Level Up

( 3 )


A New York Times Notable Children's Book (Young Adult) for 2011

Video Games vs. Medical School!

Which will win the battle for our hero’s attention in Gene Luen Yang’s new graphic novel?

Dennis Ouyang lives in the shadow of his parents’ high expectations. They want him to go to med school ...

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A New York Times Notable Children's Book (Young Adult) for 2011

Video Games vs. Medical School!

Which will win the battle for our hero’s attention in Gene Luen Yang’s new graphic novel?

Dennis Ouyang lives in the shadow of his parents’ high expectations. They want him to go to med school and become a doctor. Dennis just wants to play video games—and he might actually be good enough to do it professionally.

But four adorable, bossy, and occasionally terrifying angels arrive just in time to lead Dennis back onto the straight and narrow: the path to gastroenterology. It’s all part of the plan, they tell him. But is it? This powerful piece of magical realism brings into sharp relief the conflict many teens face between pursuing their dreams and living their parents’.

Partnered with the deceptively simple, cute art of newcomer Thien Pham, Gene Yang has returned to the subject he revolutionized with American Born Chinese. Whimsical and serious by turns, Level Up is a new look at the tale that Yang has made his own: coming of age as an Asian American.

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Editorial Reviews

Pamela Paul
The story itself, about a son torn between filial duty and independence, is not especially original, but Yang's characters seem real, and their stories feel true…Level Up is leavened with sardonic wit and laugh-inducing images…this is a story that is likely to resonate with generations to come.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Yang, writer-artist of National Book Award finalist American Born Chinese, writes this magical-realist tale of Asian-American parental pressure and video-game escape, leaving the art to up-and-comer Pham. Dennis Ouyang struggles with the burden of his dead father's orders that he study hard, go to med school, and become a gastroenterologist. When Dennis, inspired by four mysterious angels, gives up his passion—video games—and buckles down to his studies, he befriends three fellow second-generation students and begins to make a place in med school. But a crisis in confidence reveals the true nature of his guardian angels, and the real source of his father's dreams for his only son. Pham's watercolors can be charming, but his primarily gray and brown palette gets visually monotonous; thankfully, his work increases in energy as the plot does. Yang's familiar story of immigrant striving and filial rebellion gets just enough juice from its connection to arcade culture. A bravura storytelling and visual twist near the end brings together the plot's several strands. A minor work from Yang, but a welcome introduction to Pham, whose own upcoming First Second graphic novel, Sumo, looks promising. (June)
Children's Literature - Kathie M. Josephs
Dennis loved playing video games. It became an obsession with him and he did not understand why his parents had a problem with this. He wanted a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas, but got a chemistry kit instead. He did not understand why his father kept stressing that he study hard, go to college and become a doctor. Not just any doctor, but a gastroenterologist. His father died just before graduation and Dennis started to play video games constantly. He was eventually kicked out of college and then one night, four angels appeared off of a greeting card and immediately took over his life. After a while the angels became ghosts of different colors and Dennis realized they were the ghosts of his father. As he "ate" each ghost, he was taken back in time to see his father at his same age and heard the promises he had made to his parents. This is an unusual story but one that certainly gives food for thought. Deciding what your future will be while still in high school is both confusing and scary. The author has managed to show how people can always have a second or third chance at getting it right. The novel is well written and the illustrations are excellent. This book works for both boys and girls, but is definitely for high school students. Reviewer: Kathie M. Josephs
School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Yang returns to the Asian American coming-of-age motif that he addressed so brilliantly in American Born Chinese (Roaring Brook, 2006). Dennis Ouyang is a video-game addict and a disappointment to his father, who insists that his son grow up to be a gastroenterologist. Dennis struggles to negotiate the tricky balance between his father's wishes and his own somewhat-ambivalent desires. The arrival of four childlike angels whose sole purpose is to motivate the teen in his studies complicates his struggle and serves to move the story away from pure realism. The narrative resolves quite handily, with Dennis discovering a method to combine his video-game skills with a career in medicine. While the story does not achieve the level of American Born Chinese, it is not without charm and bright moments; when the true nature of the angels is revealed, it cleverly dovetails with other story elements. Pham's artwork conveys the story in a satisfactory way but is somewhat repetitive in appearance. Overall, an interesting work, but an additional purchase.—Douglas P. Davey, Halton Hills Public Library, Ontario, Canada
Kirkus Reviews

Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother describes high-pressure parenting to produce high achievers; Yang explores the other side of the equation.

Dennis Ouyang's destiny, as decreed by his late, Chinese-immigrant father, is to become a gastroenterologist. Except he's flunked out of college, done in by his passion for videogames. In the nick of time to rescue his dad's dream, four little angels arrive. (Dennis recognizes them from the card his dad gave him when he was eighth-grade valedictorian.) They cook and clean for Dennis, get him reinstated and make sure he studies. Cute but relentless, they won't let him pause to celebrate his admission to medical school but march him on to the next step in Project Gastroenterologist. When Dennis develops a social life, the angels reveal their scary side, pushing him to decisions of his own—but, frustratingly, the story punts on why Dennis chooses as he does. Pham's slyly muted art, infused with console-game design, gives Dennis an appropriately (given his issues) childlike look. Those creepy angels will stay with readers. As narrative, Yang's immigrant-parent theme—like the "be yourself" message of his Printz Award–winning American Born Chinese—is conventional; braided with parallel strands of startlingly original imagery, though, it becomes more.

A piquant, multilayered coming-of-age fable for the wired generation. (Graphic novel. 10 & up)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781596437142
  • Publisher: First Second
  • Publication date: 6/7/2011
  • Pages: 160
  • Sales rank: 537,309
  • Age range: 12 - 17 Years
  • Lexile: IG360L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Gene Luen Yang began drawing comic books in the fifth grade. In 1997, he received a Xeric Grant for Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, his first comics work. He has since written and drawn a number of titles, including Duncan’s Kingdom, The Rosary Comic Book, Prime Baby and Animal CrackersAmerican Born Chinese, his first graphic novel from First Second, was a National Book Award finalist, as well as the winner of the Printz Award and an Eisner Award. He also won an Eisner for The Eternal Smile, a collaboration with Derek Kirk Kim. Yang lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he teaches high school. He got his Master’s in Education at Cal State Hayward, where he wrote his thesis on using comics in education. 

THIEN PHAM is a comic book and visual artist, based in the Bay Area. He is also a high school teacher. Pham illustrated Gene Luen Yang's Level Up, a YALSA Great Graphic Novel and New York Times Notable Children's Book. Sumo is his first solo work.

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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. Level Up is a graphic novel, a story told in words and pictures. How do you think this story would be told differently if it was a novel, with only words? How would it be different if it was a movie, with just pictures?

2. The cover of Level Up very specifically alludes to the look of a Nintendo Gameboy, one of the seminal hand-held video game systems. How did the cover affect your perceptions of the kind of story you expected Level Up to be? Was the book what you expected?

3. The dedication of Level Up reads; ‘Dedicated to our brothers Jon and Thinh, both of whom work in the medical field, for being the good Asian sons.’ What does this say about the author and illustrators’ attitude towards their own families and professions? Do you think their families and career choices affected the way they told this story?

4. At the beginning of the book, on page 19, Dennis starts out with three heads, or lives, hovering in the corner of his screen. This symbolic marker reappears throughout the story. What meaning do you think it conveys? Is it an effective storytelling tool?

5. What do you think you would do if four angels showed up to inform you of what your destiny was? Would you go along with them, or would you want to make your own choices?

6. “Choose your own destiny,” says Dennis’ friend Kat. But his friend Ipsha tells him that he’s surrounded by family, friends and influences, and that he can never really make a decision without taking all of them into account. Which of the two viewpoints about destiny do you think is more accurate?

7. Level Up (and the angels’ desire for Dennis to become a gastroenterologist) was inspired by the high incidence rate of liver cancer among Asian Americans. How would you feel if there was a medical problem or condition that affected your specific demographic and you had the potential to be able to treat it or find a cure? Would you feel pressured to follow that road in life even if it wasn’t the life you dreamed of?

8. At the end of the book, Dennis decides to leave the world of video games and re-enroll in medical school. Do you think that was the right decision? What decision would you have made in his place?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2012

    Great story and illustrations. The best. Give us more.

    Great story and illustrations. The best. Give us more.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2011

    this book really moved me i read it in an hour i love this book

    this book is the best book i have ever read i love gene yang his work has the best endings i read the book in an hour i love this i wish they would make another book, i have all hi s books

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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