student as well -- very exciting!).

American Born Chinese
, by Gene Luen Yang, weaves together three stories in alternating chapters.  The first strand, based on Chinese myth, tells the story of the Monkey King, who masters the arts of kung fu and the heavenly disciplines, but gets too high on himself and is despised by the other gods and imprisoned under a mountain of stones.  The second and most realistic strand centers on Jin Wang, who moves from San Francisco to a neighborhood where he is one of three Asian kids in his school, and tries to assimilate.  He at first rejects, and then befriends, Wei-Chen Sun, a recent Taiwanese immigrant.  The third strand is written like a sitcom, complete with laugh track, and focuses on Danny, an all-American white boy whose life is destroyed once a year by the annual visit of his cousin Chin-kee.  As the name implies, Chin-kee is the worst of ethnic stereotypes, complete with braid, slanted eyes, and thick accent.  The three stories ultimately come together in a very satisfying way which I don't want to spoil here.  Suffice it to say they have something to do with accepting your true self rather than trying to run from it.

The population of the school where I teach is largely Asian, and so many of the details in this book ring true, from clothing choices and dialogue to the greater issues of assimilation and prejudice.  It's beautifully written and drawn, extremely funny, and ultimately wise.  It's a book I'd love to teach someday.

Speaking of which, I'm off to pack my bag for tomorrow and try to get a good night's sleep.

Love, Annie

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