Level Up by Gene Luen Yang, art by Thien Pham
National Book Award-finalist Gene Luen Yang‘s latest title is a collaboration with a fellow high school teacher Thien Pham: their obviously convivial partnership is evident even before their comic begins. “Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being the good Asian sons,” their shared bubble announces at the top of the copyright page. How can we not chuckle along with that signature Asian self-awareness?
By implication, ‘bad Asian sons’ Yang and Pham spin a touching tale of Dennis Ouyang, a young man who must ultimately “level up” to gain control of his own life. At age 6, Dennis first glimpses video games. Yet in spite of his instant fascination, he watches but never plays out of respect for his struggling immigrant father who has had to “eat much bitterness” to provide for his family. Not until his father dies two weeks before Dennis’ high school graduation does he actually pick up a game controller … and then he can’t seem to stop. What he might lack in self-control, Dennis makes up for in pure, limitless gaming talent.
By junior year of college, Dennis’ academic probation becomes expulsion. But divine intervention (in the form of four helpful halo-ed cuties) materializes just in time to save his disastrous academic career: he’s not only reinstated, but he’s soon on his way (of course!) to med school.
Yet being the good son doesn’t necessarily make Dennis happy. Will he remain the filial son whom his bitter-eating father so longed for? Or will he frivolously become the ultimate gamer?
Level by level, Yang and Pham delve deeper into Dennis’ story – his troubling relationship with his late father, his interactions with his disappointed mother, his new friends with even more opinions on how he should live his life …
In addition to all the fun and games (literally!), Dennis’s story is also a potent examination of the intricacies of the uniquely Asian American parent/child relationship. Move over, Tiger Mother … prepare to meet true Destiny!
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult