Sunday, November 25, 2012

YA Reading, Round 6: Multicultural

I think teen readers will find Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese either incredibly wonderful or incredibly frustrating. Me? I'm just somewhere in the apathetic middle. This graphic novel is actually telling three stories simultaneously—the Monkey King's, a popular Chinese fable; Jin Wang's, the only Chinese-American in his new school; and Danny's, a popular teen whose life is being ruined by his grossly stereotypical Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. The stories don't tie together until a twist at the very end, and this is the reason it may be frustrating to some readers. It's hard to see the point of all these stories until the end, and a reader may just give up. Or, a reader may love the format and be engrossed the entire time.

Ultimately, American Born Chinese is a story about identity and accepting who you are. On the whole, I just felt disconnected from it, which may have to do with both the format and the stories themselves. I felt sorta like Yang was writing this for someone particular in mind, or like he was intentionally being a bit cheeky in his storytelling. And my reaction was just, "Ok....and?" Maybe I just don't have enough of a personal, cultural connection to what the author was saying, but I felt like an outsider reading this; and a good book should connect you with the characters, no matter if you share a background or not. Its fast-paced, graphic style will be appealing for reluctant readers, but I'm not certain about its mass appeal to a YA audience.

In Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins, Asha is sort of stuck in Calcutta with her mother and older sister, Reet. They're living with their in-laws while Baba (father) is finding a job in New York. And now they're just waiting...waiting to follow and waiting to resume their lives in a whole new world. Immediately, we see that this is a world with very strict tradition. Asha is an intelligent, independent, and athletic young girl, but her aunt, uncle, and grandmother don't approve of her usual tomboy behavior. Further, Reet is of marrying age, and though she's not ready for it, the family thinks it's time to find her a match (most likely to help the financial burden of three extra mouths to feed).

Asha and Reet are forced to grow up following rules of a society to which they are not accustomed. Suddenly, their opinions and independence don't seem to matter, and they find that the traditional rules of Calcutta are very limiting. Many readers may find the rules and injustices extreme, but these characters are representative of what many persons around the world have had or are still having to deal with. Many parts of the 1970s tumultuous Indian setting may not be relatable to a reader, but dealing with rules, making sacrifices, and finding one's place are universal themes. Good issues to think about and good topics for discussion.

The Sound of Munich by Suzanne Nelson is one title in the S.A.S.S. (Students Across the Seven Seas) series. It's not "multicultural literature" by its standard definition. The series follows American teen as they travel the world through a high school exchange program. The plots seem to be relatively simple, idyllic, and also pretty predictable—adventure, friendship, family, romance; in this one, Siena leaves her home in California to find the man in Germany who, decades ago, helped smuggle her father's family past the Berlin Wall. Naturally, this semester abroad opens Siena's eyes to new history, new people, and new ways of life.

Now you can see why this isn't exactly "multicultural" at its grittiest, but I like that this angle of "world literature" was included in our unit of study. A character like Siena is easily relatable—and maybe easier than a story written from a particular ethnic or cultural perspective. These books are like armchair travel; readers get to experience new places in a way that feels comfortable and easy to them. Yes, they're mostly lighthearted and pretty cheesy in that everything comes together perfectly, but they're still opening the reader's eyes to a new world. These are good intro books to multicultural literature, because maybe, if your interest was piqued by the setting you visited, you'll want to explore further. I'm sure they've been called sweet or lame or even awfully misrepresentative, but I probably would've eaten them up as a young teen.

I'm not going to say much about the last book I read for this unit, but it's too entertaining to exclude completely. Winners and Losers is one title in the Urban Underground series by Anne Schraff. The story follows seemingly Latino characters in a setting that, despite the Urban Underground theme, seems incredibly suburban. I feel like the author just had to throw in some key words like "barrio" with decidedly ethnically-named characters, and voila! You have urban fiction! Our class unanimously found this completely "un-urban" but maybe that doesn't matter, because, as one student pointed out, isn't a lot of adult "urban fiction" grounded in fantasy romance escapism? Anyway I guess the themes are still pretty universal, with human characters and all that. But for a good chuckle, can we just take a moment to look at a photo of Ms. Schraff? Yeah. "Urban."

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