Booktalk: Level Up by Gene Luen Yang

bookcover  geneyanglevelup dream in pixelseat bitterness

Level Up

Author: Gene Luen Yang

Art by: Thiem Pham

Awards/Best Books/Honors:

Cybil Award, 2011 Finalist Graphic Novel (Young Adult) United States
Choices, 2012 ; Cooperative Children’s Book Center
New York Times Notable Children’s Books , 2011 ; The New York Times
YALSA Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2012 ; American Library Association

Target Audience: Grades 9 and up


What are you passionate about?

What do you dream of doing with your life?
What if this dream clashes with everything that you’ve been brought up to be or do?

What if following the dream means derailing from a path that others have planned for you?

Ever since Dennis saw his first arcade video game, his dream has been to become a professional gamer.  His friend calls him the Good Will Hunting of video games, as if his brain were made by Nintendo.  Imagine playing and testing video games during the week and competing in tournaments on weekends, getting paid big bucks and meeting beautiful groupies while doing so.  Life doesn’t get much better than that!

Unfortunately, Dennis’ parents have an entirely different idea for his life.  Having sacrificed everything when they immigrated to America, they wanted Dennis to learn how to “eat bitterness”.  To them, he has only one path: get straight A’s in high school, go to a great college, study medicine, and become a gastroenterologist.  Nothing that even comes close Dennis’ idea of a happy life.

Which road will Dennis choose?  Will he be the “good son” and follow his parents’ wishes, or will he define his own happiness?

Find out in Gene Yang’s Level Up.


‘Boxers & Saints’ National Book Award Nomination!

Way to represent!

2013 NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS: ‘Boxers & Saints’ graphic novelist Gene Yang calls long-list honor ‘mind-blowing’ – Comic Riffs – The Washington Post.

Video: The Art & Style of Graphic Novels

One reason I would move to Washington DC in a heartbeat — Politics and Prose panel discussions!  This one features four graphic novel artists: Laura Lee Gulledge, Rutu Modan, Matt Phelan, and my favorite, Gene Luen Yang!

5 Questions: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Bowing to pressure from outraged parents and after inquiries from the Daily News, the principal of Public School/Middle School 114 announced the book was no longer required summer reading. ‘It was like “Fifty Shades of Grey” for kids,’ said Kelly-Ann McMullan-Preiss, who refused to let her son read the book.

Read more:

REALLY?!?  This book is about many things, but the last thing it is is “Fifty Shades”…nor is it about masturbation, or teen swearing.

Anyone who has actually READ this book knows that it’s about growing up, racism, alcoholism, poverty, friendship, family, love, hope/desperation, courage, finding your identity, and many, many more. This was my favorite book this summer. Yes, it contains f-bombs and references to sex but it is not used gratuitously, I promise!  You can like or dislike the book — everyone is entitled to that — but let it not be because a) you haven’t read it or b) a word you didn’t like was mentioned a few times.

Below is my reading response for the book, written for my YA course this summer.

Favorite part/scene of the novel….

I loved Alexie’s use of humor to offset the hopelessness and desperation Junior (and those living on the reservation) feels.  This is often seen in the cartoons Junior draws, which serve as lighthearted commentary on the important events and people in life.  They are full of sarcasm (e.g. p. 51, 107, 124) and keen observations (especially portraits of Junior’s family and friends: those of his parents on p. 12, of his sister on p. 27, and of his grandmother on p. 69).  The narrative contains many funny moments too.  One of the saddest part of the book – when the reservation held a wake for Junior’s grandmother after she was killed by a drunk driver – was filled with laughter:  Billionaire “Ted” had shown up for the wake with a long-winded, affected story about how he came to be in possession of Grandmother Spirit’s dance outfit, only to be told that she was never a dancer, and that, contrary to what his expert had told him, the beadwork and design looked more Sioux than Spokane.  And just like that, the tone of the chapter turns from somber to light:

Two thousands Indians laughed at the same time.  We kept laughing.
It was the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.
And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but dang, we knew how to laugh.
When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.

To me, this passage (p. 166) is a perfect summation of the tone of this book – a marriage of light and dark, laughter and tears.

How did the book make you feel and what thoughts did it make you have…relate to personal experiences…

I am especially drawn to the theme of duality in this book, the duo identity that Junior grapples with.  I loved the cartoon on p. 166 — one side of the face laughing, one side crying — but also p. 43 — the signage pointing one way to REZ/HOME and one to HOPE/??? – and p. 57 – a split drawing of a white boy on one side and an Indian boy on the other.  The white boy has labels such as “a bright future”, “hope”, and “positive role models”, while the Indian boy has labels such as “a vanishing past”, “a family history of diabetes and cancer”, and “bone-crushing reality”.  This struggle for identity is also shown on p. 182, in the cartoon showing Junior playing basketball.  On the one where he was playing on the rez, he is depicted as the devil or “white-lover”.  On the other side, he is playing at Reardan and is depicted as an angel.  In both pictures, he is thinking, “Who am I?”

Junior and many other characters in the book frequently have to contend with duo-identity issues (his sister Mary, Rowdy, even his parents, who go back and forth between sober and drunk).  Do they stay on the rez knowing that they’ll be stuck in a vicious cycle of poverty, drunkenness, and hopelessness?  Or do they leave, knowing that they’ll be considered traitors?  Even after Junior makes the decision to leave, he struggles with who he really is and where he truly belongs.  Being an immigrant myself, I often wrestle with the same question, but as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that there’s no good answer – one just ends up feeling pulled in all sorts of directions.  I loved Junior’s epiphany near the end of the book (p. 217):

I realized that sure, I was a Spokane Indian.  I belonged to that tribe.  But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants.  And to the tribe of basketball players.  And to the tribe of bookworms.
And the tribe of cartoonists.
And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.
And the tribe of poverty.
And the tribe of funeral-goers.
And the tribe of beloved sons.
And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.
It was a huge realization.
And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.

Consider whether or not this novel would appeal to today’s teens. If so, why and to which group? Think about where the novel fits into the YA spectrum. Middle school? High school? Boys? Girls? Reluctant Readers? Only fans of certain genre? 

I believe this book would appeal to today’s teens, since it addresses many issues that teens deal with today: alcoholism, poverty, abuse, racism, etc.  According to Alexie’s 2011 Speakeasy article, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood”, he has met with many young readers who found solace and hope in reading Part-Time Indian.  Boys might be especially drawn by the sports references in the book and the male characters/friendships.  That said, boys and girls alike who have dealt with identity issues as well as those mentioned above will find themselves in these pages.  This book might appeal to reluctant readers and fans of graphic novels/cartoons (the art adds volumes to the text).  Reviewers recommend this book for middle-schoolers and up.


5 Questions: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

1. If you are not an experienced reader of graphic novels, describe/discuss your reading of American Born Chinese. Was it difficult to get used to reading a story in this format? Did you enjoy the experience?

American Born Chinese was my first graphic novel.  After hearing Gene Yang’s lecture at UTK I was intrigued and ran out and bought a copy.  I grew up reading Japanese manga and so the format/layout is not new.  I did, however, come into the experience as a skeptic…graphic novels might be fun to read, but surely, they wouldn’t be considered “literature”, right?  I was surprised to find myself thoroughly enjoying ABC, but at the same time, having a hard time understanding it during my first read-through.  How could that be, since graphic novels in my mind were supposed to be less literary and easier to read?  Subsequent readings had me paying more attention to the details in the illustrations and the interplay between the text and the drawings.  I loved Yang’s drawing style and the little inside jokes he hides within the panels.  I have since then tried a few other graphic novels and my opinion on graphic novels have definitely shifted!  I can see, as Yang discussed on “Comics in Education?!”, that this strong emphasis on visuals can be great for not only visual learners, but could benefit learners in general (Sones’ 1944 study showed that children given information presented in comic form had scored higher than children who were given the same information in text form), and graphic novels could motivate reluctant and ESL readers as well.

2. Teenagers often struggle with identity in its many shapes and forms—cultural, sexual, personal, etc. Please comment of the theme of identity and its importance to American Born Chinese.

I believe one of the biggest struggles for immigrants is with identity.  Yang explores this in American Born Chinese with great care, using three seemingly separate storylines (one with the Monkey King, one with Jin, and one with Danny and his cousin Chin-kee).  The Monkey King laments the fact that, even though he has mastered the four major heavenly disciplines, he is still seen as a monkey.  Even though Jin was born in the United States, he is still identified as “Chinese” and teased because of his heritage.  And it didn’t matter what that heritage is, he is automatically grouped together with Suzy (Japanese) and Wei Chen (Taiwanese).  Danny, a typical American boy, is plagued by his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee.  We eventually find out that Jin and Danny were the same person, which to me, is a brilliant treatment of the theme and shows that Yang truly understand the dilemma immigrants go through.  Immigrants — 1st-, 2nd-, even 3rd-generation — are first and foremost identified/judged by the color of their skin (this is true in Jin’s case).  People will ask my kids where they are from, and when they would reply “Michigan”, people would say, “But where are you from, originally?”  This would confuse them to no ends, understandably!   As Danny’s storyline show, we can try to blend in as much as we can, playing varsity sports and dying our hair blond, but the ugly stereotypes (as personified by Chin-kee) will always follow us…there’s no escaping them.

The relationship between Jin and Wei-Chen is interesting to me, since I remember a time where I was more of a FOB than an ABC, wanting and longing to become an ABC (but hating them at the same time for “betraying” or looking down at their heritage).  There’s a period where I was somewhere in the middle — having friends in both camps — and then when I shifted to more the ABC side, I remember wanting to distance myself from the FOBs — because they were often the target of teasing and racial slurs — but at the same time, wanting what they have (a stronger identity within their heritage).  Even today, as an Taiwanese-Canadian/American living down south, I (and my American-born family) struggle with this search for identity on a daily basis.

3. Racism also plays a major role in the overall theme of American Born Chinese. For me, Yang handles this troubling theme with genius. Please write a thoughtful paragraph about the theme of coping with racism in this novel.

Yang does a brilliant job shedding light on the issue of racism and how people cope with it.  Chin-kee’s character personifies every stereotype that is associated with a Chinese person — the Chinese take-out boxes, the buck teeth, the accent (the interchange of l’s and r’s), being loud, the grammar (no third-person inflections), being smart, slanted eyes, etc. — and this is something one can’t shed, no matter how Americanized one can appear to be (e.g. Danny, though he appears “white”, always has Chin-kee around to possibly mess up his life).  The only way to cope, I believe, is to figure out and make peace with your true identity, to embrace it, as Jin/Danny and the Monkey King realize in the book. Once you know who you are (and I believe we are all made up of a bunch of different parts) and what you are not, then the racial slurs/stereotypes will have lost their power to hurt.  Instead, they become something we can laugh about and defeat, as Danny did on p. 212.

4. Yang delicately balances the difficult themes of coming of age, the search for identity, and coping with racism with humor. Please locate and list five panels (with the page number) which you personally find humorous. Of these five panels, which is your favorite? Why?

  • p. 30/36, where Jin and Wei-Chen are being introduced.  This is probably my favorite since, as a Taiwanese-American family, first meetings and introductions can often be awkward and confusing.  I am an immigrant like Wei-Chen, and people, whether for lack of knowledge or just convenience, usually assume I’m from China.  My husband and daughters, all born in Michigan, frequently experience what Jin experiences — because they look Asian, they are also automatically assumed to be from China.  If they say they are from Michigan people often rephrase their question, “But where are you originally from?”  Either we repeat themselves and receive blank stares, or we resort to lengthy explanations which can end in humorous confusion as well: “We are actually not Chinese…our families are from Taiwan” is always followed by an enthusiastic “Ohhh, we just love Thai food!”

  • p. 48, where we are first introduced to Chin-kee.  I loved Yang’s use of detail — his luggage are Chinese take-out boxes.  This is such an Americanized stereotype; if you travel to China, HK, or Taiwan, you probably would have a hard time finding those kind of take-out boxes.  The drawing of Chin-kee and the representation of a stereotypical Chinese accent is on the spot too.  I don’t know if this is Yang’s intent, but to me it pokes fun at the people who would put on these accents.

  • p. 111-113, where Chin-kee answers every question correctly.  Here’s Yang addresses another stereotype — that all Asians are super smart — with humor.  But there is a rather dark side to that truth.  Growing up, so much of our self-worth is based on how smart we are and how many A’s we can get, and that’s all adults ever talk about or seem to care about.  It’s interesting what that does to children/teens.  Those who do excel in school work live under constant pressure; those who do not excel constantly feel like failures.

  • p. 148-149, where the Monkey King watches Wong Lai-Tsao being speared and skewered and barbequed by demons and finally accepts his true identity and helps.  It’s funny that he waits this long, and that during all of this Wong Lai-Tsao still has the energy to philosophize/lecture the Monkey King.

  • p. 226, where Jin tries to order off the Chinese menu and points to “Cash Only”, thinking it’s a dish.  On the one hand, Jin was born and raised in America, so he shouldn’t be expected to know the language, and yet because he looks Chinese, the waitress automatically identifies him as such and assumes he would.  I can see this happening with my daughters, who can’t speak or read Chinese.  As the only person who can speak Mandarin fluently in my family, I am always urged to teach my American-born daughters the language.  I struggle with it.  On the one hand, they shouldn’t be expected to, but on the other, I look at my brother’s kids who do and I think maybe I’ve failed somehow by not teaching them.

5. Identifying the audience and determining age appropriateness are two difficult tasks when building a graphic novel collection for teens. Who do you think the audience (the teens most likely to read the book) for American Born Chinese is? What age group do you think the book is most appropriate for?

I think anyone who’s ever experienced an identity crisis or been a target of racism or other forms of teasing based on their appearance or background, anyone who’s ever gone through the immigration experience, whether through their parents or themselves, would appreciate this book.  Chinese-Americans would enjoy the retelling of Monkey King, a classic that every child has grown up with, and other inside jokes as well (Wei-Chen’s “Robo-Happy” shirt is a great detail…Chinese/Taiwanese people love wearing shirts with English on them, even if they don’t make any sense).  Yang’s use of three interconnected characters, and especially his use of Chin-kee, really brings to light the ugly stereotypes that so many people carelessly throw around and their ill-effects.  That said, while I think Chin-kee might be a humorous way to talk about such hard topics as racism, I am concerned that younger readers might misunderstand Yang’s purpose altogether, and think it’s okay to use those stereotypes, accents, etc. (especially since a Chinese author is doing it himself, in a published book!).  (The three interconnected stories might pose some confusion to younger students as well.)  Even though the book has a low reading level (AR 3.3; Scholastic 5, according to CLCD), I would  recommend this book to middle-schoolers and up.  (Amazon recommends this book for 12 and up; CLCD has age recommendations ranging from 12-, 13-, 15- and up, depending on the reviewer).

Booktalk: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi


Title: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Publication Information: New York: Pantheon Books, 2003.
Age group: Upper grades, high school and up
Topics: Iran, Iran-Iraq War (or First Persian Gulf War), Middle East history, Islamic Revolution, cultural revolution


  • Persepolis was the 2004 winner of YALSA’s Alex Awards, given to books written for and marketed to adults that have special appeal to young adults 12-18.

  • Earlier this year, there was talk that Persepolis might become banned from the Chicago Public School system for content that might be “age-inappropriate” for kids younger than 7th grade (graphic scenes of people being tortures/killed; explicit language; sexual references; defiance of authority; etc.).  ALA promptly filed a letter of concern.

  • Students who liked the book may want to watch the 2007 animated movie adaptation directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi herself.  The movie was nominated for numerous awards (including an Oscar) and won several (20).  Curiously, even though the film is filled with violence, sexual references, and language, it was rated PG-13.

Summary: In Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, she describes what it is like to grow up in Iran from ages of six to fourteen.  Daughter of outspoken Marxists and descendant of one of Iran’s emperors, Marji witnesses gross human injustices, her people’s struggle to overthrow an oppressive government, and many senseless deaths.  When she becomes rebellious herself, her family sends her to Vienna to keep her safe.  In writing Persepolis, Satrapi wishes to dispel the stereotypical images that Westerners ascribe to Iranians based on “the wrongdoings of a few extremists” (Introduction to Persepolis).


What does freedom mean to you?  Does it mean being able to eat whatever you want, dress however you like, stay out however late with whoever you want?  To some of you, it might mean being able to wear makeup, drive yourself to places, go to parties, listen to punk rock, dye your hair blue, get a tattoo or pierce your ears (or bellybutton, or tongue, or eyebrows), right?

Well, freedom means something entirely different to Marji and her family in Iran.  They want a bit of what you want too, but they also desire something that you and I sometimes take for granted here in the United States — the freedom to speak, the freedom to think for themselves, and the freedom to question their government.

Under the rule of the fundamental right, ordinary citizens — even young girls and boys like Marji and her friends — are often chastised for the the slightest offenses — like not wearing their veils or speaking against authority or daring to attend or organize demonstrations.   Punishments can range from a scolding, a slap across the face, detention — if they are lucky — or, for those less fortunate, arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution.

What do you think it’d be like to live in a world like that?  Hard to imagine, right?  And yet, for young Marji, this is her reality and her norm.  In our country, we often discuss the Middle East in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism, but Marji wants us to know about the Iranians she knows and loves: those who were tortured or killed in defense of freedom, and those who had to leave their families behind in order to escape wrongful imprisonment and prosecution.

To read more about Marji’s childhood in Iran and how she grew up under the blood and terrors of the Islamic Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, pick up Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.  It will open your eyes to this very important part of the world and change the way you think about the people of the Middle East.

Personal Comments: I read Persepolis earlier this year, the first graphic novel I had read.  It is safe to say that it has forever changed the way I view graphic novels.  I was shocked how the format, art, and the text worked together to make a topic that I had absolutely no previous interest in so fascinating and so emotionally-wrenching.  I think that’s what a great book can do — to dispel previous prejudices about something — graphic novels, Middle Eastern culture/people — or at least open up our eyes to see something from another point of view.  Though Persepolis contains mature themes that might be disturbing to readers, it is a worthwhile read.  Students who enjoy this book can read the sequel, Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return, chronicling Marji’s life in Vienna, her return to Iran, and her search for her identity.  Students can also read Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale, a biographical graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about surviving Hitler and the Holocaust during WWII.  For a more light-hearted fare, read Gene Leun Yang’s American Born Chinese, also an autobiographical graphic novel.

Audiobook: Love That Dog

Title: Love That Dog
Author: Sharon Creech
Read by: Scott Wolf
Publication Date: March 14, 2006
Publisher: HarperFestival (Unabridged Edition)
ISBN-10: 006085278X
ISBN-13: 978-0060852788
Format: Audio CD
Length: 35 minutes
Summary: In Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a boy named Jack overcomes his skepticism about poetry. Inspired by famous poets like Robert Frost and Walter Dean Myers, Jack starts to write about his friendship with his beloved dog, Sky, and eventually reveals the grief he feels about losing it. Poems, Jack discovers, can be safe way to explore topics that might otherwise be too difficult to talk about.

Audience: Ages 8 and up


  • The book is a great way to introduce poetry/free verse to someone unfamiliar to the genre or who doesn’t particularly like it. Scott Wolf, with the right amount of pauses and intonation, adds warmth and emotions to the otherwise-spare/simple text.
  • The audiobook teaches listeners how one might recite poetry and introduces them to the world of spoken word.
  • The content and length, I felt, were perfect for those new to audiobooks: too complex — the listener has a hard time keeping up; too long — the listener may lose interest and stop. Though the recommended age on various review sites was grades 4 and up, my 1st and 3rd graders sat through the entire 35 minutes entirely captivated.
  • I liked that the audiobook includes readings of some of the poems that inspired Jack’s writing. Jack’s favorite poem “Love That Boy” was read by its author, Walter Dean Myers.
  • Jack asks some good questions about poetry that kids probably have asked themselves. Readers will appreciate his honesty and confusion about this often-misunderstood genre.


  • Though Scott Wolf has theatre experience and does a great job reading, I wonder if the book would’ve been even better read by a younger child, since the entire book was based on Jack’s journal and musings. For example, the read-along CD for Victoria Kann’s Pinkalicious, The Princess of Pink Treasury was narrated by a young actress (Eliana Shaskan) who sounded the way one would imagine Pinkalicious to sound. Would Love That Dog be even more relatable had a boy read it and injected it with the attitudes/tones/expressiveness that are so unique to boys?


  • As an accompaniment to the book, a read-along. Listening to something while seeing the words can help reinforce reading skills and fluency. Students can make connections between written and spoken words.
  • Poetry unit — free verse vs. more structured poems — do poems have to rhyme? do they have to have certain patterns, structures, or components? Which kind of poems do students prefer? Would Love That Dog have the same impact if it rhymed? Why did the author choose free verse rather than a more structured format?
  • More practice with different types of poems. Have students write their own concrete/shape poem.
  • Poet study — have students select, then study, a favorite poet or one they are curious about. Read his/her collection of poems and pick a favorite poem. What does the student like about this poet or his/her poems? Create activities around the poet/poems.
  • Introduction to the world of spoken words. How might a reader’s tone, pauses, or attitude change how the listener interprets the poem? Have students read the same part of the book differently and see if listeners have different reactions to the words.
  • Explore different themes in the book. Discuss how the original poems addresses those themes.
  • Have students write poems about an emotion such as happiness, sadness, loneliness, and encourage them to share with the class. Or, demonstrate the power of words by having students identify themes and mood of the poem without the benefit of the title or help from the writer.

Awards/Best Books (from CLCD):