This book addresses a variety of important themes, but I think the most important is that of identity: how we let others influence how we see ourselves; the sides of ourselves we may be unaware of; how often we base our own identities on what we aren't rather than what we are; how damaging our treatment of people based on ignorant perceptions can be to their identities; how inner strength and authenticity can be achieved, and so on. I think I could read this book every day for the next month and keep finding more ideas about identity within it. It's a very skillfully layered book.
It begins with three separate stories which are told in alternating chapters, though these stories eventually converge, and the connection between them is revealed.
The first story is a traditional folk tale of a monkey king. He attends a party with other gods, but is turned away because he's a monkey and wears no shoes. The image below features the monkey king working on attaining the four major disciplines of invulnerability.
A second story is about Jin Wang, a Chinese-American boy who is navigating between the predominantly-white world of his school and the world of his parents, who live a more traditionally Chinese lifestyle at home. The image below demonstrates the ways in which even well-meaning people who attempt to be accepting of diversity can hurt individuals with carelessness or ignorance.
In the bottom right hand corner, you see one of Jin's classmates, a Japanese-American girl the bullies in the class call "chink," which is a demeaning term for a Chinese person, not a Japanese person. The ignorance of some of Jin's classmates is so deep that they can't even get their racial slurs right. If you're a woman like me, you may have been called names usually reserved for women. That's pretty horrible, but imagine if the people degrading you with words paid so little notice to who you really are that they didn't even use ugly words reserved for females, but instead called you names commonly used to insult men. With the former names, as awful as they are, you at least know that you're not alone, that other women are called these names. With the latter, your femaleness is completely dismissed. Imagine how much damage something like that, happening day after day to a child, could do. How would that affect your sense of who you are?
The third story features Chin-Kee, a horrifyingly stereotypical Chinese boy who visits his white American cousin, embarrassing that cousin with his stereotyped behavior: eating "clispy flied cat noodles" in the cafeteria, knowing the answers to all questions in class, etc. This story evokes a TV sitcom, with a laugh track running at the bottom of many frames. Just like in real sitcoms, he laugh track is often there when nothing even remotely funny has happened, which is one reason I refuse, under any circumstances, to watch any TV show with a laugh track. Below, you see Chin-Kee and his cousin, Danny, or as Chin-Kee says, Da-Nee.
This is the sort of book that would appeal to teens struggling with their own identities, but if I gave this book to my own teen, I'd probably discuss it with him afterwards. Sometimes kids are so surrounded by stereotypes that they don't recognize when they're used as satire.
And, of course, this book would also appeal to a wide variety of adults. I adored it, myself. Nymeth thought highly of it, as did Alison.
Thanks to Alison for this link to an essay by Yang about how he came to write this book.