Unit Introduction: Monkey King & American Born Chinese

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In this unit, the students will practice identifying and explaining point of view in the graphic novel, American Born Chinese. In this unit, students will revisit the key themes of identity, assimilation, and relationships that were introduced in a previous unit (Absolutely True Diary).

Big Idea

The teller of the story guides what we think; the point of view depicting the story guides what we see. As we focus our energy on the teller of the story, the focus is on the distinctive qualities of the story itself.

Unit Introduction

Having taught this novel a number of times in recent years, I have varied the speed with which we explore the text, sometimes taking a slow and laborious pace of an art critic appraising a masterpiece (and this book is an artistic masterpiece), and sometimes reading through it quickly with students to glean the important new vocabulary terms that appear in the text (e.g. emissaries, deities, ignoramus), as there are many fantastic and colorful terms.

This time around, I am focusing on structural issues in this text, nodding toward point of view and multiple plot lines (RL.9-10.5).  I will address in two ways: first, on a more simplistic level, the theme of perspective (RL.9-10.2) provides a point of entry into the characters' actions and growth (RL.9-10.3); second, the structural piece (RL.9-10.5) is harder to appraise, as we explore how Yang's structural choices help to create order and meaning.  Furthermore, the visual elements of the novel reinforce the textual meanings, creating a multimodal experience that is both accessible and complex.  

Thus, to give the book a cursory reading to get the gist of the storyline, the character developments, etc., is not all that challenging, and the students will likely read this on their own over a weekend.  However, we will then study pieces of it, engaging in writing, comparative analysis with short stories, some art/visual criticism, and more.  It's a very different reading experience for my students, as they will not get a check-in quiz but will be expected to perform on high level tasks (RL.9-10.5).  I know that this approach will work because the multimodal text carries high interest. 

Visual Literacy and the Monkey King's Representation (opening chapter)

15 minutes

We will read the opening chapter in class, which will take only a few minutes, but then we will engage in the beginnings of some visual analysis of the text panels.  Specifically, the students will be asked to analyze a panel which I attach in the next section of this lesson.

For now, I introduce the following terms and ask the students how they relate to the cover: American Born Chinese- Monkey King - Copy.

[Note: I am using image frames in my write- up of this lesson as a form of visual quotation.  I do not wish to infringe on the copyrights of the author or publisher by quoting lengthy sequences of images; however, my explanations in this unit will make little sense without these essential visual quotations.]

book cover


Image scale -- this focuses our attention on a wide angle or close up.  Larger, close-up images tend to pull us into the world of that particular character.  For example, on the cover the novel shows Jin Wang in large scale.  We see his innocence on his blank expression.  We see in the background the faint image of the Monkey King who will later be trapped under his pride and represented by the rocks.  An so I ask: 

1.) What images seem to be larger/smaller?   

2.) What emotions seem to be attached to these images?  

3.) What do you predict will be the importance of them?

4.) How do other famous artists or musicians (album covers) use image scale?  


Juxtaposition -- Putting images next each other for effect is common in graphic novels and also is the basis for irony in linguistic texts.  On the cover here, we have three principal images juxtaposed, Jin, his transformer, and the Monkey King.  All of these images seek to reinforce the of transformation toward self-acceptance, but such an explanation would require a number of spoilers to be given out, so I leave this term defined and begin to ask some predicting type questions.  I ask: What does a heart tattoo mean?  What about with barbed wire?  Or a cross?  Why do people combine images?  

1.) What combinations of images do you see?  How does color affect these combinations?

2.) What do you predict will be the relationships between these images?


Framing -- What seems to be on the left, right, top and bottom of the image?  Are these framing elements in contrast to the main subject, a commentary on it, or an extension of it?  On the book cover, we see the traditional Chinese art motifs of the clouds and mountains,

1.) What images or patters are in the frame of the cover (unfold the book to show the back and front covers... the student will freak!).  

2.) How do artists use framing in their work?


Point of view -- Is there a point of view expressed in the image?  How do you know? 

Connecting the Visual Terms to Chapter 1

20 minutes

In this section, it's important to note that the emotions of the opening scene center on the Monkey King's need for acceptance (a quality that is universal among humans) and his rejection by his peers.  As we analyze the visual traits in the following image, it's important keep coming back to means by which these structural choices in the image help to create empathy for the main character, the Monkey King.  In turn, larger structural choices (RL.9-10.5) in the narrative help make his point of view clear and palpable as well in order to develop character (RL.9-10.3). 

Questions: American Born Chinese- Monkey King - Copy

1.) What do you notice about image scale?  What aspect of the Monkey King's character or experience is that supposed to amplify or explain?

2.) Why do you think the artist chose to juxtapose the close-up, enraged image of the Monkey King with the football-game pile-up of bodies?  Is the effect humorous, serious, etc.?

3.) What is framing these two sets of images, and how does that add to the scene?

4.) Whose point of view seems to be most important in this panel?  In the chapter as a whole?

5.) What do you predict will happen as the book goes on in order to develop this point of view?  

6.) Do you remember the theme of assimilation?  If I were to hint to you that this theme gets incorporate into the Monkey King's story, can you predict how that might happen?  



7.) How does the treatment of the Monkey King in the graphic novel here compare to the way it came across in your non-fiction readings online on the topic? (RL.9-10.9)  How is Yang re-inventing or re-purposing the Monkey King story for a new effect? 



[Note: I am using image frames in my write- up of this lesson as a form of visual quotation.  I do not wish to infringe on the copyrights of the author or publisher by quoting lengthy sequences of images; however, my explanations in this unit will make little sense without these essential visual quotations.]