BOXERS (First Second, 2013)
SAINTS (First Second, 2013)
Written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang
BOXERS and SAINTS is a two-volume work hot off the presses (September 10, 2013) from highly acclaimed AMERICAN BORN CHINESE author, Gene Luen Yang. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE was the first graphic novel to win the Michael L. Printz Award (2007) and was also a National Book Award nominee. Yang skillfully captures and re-presents ideas of identity, stereotypes, cultural expectations and multiple perspectives in AMERICAN BORN CHINESE and he lends his skills to many of the same issues in BOXERS and SAINTS. BOXERS and SAINTS can best be classified as historical fiction, with a healthy dose of magical realism.
Yang focuses on China during the late 1800s and early 1900s as the setting for both texts. The Boxer Rebellion bubbled to the surface during this time period and began raging across China. Like most historical conflicts, The Boxer Rebellion (a label from the Western press) is difficult to summarize and has many facets and intricacies. In an extremely simplified summary, the Boxer Rebellion originated from the desire of many Chinese to reclaim their land from European influence and control. European Christians were one of the most heavily targeted populations, as were any Chinese who had converted to Christianity; they were referred to as “secondary devils.”
Little Bao, the main character of BOXERS, is a young Chinese boy from a poor village. He is inspired to join the Boxer Rebellion after witnessing firsthand the cruelty of a group of foreign missionaries in his village. His desire for revenge is further fueled by injuries inflicted on his father from a foreign army that leave his father a husk of his former self. Little Bao receives special training from one of the current leaders of the Rebellion and another mysterious mentor; he learns to tap into the power of ancient Chinese gods and assumes the body and spirit of a former Chinese emperor. Little Bao becomes the newest leader of the Boxers and leads a growing army of fighters across the land to Peking. During this time Little Bao struggles with being a leader, especially when he is in charge of his two brothers and others from his village, he wrestles with what is right and wrong in this fight for China and he must fight distractions, such as attractive young women.
SAINTS is the story of Four-Girl, a young girl who receives no acceptance or love from her family and therefore seeks to find this love and acceptance elsewhere. She is surprised when Christianity provides her the home she has always craved. Joan of Arc appears regularly to Four-Girl, revealing the story of Christianity and the power of faith. She is subjected to much abuse from those around her for joining the Christian devils. Four-Girl, now baptized as Vibiana, flees her family and leaves her village with Father Bey. The two establish a life in Peking where Vibiana assumes a caretaker role for young orphans. Unbeknownst to her, she is now at the center of the showdown between the Boxers and the foreigners.
In Peking, her path crosses that of Little Bao and both are forced to make difficult decisions about their beliefs and the extent to which each is willing to go to defend them. I recommend reading BOXERS before SAINTS as more of the story is revealed through BOXERS and the nuances in SAINTS would be difficult to appreciate without the background provided in BOXERS.
Cross-Curricular Connections: English/Language Arts (literary genres/magical realism), History/Social Studies, Geography, Art, Music (Chinese operas)
Ideas for Classroom Use:
BOXERS and SAINTS is a literarily and artistically excellent example of a text with multiple perspectives and can serve as an introduction to multiple perspectives in many disciplines and for many activities. I have listed some possibilities below, but the opportunities to use this text to foster an ability to see things from multiple perspectives is unlimited!
- It is sometimes said that history is told from the perspective of the “winner.” Encourage students to write about a historical event from the perspective of the “loser.” For example, what would Native Americans say about Westward Expansion?
- Objects are important in many historical events. For example, the gun that shot Lincoln or Kennedy, the quill pen that was used to sign the Declaration of Independence, or Anne Frank’s diary. Have students assume the perspective of an important historical object and tell about that event/time period from this unique perspective.
- Many classical texts are told from the perspective of one character. Have students rewrite a scene or event from another character’s perspective. How does the story change? What elements are important from the perspective of this new character that were not noticed by the “original” character?
- Poetry is full of works written from unique perspectives. Encourage students to search out these poems as inspiration for writing their own poem from a unique perspective.
- Multiple viewpoints abound in recent texts published for intermediate and young adult readers. Encourage students to find and read one of these texts. Check out: CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE by Elizabeth Wein or ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell.
- There are also many picture books, such as THE TRUE STORY OF THE THREE LITTLE PIGS by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith, which use this device as well. These can be used as examples to “prime the pump” of students’ own writing.
- The current events in many locations around the world, such as Syria, Israel, and Palestine, provide an important and educational opportunity to view a situation from more than one perspective. After students have learned about an event have them write, draw, or create a piece from both perspectives.
- Students can also assume the roles of different lawmakers or people on different sides of the same issue (gay marriage, abortion, universal health care) and do a similar activity. Creating a concise poster from each perspective will challenge students to understand and synthesize the essences of each perspective.
- Are there always two perspectives on an event? Have students brainstorm current issues that have more than two perspectives. To extend the activity, students can brainstorm ways to unite multiple parties around a single objective.
Magical realism abounds in BOXERS and SAINTS. Little Bao and those fighting with him are able to assume the body and spirit of Chinese gods and legends through a simple ceremony. Four-Girl is often visited by the ghost/spirit of Joan of Arc who provides her guidance and inspiration.
While either BOXERS or SAINTS would make a fantastic addition to a unit on magical realism, I think that they can be their own place from which to launch an exploration of magical realism. As the elements of magical realism provided Little Bao and Four-Girl with the strength and bravery they needed to fight for their beliefs, students could use this premise to explore what might bring them more strength and bravery in a situation. For example, the ghost/spirit of a beloved grandmother could visit to provide encouragement to stand for one’s belief even in the face of peer pressure or a former pet could return to provide comfort and companionship during a difficult time.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
The purpose of this activity is to develop and hone students’ visual literacy skills. Many theorists in the field of comics and graphic novels, including Scott McCloud (UNDERSTANDING COMICS), discuss the importance of “reading” and understanding visual images. Yang is a master of using the elements of the graphic novel to capture a feeling or to emphasize a point. He is particularly skillful at manipulating the size, shape and orientation of the panels to provide emphasis and to add extra texture and depth to the meaning of the images and text.
Ask students to make note of these changes in panel size, shape and orientation. Have them speculate on why Yang made these choices. Did these adjustments change the meaning? How so?
Additional Resources and Activities:
BOXERS and SAINTS Book Trailer
Book trailers are an excellent way to get students excited about reading a text. They are also a fun assignment for students. Instead of a book report, next time ask your students to create a one-minute book trailer. This activity requires a deep understanding of the book as well as creativity and fun.
Gene Luen Yang’s Blog
Yang’s blog is filled with additional information about BOXERS and SAINTS. Several of his blog posts address, in more detail, specific elements of BOXERS and SAINTS, or the process of creating these graphic novels.
In this blog post, Yang discusses how Chinese opera and American comics are alike:
This post explores the influence of pop culture on the young Chinese men who took part in the Boxer Rebellion: http://geneyang.com/boxers-and-pop-culture
An Interview with Gene Luen Yang
This is a link to WIRED MAGAZINE’s brief interview with Yang about BOXERS and SAINTS, his interest in the Boxer Rebellion, and his writing process.
Historical Figures of China
Artist and historian George Stuart creates realistic sculptures of famous people throughout world history. He pairs these figures with monologs he researches and writes. This website is dedicated to his works; he has created over 400 of these sculptures. The website has separated these historical figures into groups so that they can be easily searched. I recommend visiting the section on historical figures from China.
Aimee Rogers is a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota studying children’s and adolescent literature. Prior to her return to school, Aimee taught high school students with special needs, in a wide variety of settings, for ten years. She misses working with adolescents but is developing a passion for working with undergraduate pre-service teachers. She has a growing interest in graphic novels for children and young adults and is making them the focus of her dissertation.
© 2013 Aimee Rogers. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.