Saturday, April 7, 2012

"Level Up" by Gene Luen Yang

Being a "typical" guy, what's the first thing that drew me to this novel? Video games. Period. It wasn't until I got this book in the mail that I found a much deeper reason why I'd enjoy this book: Gene Luen Yang, a huge advocate for the use of comics in education. After reading Yang's award-winning American Born Chinese, the literary geek in me began to salivate. Yang strikes similar chords of cultural and personal identity in yet another gripping graphic novel. I was able to tear through Level Up in about an hour one evening. It's incredibly engaging and easy to read.

In what's turning out to be Yang's style, Level Up is a linear tale about Dennis Ouyang, a young Asian-American trying to find his place in the world. After Dennis is introduced to an old Pac-Man cabinet as a child, he immediate begins petitioning his seemingly traditionalist father to support his new hobby. His father imagines a very different future for Dennis, working hard to instill him with a strong work ethic...until his father passes away.

After his father's death, Dennis is thrown tumultuously into a winding spiral of self-realization. The memory of his father haunts his choices and his future, threatening to derail Dennis's life and happiness. He battles between what his father wants of him and his own definition of happiness. He's tempted and taunted by love and pressure throughout the graphic novel, as well. Should he submit that his father was right and take the path that leads to his destiny? Or should he ignore his father's "ghosts" and carve his own path--one that his father essentially condemned?

What ends up transpiring is a lesson on how we learn from our mistakes, one constantly emulated in modern culture--most notably, in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. Yang dutifully navigates the rising action of the story in such a way that forces the reader to question the nature of how we learn. Is it best to "protect" the path in such a way that we can't make mistakes? Or is it better to let ourselves stumble from time to time? The tenuous relationship between Dennis and his father highlight that very argument. With age comes wisdom, but we may forget that wisdom can't be just "handed down". It must be earned.

Any teacher looking to bring "Level Up" into the classroom should work with students to keep them objective and open-minded. Through the course of the novel, it's incredibly easy to misinterpret a message that it's acceptable to spend all your time playing video games. Although there are professional gamers out there, the more pertinent message is one of hardwork and dedication, regardless of your interests. Parents may have a slight issue with the potential misreading, but it'll help if the focus of any discussion is more about Dennis's choice of his path to happiness. If students can acknowledge that this graphic novel is not an advertisement for professional video gamers, there is a very powerful discussion to be had: Does Dennis disrespect his father as the novel comes to a close? Teachers of all walks of life should be fascinated to hear that graphic novels can help immigrant readers.

While "Level Up" is a very powerful graphic novel, it doesn't quite live up to the complexity and depth of "American Born Chinese". Of the two, the latter would be better in the classroom, with the former acting as a good companion book. Overall, "Level Up" is highly recommended. It will not disappoint.


runner4life23 said...

I am not going to lie, I never associated any type of comics with education. I always saw them on the other side of the spectrum where they were just for a good laugh and great entertainment though their illustrations. Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese was the first ever comic I read and I absolutely loved it. When I noticed that this review was for a graphic novel by Yang, I knew I just had to read it :) I can tell that the search for one's personal identity and acceptance of cultural background, are two crucial concepts that Yang seems to always tackle and I'm happy he does. Self discovery is something that young adults confront during their jr. high/high school years and likewise, these books will not only attract their attention to such colorful and fun images, but will also teach these young adults to look within themselves. I do have one question for you David, what do you classify as a graphic novel? I understand that Level Up is categorized as a graphic novel, but now having read both of Yang's works, what elements make up a graphic novel?

amberK said...

Being a "typical" girl, I was not interested in the whole video game theme that the novel seemed to represent. However, after reading your review, I am glad I did not judge this book by the cover! I really enjoyed "American born Chinese" and your review makes "Level Up" seem nearly on that level. I want to know what happens that would make you question if he disrespected his father at the end. The other questions you ask, about how we learn, is also very engaging and intriguing to me. The theme of self realization seems as if it would appeal to high schoolers, as that can be a difficult time for anyone, and it is nice to see a story that will really appeal to the boys as well; so much literature favors the female population. I am going to add this to my list of books to read over the summer!

David Morrison said...

I classify graphic novels as any lengthy story that's told through the use of illustration. Although graphic novels are generally thought of as "bigger comic books", I would argue that anything that tells a story through a series of images could be considered a graphic novel.

When approaching our students about this, I think they'll immediately jump to images of DC and Marvel Comics graphic novels. The job of those novels is to collect a series of comic books into one binding. I'm really interested to see where Yang goes with his research for his masters degree, since he's focusing on the use of graphic novels in education. I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot more literature like this since they're effective as companion pieces for traditional novels, as well as primary sources for reluctant or ELL/ESL readers.

In short, I think graphic novels like Yangs will open up the definition to deeper and more insightful literature.

Tom Philion said...

Awesome review and commentary, David. Bravo!

This seems like a great book for parents to read as part of a parenting class, too.

Cessacolypse said...

Yang's getting his Master's with that focus?? That's really awesome...aside from wanting to read this novel [and very glad that you mentioned it would clear up the cliche thought of lazy videogamers] I'm EXTREMELY interested in finding out more about his studies...that's such a unique field! I hope he gets far with it.