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.


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.