Two very special guest authors from the mainland will be appearing at the Celebrate Reading 2011 Festival on April 16 at UH Manoa (click here for more info).

One of these special guests is Gene Yang, author/artist of American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile and Prime Baby. I believe readers, especially high school students, will appreciate and enjoy having Gene Yang present at the festival because he both writes and illustrates graphic novels.

For those still in the dark, graphic novels and comic art has come a long way from being considered entertainment for children only. The best works are becoming widely recognized as new media literary classics. Gene Luen Yang is one of these artists who believe in the graphic novel medium and its power to provide dynamic storytelling that engages people and provides educational fulfillment and critical thought.

Yang fully encourages the idea of using comics in education and his work is a great place for an educator to start. As far as credentials go, Yang’s debut graphic novel, American Born Chinese won numerous accolades including the Printz Award for young-adult literature, an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New, and most notably it was the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for a National Book Award.

To prepare myself for Celebrate Reading, I sat down and read three of his graphic novels. Let me break them down for you and tell you what I liked.

American Born Chinese

Gene Yang’s debut graphic novel is also his most famous and critically acclaimed. It weaves together three interlocking stories told from different chronological narratives: Jin Wang, a Chinese-American student struggling with identity and assimilation; Chin-kee, an overt stereotypical ‘Chinaman’ who hounds and embarrasses his Caucasian cousin Danny; and the Monkey King, a legendary Chinese deity who wishes to be more than a monkey in the eyes of others.

The main narrative follows Jin Wang and how he deals with moving into a new, predominantly white neighborhood. Yang is adept at portraying the problems of children and teenagers in not only fitting in with their peers, but dealing with identity issues about being an Asian minority; and he does so without coming off as extremely preachy or heavy-handed. All three narratives eventually come together in the end in a surprising yet slightly too convenient manner. Overall, American Born Chinese is an excellent book, with bright bold colors, that challenges young adult readers with issues of ethnic identity in America.

The Eternal Smile

The Eternal Smile is a collaboration between Gene Yang who wrote the stories and Derek Kirk Kim who handled the illustrations. This graphic novel depicts three separate stories that are tied together by themes of fantasy, escape, and the fourth wall. The first story, Duncan’s Kingdom, details a young knight becoming the hero of a kingdom by vanquishing a frog king. However, he encounters a strange object that makes him question the world he’s in. Second is Granpa Greenbax which stars an old, wealthy, Scottish frog satirizing Disney’s Duck Tales and the Disney/Hollywood studio scene itself. Last but not least is Urgent Request about a quiet office worker named Janet who in the midst of her dead end job receives an e-mail from a mysterious Nigerian prince asking for money.

The artwork by Derek Kirk Kim is beautiful. Impressively enough, each story is drawn in a completely different style. The stories are interesting for the most part, , with the final story about Janet being both the most well-written and touching. Definitely a worthwhile read, although not quite as urgent as American Born Chinese.

Prime Baby

Prime Baby departs from Yang’s previous work and delves into a style that works for a younger audience, yet retains a wit and humor appreciable by adults. This book is narrated by a third grade boy by named Thaddeus who is affronted by his family’s new inclusion, a baby-sister Maddy. What seemingly starts as an innocuous and humorous theory that his baby sister is an alien—soon takes a left turn into a wild science fiction ride.

This book is both hilarious and sweet. Yang takes the overdone relationship of a jealous older sibling and transforms it into something new—a fantastic story involving prime numbers, the belching out of interdimensional pods, and charity-driven alien beings. More importantly, the story is great for pre-teens and older, highlighting the complex relationships and imaginations of children. Even the cliche` ending fits into the interesting twists that Gene takes you through. Highly recommended.

All in all, Gene Yang is a multi-talented artist with a strong catalogue of work that can be used in the classroom and entice young adults to read, read, read! Between now and April 16, take a look at one of his books, and if you like what you see, come on down to the University of Hawaii Manoa campus for Celebrate Reading! This is your chance to meet the man in person and pick his brain. If you’re really into comics, I’m sure he’ll even provide tips on how to get started as an aspiring comic book artist/writer!

To learn more about this talented artist and writer, visit Gene Luen Yang’s official website at