Saints by Gene Luen Yang – A Book Review

I recently wrote a review of Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers, and this book, Saints, is a companion piece.  In fact, it’s more than just a companion piece — it’s a conclusion.

In Boxers, there’s a moment where the main character, Bao, sees a young girl close to his own age.  He believes she looks like the devil.  Later on in the book, when they are both much older, Bao (seemingly) kills this girl in the city of Peking because she will not renounce her Christianity.

Saints is the story of that girl, from the time she is eight up until the age of fifteen.  She is simply called Four-Girl in the beginning by her family.  She is unwanted, unappreciated, and largely neglected.  It isn’t until she meets converts to Christianity that she begins to feel a sense of security.  Eventually, Four-Girl converts as well and chooses the name Vibiana.  However, throughout much of the book, and despite being visited frequently by Joan of Arc herself, Vibiana is not exactly the most devout of Christians.  She likes the food.  She likes the roof over her head.  She likes being recognized as a human being and not a waste of space.  It’s clear Jesus is not at the forefront of her mind.

When she hears of the Boxers headed to kill Christians, she is inspired to follow Joan of Arc’s lead and fight in the name of God.  But really … she just wants to fight.  After the life she’s endured, can you blame her?

She is eventually captured by Bao from Boxers, and at that moment you get to find out exactly what took place between them in that scene from the first book.

While Boxers is quite a bit longer, the ending of Saints struck me as far more poignant.  Admittedly, this could be because I consider myself a Christian as well.  Vibiana (Four-Girl) undergoes a tremendous change, one that I won’t spoil for you, but one that absolutely resonated.

As Boxers depicted Bao losing more and more of himself in his plight to save China, Saints offers a bittersweet story about Vibiana finding peace.  That tranquility, however does not arrive as one would expect.  Just the  opposite.

A noted Christian himself, I appreciated that Gene Luen Yang did not get too heavy-handed with Saints.  In fact, like with Boxers, he made a point to show the good and bad in everyone.  The Boxers consider themselves freedom fighters striving to preserve their culture, yet the Christian converts consider them monsters.  The Christians in the book believe themselves to be righteous, yet many of them are self-serving and overtly sinful.  However, in the end, Yang reminds us what it is to be truly selfless.  Some would say that’s being Christ-like.  Others would say it’s simply being compassionate.

Though the artwork is simply rendered, this is a powerful story about history, people, motive, and belief.

The epilogue of the book, by the way, shook me to my core.  Perfect.

Image result for saints gene luen yang book cover

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

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Boxers by Gene Luen Yang – A Book Review

After teaching American Born Chinese for several years, I finally decided my (then) nine-year-old could handle it last fall.  She loved it, so when Gene Luen Yang came to our local library, we had to pay him a visit.  Unbelievably, we got there before anyone else and snagged a front row seat.  Mr. Yang was already there and held a wonderful conversation with my daughter.  He is truly an incredibly nice man and obviously a father of young children.

Because he made such a great impression on her, my daughter wanted to read everything by Gene Luen Yang.  She enjoyed Secret Coders, so I next grabbed her both Boxers and Saints as well.  Admittedly, I didn’t know much about either book.

She read them and made a few comments about them being a little bloody, then asked me to read them, too.  How could I say no?  I’m a fan of the author as well.

My daughter was right–these are bloody, violent books!  However, they are also very, very good.

Boxers takes place between 1894 and 1900.  Historically speaking, it deals with the Chinese uprising against Western invaders as well as Christian missionaries.  This all actually happened.

Yang focuses on Bao, a young man whose family, friends, and village has suffered at the hands of foreign influences and even Christians.  They are marginalized, bullied, and even killed for not conforming to outside forces.  Bao loves Chinese opera, specifically the many gods and goddesses featured therein.  As you know from American Born Chinese, Yang is particularly talented at infusing Chinese mythology into his stories.  Of course, in the case of Bao, these are not myths.  These gods and goddesses are reality, and he is soon able to harness their power.  He teaches others to harness their power as well, and this is the foundation of their strength against the bigger, better armed invaders that they confront.

The book culminates in the city of Peking.  There Bao must make his most difficult of decisions and face his ultimate challenge.

Boxers is a violent, complex book.  While I don’t regret letting my (then) nine-year-old read it, I should have done a little research and provided a bit more guidance as she devoured it.  It presents the very ugly, brutal side of colonialism and even Christian evangelism.  However, it also brilliantly depicts Bao compromising his “gut” feelings of right and wrong versus what he thinks is best for his nation.  Bao kills innocent Christian women and children in this book, but from his perspective, they are not innocent.  They are foreign devils trying to destroy his culture and people.

Yang himself is a Christian, so please don’t get on his case about this.  He’s depicting a character rooted in historical events and using him to explore obvious complexities that actually occurred.  The Chinese who did not conform were beaten and killed mercilessly.  The Boxers did the same to their adversaries.

Rest assured, Yang does not deal with any of this lightly.  He clearly put a lot of thought into how he wanted to execute this story.  I found it thoughtful, tasteful, and fair in relation to historical precedent.

I will admit, though, because of Yang’s drawing style, the violence jarred me.  This would have been a very different book by any other artist.  While there is blood, head shots, beatings, and even mass murder, Yang doesn’t make any of it gratuitous.  At the same time, though, he also doesn’t shy away from what’s happening.  At one point, Bao decides to burn a church with Christians inside of it.  Yang doesn’t soften this horrific event, but he also doesn’t sensationalize it.

As you can tell, Boxers deeply resonated with me.  I completely recommend it.  I do think it’s okay for children, but I would urge you to guide them through it (unlike what I did).  There is much to be learned from the book, to be sure.

I’ll review Boxers‘ accompanying title, Saints, soon!

Image result for boxers book cover

(Did you enjoy this review?  Check out Scott William Foley’s latest book HERE!)

New Super-Man #1 – A (Comic) Book Review

I won’t even pretend to be objective during this review.  I am a Gene Luen Yang fan.  I first discovered him when I started teaching American Born Chinese, and he just keeps winning me over.  After all, the guy is the official National Ambassador For Young People’s Literature!

So, it’s probably obvious I’m going to sing New Super-Man praises.

Yang is no stranger to Superman, having written the character before, but New Super-Man is a world away from everyone’s beloved Clark Kent.  New Super-Man is Kong Kenan, a young man in China who is not particularly nice, humble, altruistic, or, well, heroic.  He’s a bit of a bully, doesn’t get along with his dad all that well, and has attitude to spare.

So how does he become New Super-Man?  You’ll have to read the book to find out, but, as one would expect, Yang lays the groundwork for a very rich, complex character that I’m sure will become even more layered as time progresses.  After all, Yang excels at depicting relatable characters overcoming internal turmoil.  There are some fun bits of action, moments of quirky Yang humor, and the last page will force a double-take.

I love the entire premise of what Yang is doing with New Super-Man — I’m frankly surprised DC went for this idea.  It’s funny, but even though this book literally uses the name of the most famous super hero in the world, it is by far the most original comic I’ve read in ages.  Sure, Yang borrows from Superman mythology, but he does so with a wink and a nudge.  Anyone who believes this book is a ripoff is not paying close enough attention.

Packed full of characterization, action, humor, and heart, Yang’s New Super-Man is off to an exhilarating start.

… That last page.  This is going to be interesting.

 

 

The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew – A Book Review

The Shadow Hero is an interesting graphic novel for several reasons.  The first is that it takes an obscure hero from the Golden Age of comic books—the Green Turtle—and gives him an origin for the first time in seventy years.  It’s also interesting because it’s largely believed that the Green Turtle is the first Asian American superhero.  Finally, it’s because Gene Luen Yang also wrote American Born Chinese, a graphic novel both incredibly funny, amazingly imaginative, and distinctively insightful.

The Shadow Hero is a fine read.  It introduces a fascinating concept in a set of spirit animals that represent China’s prosperity.  They must live in the shadow of a human, and, as you can probably guess, one of them is a tortoise.  Through a series of events, the tortoise spirit makes its way to America and ends up with nineteen-year-old Hank, the son of a grocer in Chinatown.  Hank is at first a reluctant hero, encouraged by his eccentric mother, but events unfold that lead Hank to take on the Green Turtle persona both willingly and passionately.  Though the book mixes action with comedy, the finale delivers a dangerous scenario for both our hero and the tortoise spirit.

Sonny Liew’s art and colors are engaging and progress the story well.  He’s got a great grasp on the era, and his dynamic figures blend realism with impossible physicality.  I was not previously familiar with Liew, but he impressed me very much and I look forward to learning more about him.

I’m a Gene Luen Yang fan, and I wanted to love this book, but I didn’t.  I like it very much.  It’s quite a serviceable graphic novel, but aside from the unique history of the Green Turtle, it’s pretty standard fare.

Perhaps this is unfair to Gene Luen Yang, but American Born Chinese surprised and delighted at every turn, and left me truly feeling as though the book perpetuated a change within my worldview.  The Shadow Hero is a nice super hero story, but, in the end, doesn’t transcend the genre.