Boxers & Saints by Gene Yuen Lang
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: I can’t think of a better set of books for our Bookends Blog than Boxers & Saints (First Second 2013) since it is literally a bookend set! From the covers to the spines that form a bookend set of faces, to the dual narration of the Boxer Rebellion from opposing viewpoints, this set is an achievement worthy of its recent listing as a National Book Award long list finalist. Yang’s earlier NBA finalist, American Born Chinese went on to be the first graphic novel to win the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award, a committee I served on. I was thrilled to see Boxers & Saints among the finalists of this early award announcement as I’ve wondered what committees would do with this pair of books that need to be considered together. This first announcement bodes well for First Second who should be given some major cred for the elaborate production of these books and the certain financial risk they represent. They are beautiful to hold, sturdy in construction, and most importantly, they contain extraordinary graphic storytelling.
As Gene Yuen Lang writes on his website for Boxers & Saints:
The Boxer Rebellion is a war that took place on Chinese soil over 100 years ago. Back then, the Chinese government was incredibly weak. Western powers were able to establish concessions – pieces of land that functioned as colonies – all across China. The poor, hungry, illiterate teenagers living in the Chinese countryside felt embarrassed by their nation’s weakness, so they came up with this ritual that they believed would give them mystical powers. Armed with these powers, they marched across their homeland into the major cities, killing European missionaries, merchants, soldiers, and Chinese Christians. Because their martial arts reminded the Europeans of boxing, they became known as the Boxers.
Boxers is the thicker of the two novels and features Little Bao who joins the rebellion and Saints tells the other side of the story with peasant Four-Girl, a young woman who is converted by the Christians. This interview with Yang at Wired.com provides more detail about the story and the path to publication. It also includes a 10-page excerpt from the book so you can see the art and storytelling technique. Middle school, high school and public libraries are all going to want to have this set in their collections. I can’t wait to see what Yang takes on next!
Lynn: At first glance, the Boxer Rebellion seems an unlikely subject for teens – many of whom have only a sketchy knowledge of American history! But Yang connects us firmly to the hearts and minds of two young people being blown together by the opposing winds of the conflict. Both are lonely and seeking connections, both are seeking meaning and purpose for their lives, both want the best for their communities, both believe deeply in their faiths and traditions. The connections between this and on-going conflicts is quickly apparent through the universal emotions and motivations of these two teens. I love how Yang opens the door for readers to draw their own conclusions – and provides doors leading to other conflicts as well from the 100 Years War to current conflicts.
Gene Yang is superb here in all ways. The unique presentation strengthens and enhances all aspects of the storytelling, and the themes and characterizations that are at the heart of the books. His clean simple illustrations somehow emphasize the complexity and murky nature of history and its participants. These are conjoined books, strong individually but it is essential to read both to completely appreciate the entirety of the story.
Astonishing, brilliant and powerful, this is Yang’s best yet and I’m betting it will top award lists everywhere this year.