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This is the first graphic novel I have ever read. I was excited to delve into what I have heard is an exciting combination of two things I love, art and the written word. I immediately ran into a few problems, the first being that I had difficulty transitioning from a text with only words to one which required both textual and visual reading for comprehension; the second, was that the illustrations were not exactly what I expected them to be. Although, I was not particularly fond of this particular graphic novel, I saw what might be points of interest to young adult readers in the text. Based upon this experience I would be both willing to read more graphic novels, and see what other works Gene Luen Yang has to offer.

When I think of the genre graphic novel, I imagine epic works such as The Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons or 300 by Frank Miller. I associate these texts with illustrations that appear to be almost moving off the page, they are captivating-they are cool. As I paged through Level Up, I read the words, as I usually do in a novel, and since nothing was drawing me to the pictures, I felt a compulsion to ignore them and keep reading the words. But, anyone familiar with graphic novels knows that to ignore the illustrations, is to miss out on part of the experience the graphic novel offers, which requires the reader, or viewer to take-in both the words and visuals. Was I missing something?

As I moved along through the book, I noticed the author spoke to his audience in a way that is unprecedented in a novel without illustrations. He wrote, “I know what you’re thinking, watching me go in to a place like this.” This statement caught me off guard and I found that I really liked it. What a clever idea, to imply that the reader is involved in watching a film strip rather than merely reading. Yang had done something completely different than anything I had ever seen before. Perhaps this is what people enjoy so much.

For an older person, I could now see the complexities alluring readers to take interest in the novel. But what about the younger readers? This wasn’t as difficult to deduce. The front cover of the novel looks like a Game Boy, and even I had one of those and worshipped it as a kid. The hook for young readers is a protagonist who never wants to grow up; he is a futuristic Peter Pan-like video-gamer. Throw in some angels who turn into ghosts of his father’s past promises and you have a book for adolescents. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if teens might feel a bit hesitant about the serious issues lurking beneath the surface.

Would they figure out that despite the video game title and cover, this was a serious novel with less than stellar illustrations? The themes which included talking about the future, constant pressure from parents, and death and illness of parents, were pretty depressing. In all honesty, I am an adult and sometimes I prefer to avoid reading about or discussing these things. So, what about kids? Perhaps the pictures combined with text are enough to “trick” them into reading about these subjects. I would bet they would prefer to read about superheroes any day. I say as long as they are reading the material is unimportant.

In conclusion, I decided Yang’s chosen genre is a great way for those who may not like traditional texts to transition into the literary world.  While his book may not be flashy or vibrant as one might expect from a graphic novel, if a young person, or any person is willing to read it, Yang has most likely done his job.  It may not be a masterpiece, not every book can be. For the young reader, it is always based upon their interest in other books that greatest ones are discovered.

Final Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

For more information:

Read Yang’s American Born Chinese:

2007 Michael L. Printz Award Winner

2007 Eisner Award Winner
Best Graphic Album – New

2006 National Book Award Nominee

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