Friday, December 13, 2013

Two Sides to the Story

Gene Luen Yang

 Gene Luen Yang is no stranger to pushing the limits of what graphic novels can say and do. With his Boxers & Saints, he tells both sides of the story of China's late-19th-century Boxer Rebellion. It's a conflict rarely taught in schools, yet its themes reverberate through history: economic disparity, oppression, freedom to practice one's beliefs, and a right to education.

Yang's highly visual approach, and his balance of humor with weightier themes make this a fascinating, entertaining journey to a foreign land during a pivotal era. The origins of the project began in Yang's own back yard--at a celebration of Chinese Catholics newly canonized by Pope John Paul II at the author-artist's Catholic church in the San Francisco area, he told us in an interview for School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections. As he researched these martyrs from China, Yang also gained compassion for the peasantry who fought against the missionaries arriving from Europe to increase their congregation--and their power.
Photo Credit: Jarrett Krosoczka

Teens will find both Bao, the hero of Boxers, and Four-Girl, the heroine of Saints, to be sympathetic. The way Yang integrates their stories and intersects their paths in the two books makes it nearly impossible to choose sides. Bao's fondness for the Chinese Operas through which he learns history leads to a visually entrancing comics-like superhero-style thread (when the peasant-rebels fight, they transform into Chinese deities). Yet Yang ratchets up the emotional impact as high as the suspense about the fate of his two protagonists. The author-artist's exploration of China's terrain, gender differences, and the lack of education available to its less affluent citizens will further contribute to readers' appreciation of the full potential of the graphic novel form.

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