Boxers and Saints

A graphic novel is not a comic book. If you are not sure about this statement, you can start with the works of Gene Luen Yang. I can tell now the story of two of the books purchased last spring when Gene appeared at the Fay B. Kaigler Children’s Book Festival. The grandson for whom I purchased them has received them for his birthday so the secret can be told. I’m hoping he will enjoy them but they have much more to offer than just pleasure.

Boxers and Saints are two volumes set in China in 1898. A bit of online research on the basics of the Boxer Rebellion before reading would be helpful. Boxers, the first, tells the story of young Bao who joins a group of Chinese kung fu practitioners to free China from the “foreign devils” – Christian missionaries – and the “secondary devils” – Chinese who have converted to Christianity.

Saints, the second volume, follows Four-Girl, of such little significance in her own family that she has no real name. She finds identity and purpose in the most unlikely place as she joins the Christian community and receives the name Vibiana at her baptism. Her vision of Joan of Arc inspires her to become a maiden warrior. She makes difficult choices as she must choose between her newfound friends and faith and her loyalties to family and country.

Good guys and bad guys are not clear cut in the books with Boxers not always bullies and the Saints not always saintly. Since they are graphic novels, they don’t lend themselves to reading aloud to young people. Instead, they would make for great discussions in book clubs, between parents and children, or in classes with teacher and students as all participants read the book.

While I have no more against comic books than I do against taking a bit of time out from real work to play a game of solitaire, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novels go beyond that genre, carrying a lot of history and triggering reasoning about true justice. Fun, history, and reasoning – served up in one neat package – happy birthday, Jack.