15 March 2008

Monkey Kings

American Born Chinese
Gene Luen Yang

I'm not an education major. I like teaching, and I'm fairly fond of children, but if I'm going to teach, I'd rather it was at the college level. Primarily this is due to the restrictions that tend to come up when choosing books for a literature course; the books I like and think are worth teaching are frequently frightening, violent, sometimes sexual, and generally considered inappropriate for children.

However, I do have some ideas about what I think kids should be learning. Some of this I hope to rectify myself via the production of awesome young adult fiction; it's something I enjoy doing, and it's a way of reaching lots of children that means I don't have to talk to lots of them all at the same time. Other things, though, I will simply tender as suggestions.

In class this week, we discussed American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. It's considered young adult fiction, and the subject of how one might use it as a teaching aid in, say, middle or high school, came up once or twice. Mainly the consensus was that it wouldn't be great for elementary schoolers, as it contains a lot of stuff about racism--including a deliberate racist caricature, used to make a point--that might be difficult to explain to a class of eight-year-olds and even harder to explain to their parents.

However, despite the difficult subjects it covers, I don't think ABC should be completely eliminated as a possibility for elementary schools. Throughout the book there are three plot threads, and one would be excellent for elementary school students. It is the story of the Monkey King, an important figure in Chinese mythology, and I think it'd be a fantastic way to introduce children to the mythology of other cultures.

Here's the thing: kids get to hear a lot of Western mythology. There are many child-friendly books of Greek myths; there are King Arthur stories and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Grimm Brothers. There are even some cool books of Norse mythology, and if you stray a bit from Europe there are loads of things about Egypt.

The further east you go, though, the harder it is to find a lot of information geared toward children about the mythologies of the cultures you're encountering. I think, for example, that it'd be fantastic if there were more sources for traditional Middle Eastern stories than, say, the intensely Westernized Disney Aladdin. Or more sources for the legends and history of China than the cool but not terribly representative Mulan. Don't get me wrong; I love me some Disney, and these are some of my favorites. But it's fairly slim pickings. I work in a bookstore that actually has a bookshelf for children's mythology, and the lack of variety there makes me rather sad.

Yang's story of the Monkey King has beautiful art, and the reading level isn't anything prohibitively difficult for, say, a third-grader. Even without the backup of the other two storylines, it's still got a good be-yourself message and enough information to lead into a decent discussion of racism if the teacher wanted to do something like that. But what's most important is that this is the Monkey King. He's a big guy in Chinese mythology, and reading the Monkey King portions of ABC would be a good start to a small unit on Eastern mythology. One would start with China, of course, but it's not hard to go from there. There are connections to Hanuman, the Hindu King of the Monkeys, which leads naturally to a discussion of Hindu mythology. The Monkey King is pretty popular in the Japanese media, so that leads into the legends of Japan. The possibilities are pretty much endless.

I'm a big fan of cultural diversity in education, and I think the best way to get started early is through mythology. It was one of my big focuses when I was little; admittedly I did focus on the Greeks, but I've expanded since then. It's exciting for kids. There's action, adventure, occasional romances, rude jokes, introduction to other cultures--what's not to like?

I don't know if I'll ever get to apply this personally. But it's something to consider.

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