Sunday, August 8, 2010

Teens Read book club: summer '10, session 2, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Because I am an absolute comic nerd, the second book I selected for my group of teens was Gene Luen Yang's marvelous book American Born Chinese. I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is one of my all-time favorite books—comic or otherwise—and so I was hoping for a similarly enthused response from my teens. Unfortunately, although nobody hated it, they were mostly...lukewarm, let's say.

The kids were divided. Some of them disliked the disjointed plot structure (the book switches between three seemingly unconnected stories which are eventually brought together in the end), some didn't get the fantasy elements, and some just didn't get the story. And, unfortunately, I don't think I did a very good job of selling them on it.

I always feel awkward about entering into, or worse, leading, discussions on race or racial identity. This is mostly due to the fact that I'm white, from a predominantly white neighborhood/city/state, and very little experience with what I'm calling, for simplicity's sake, non-whiteness. Heck, I may have gone to school in Chicago, but the school I went to only had something like a 7% black student body. (It did, however, have an admirably high proportion of Asian kids.)

So I found it difficult to talk about racial identity in American Born Chinese. It was easier talking about identity in general, but that really only took us so far. I sometimes wish I'd been a teacher, so that I could design an entire unit around this one book and its implications; I wish I could take an entire semester, bring in cultural studies, other texts, speakers, authors, etc.

But you know what? I think I'm trying too hard. I think this is a sign that maybe I'm trying too hard to find books that will make my readers think, when all that's really needed is books that will make them read. That's the crucial step. When you can get a kid to read a book voluntarily, outside the school year, and then come together and discuss it, that's a pretty dang big step already.

Eh, whatever. As usual, I think A) I'm underestimating my own abilities, B) overestimating my impact on my readers, and C) writing an incredibly long and boring blog post. At this point, I'm going to wrap this up so we can get back to my usual recipe of borderline-coherent ramblings on pop culture and comics and crap.

P.S. Read American Born Chinese!

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