6.10.2011

Level Up, written by Gene Luen Yang with art by Thien Pham, 160 pp, RL: TEEN,

Level Up, written by Gene Luen Yang with art by Thien Pham was tough for me to stick with at first. It did not have the vibrant, humorous artwork found in Yang's Printz Award (the teen version of the Newbery) winning graphic novel, American Born Chinese. Main character Dennis was not all that likable and, personally, I found it hard to relate to his obsession with video games. But, I stuck with it and was completely and totally rewarded by the time I reached the last pages of this brilliant graphic novel.
Level Up begins with the sentence, "I saw my first arcade video game when I was six."
A beat up old Pac-Man in a Chinese restaurant leaves Dennis "dreaming in pixels" from that day on.
When Dennis is in third grade he learns that there is this thing, this Nintendo Entertainment System, that lets you play arcade games at home! Dennis is stunned by the "single most amazing thing he has ever heard." Dennis' obsession is at odds with the wishes of his strict father. Dennis leaves notes around the house, in the car and on his father's cup of coffee trying to let him know exactly what he wants for Christmas. Instead, he gets a chemistry set. Dennis demands an explanation from his father, who leaves notes throughout the house for him over the next several weeks detailing the difficulties of getting into college, the tough job market and the virtue of work. Dennis begins to play with his chemistry set and, by eighth grade is awarded the valedictorian award for having the best grades in his class. Two weeks before Dennis graduates from high school his father dies of liver cancer. Immediately after the funeral, Dennis drives to the nearest electronics store and buying a game console. That night he played, and played and played and played "until the night THEY came to visit."

THEY are a band of angels with a strong resemblance to the Power Puff Girls and last seen on the cover of a greeting card Dennis' father gave him when he graduated from eighth grade. It is inscribed with the words, "I'm proud of you." They arrive during Dennis' junior year of college, just after he has been kicked out of school and slashed the tires of the Dean's car. They get Dennis back into school with a bit of demonic threats made to the Dean. They cook and clean for Dennis and help him to study. They tell him that they are helping him to fulfill his destiny, which is to go to med school and study gastroenterology. Dennis accepts this, even giving all of his games and consoles to his best friend, Takeem, who has been trying to convince Dennis to become a professional gamer. Dennis makes it to medical school and even manages to find a group of supportive friends. But, his friendships become difficult and fall apart and his studies literally churn his stomach. Dennis has some decisions to make and some demons to defeat.
How Dennis defeats his angels, the choices he makes afterwards and how he finds direction in his life, on his own, with or without paternal and/or angelic influence is at the core of this graphic novel and, as I said, the ending is so amazingly, wonderfully perfect that I don't want to give it away in the least. Just read this book and/or give it to a young adult you love. It is a timeless story and an important story and it is told in an innovative way. I can't imagine this story having the same impact if it was told in the form of a traditional novel. One thing that I didn't mention about Level Up since it didn't make a difference  in this story at all for me, is the fact that the author and artist are Asian Americans and the story had elements that could be called anything from cultural to stereotypical. As blogger Eric Nakamura, founder of Giant Robot, a bi-monthly magazine of Asian and Asian American pop-culture founded in 1994 that has spawned stores, galleries and a restaurant, said in his review,  Level Up is:

 a story that feels and smells Asian American without beating your head down in a cultural story - yet, it is. Asians needing to become doctors? Yes, it still happens, and the idea of pushing one's dreams onto your kids? It's an age old tale that ends up not working out. Level Up has elements of fantasy interwoven with a story that's all too real.

I think that sums it up very well. This is a book that will make you think.

**Although this graphic novel has a reading level of "teen," there is no inappropriate content. This kind of coming of age story seemed more suited to teens, and thus the rating.

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