#IMWAYR: Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang

Hi everyone! I'm very excited to be reviewing an excellent graphic novel (and Printz Honor book): Dragon Hoops by Gene Luen Yang.

Add it on Goodreads or preview the illustrations

Let's start off with the publisher's description of this book:

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In his latest graphic novel, New York Times bestselling author Gene Luen Yang turns the spotlight on his life, his family, and the high school where he teaches.

Gene understands stories—comic book stories, in particular. Big action. Bigger thrills. And the hero always wins.

But Gene doesn’t get sports. As a kid, his friends called him “Stick” and every basketball game he played ended in pain. He lost interest in basketball long ago, but at the high school where he now teaches, it's all anyone can talk about. The men’s varsity team, the Dragons, is having a phenomenal season that’s been decades in the making. Each victory brings them closer to their ultimate goal: the California State Championships.

Once Gene gets to know these young all-stars, he realizes that their story is just as thrilling as anything he’s seen on a comic book page. He knows he has to follow this epic to its end. What he doesn’t know yet is that this season is not only going to change the Dragons’s lives, but his own life as well.

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Very embarrassingly for someone who loves graphic novels as much as I do, I had never read anything by Gene Luen Yang until now, which is something I've been meaning to rectify for a long time. To be fair, I did try to read American Born Chinese several years ago, but then a whole thing went down in my personal life and I had to stop reading the book (through no fault of its own).

But since then, for a few years now, I've had this book by Yang—Dragon Hoops—on my radar, thanks to the wonderful bloggers Cheriee Weichel at Library Matters, Sue Jackson at Book by Book, and Shaye Miller at The Miller Memo! I just recently had the chance to race through it in 2 days—and have it count for the Big Book Summer Challenge thanks to its 446-page length—and I am really glad I finally got to read this compelling, one-of-a-kind story!

You can broadly think of this book in four parts, all intermixed throughout the chapters. There's the exploration of the basketball team itself and its members. There's the depictions of the team's different games throughout the year. There's the fascinating vignettes of basketball history. And there's the breaking-the-fourth-wall element of Yang himself as a character in his own story.

Let's tackle each of these one by one, starting with the team members. If you're scared that this book is all confusing basketball facts that non-sports fans won't care about, well, you don't need to worry—I'll address that fear more a little bit later, but for now I'll just say that this book is way more about the characters and their experiences than basketball itself. Yang takes the time to interview the team's coach and several of its members, each of whom gets roughly a chapter that explores their backstories, their personalities, and their hopes for the future. You'd be surprised at how well Yang can characterize each of these kids in mere pages—from sibling relationships to traveling across the globe, from facing racism to making plans for college and beyond, we see how basketball is just one piece of the puzzle for these kids with big hearts and a strong drive to succeed. Each team member quickly comes to life, and because this story is based on real people, the kids' personalities stretch across all of their appearances, even when they aren't the central focus of the current chapter. Yang says of the team's coach, Lou Richie, at the beginning of the story, "To be honest, he's not the kind of person I'd normally be friends with." But seeing the full humanity behind people we might normally dismiss as just "jocks" certainly got Yang's attention—and it will get yours too.

Then there's the team games themselves. I can confidently say, as someone who has no clue how basketball plays work, that you can absolutely enjoy the suspense of these games, the team relationships on the court and behind the scenes, and the thrills as the Bishop O'Dowd Dragons work their way through the league while still letting the actual gameplay mostly just wash over you. Yang smartly organizes the story around a few key games that are also tied to the other subjects of the story at that moment, so although I'm sure life on a basketball team involves a whole lot of games that feel exactly the same, it doesn't feel that way to the reader.

Next, I want to mention the basketball history. Part of the reason why this book appealed to me, a non-basketball fan, is that Yang makes clear in the story that he too was not at all a basketball (or sports) fan before writing this book. So if you heard me mention "basketball history" earlier and thought that would mean a bunch of dry tidbits that would get boring quickly, you'd be wrong—Yang has a keen sense of what aspects of the sport's history (such as its formation, its spread around the globe, and its connections to racism and sexism) would actually feel relevant and interesting to all readers. I learned some truly fascinating things from this book—I had no idea basketball spread so widely, so quickly, nor was I aware of the reason why (it doesn't require grass or much equipment, so pretty much anyone with a big room can set up a basketball court cheaply and easily). So basically, not only is this a book filled with compelling characters and plot, but it's also informational too! And Yang writes these informational passages in a dynamic, story-esque, slightly fictionalized way that means, no matter how much you doubt me, you won't be able to look away from these basketball facts.

And finally, we have what might be the most interesting element of the story—Yang's own presence in it. I've never seen a book that isn't a memoir so cleverly and delicately weave the author's presence into the plot—but it makes perfect sense for this book, where Yang becomes a presence on the very team he is researching, and thus can't help but influence the plot of the book. We see Yang's life as both a teacher and a graphic novelist. As a teacher, we see the ways in which he listens to his students and bonds with them over the years (as with his students' tradition of giving him silly nicknames, like "Mr. Yangulator"). And as a graphic novelist, we see the ways in which he has to fight his stories for control of his work-life balance, and the ways in which he has to make complex decisions about what to write about, what to include, and what routes he is willing to take to get there. We see how Yang's wife Theresa supports him through these difficult choices, and we see how the story itself ultimately changes Yang for the better too, in small but meaningful ways. I can't lie, as someone who is not an author or teacher, it is kind of fascinating in the first place to see both of those perspectives laid so bare. But another benefit of Yang's presence too is that he becomes a sort of stand-in for the reader, reckoning with the same concepts that readers are expected to consider too (and, again, harboring the same feelings about sports I suspect many of us carry around as well).

Before I conclude, I do quickly want to discuss the writing and art of this book in general. In short, both are so clear and logical that you read them and think, "Well, that's such a logical and intuitive way to do this"—but something tells me that it actually isn't intuitive for people without the craft and practice of someone like Yang. This book is pretty long for a graphic novel, but it honestly races by—my only complaint about this book is that the ending felt a little too abrupt (I wanted some more specific resolution for each character), but that's also a testament to how not bloated this story is, even considering its sizable length! I'll also note that Yang has a great sense of humor—there are a few moments in this book where I laughed out loud. And then there's the art. Yang calls himself a "lousy caricaturist" in the story, but I'd call him a darn good caricaturist myself—I hate to compare him to Raina Telgemeier, because he pioneered this style before she did, but they both draw with clean lines, easily distinguishable faces (which Yang notes in the detailed footnotes is a priority for him), and a general attitude of "less is more." Yang can certainly pull out the stops for some of the dramatic panels in the basketball games, but in general, the art of this book is crisp and clear, and it makes for a satisfyingly trouble-free reading experience.

With so much packed into this story, you might think that it would feel disconnected or confusing. But it never does, partially because Yang finds the connections between all the different plot elements and follows each one so that everything flows naturally—and partially because, at the end of the day, there is a core take-home message in this story. That message comes back to these kids and their drive, their willingness to take risks, their ability to live with uncertainty—their choice to walk back onto the court, trust themselves, and watch what happens. Dragon Hoops is unlike any graphic novel I've ever seen, and it makes clear why Gene Luen Yang is one of the most important graphic novelists today. This story documents what might seem like an everyday occurrence—a high school basketball team—in a way that all of us, Yang and readers alike, can learn from the often-ignored importance, labor, and human beauty that lie within it.

My rating is: Really good!





My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 4!




Comments

  1. This sounds incredibly creative and unique. A memoir/MG/graphic novel. Wow. I can't imagine writing that. And even though I am not a basketball fan either, it sounds like a very good good read!

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  2. I'm glad you finally got to read something by this author; I think he is really talented. I loved Dragon Hoops.

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  3. Great review, Max! I agree with everything you said (also speaking as a non-basketball fan!). And I didn't realize Yang was also the author of American Born Chinese - that one's been on my TBR for too long! Glad you liked it :)

    Sue
    2022 Big Book Summer Challenge

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  4. I've read American Born Chinese, but stayed away from this graphic novel because I'm not a sports lover! But you've convinced me to give it a try. Great review!

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  5. This book has been on my radar for a bit and I'm even more intrigued now.

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  6. I absolutely loved this book and I don't even like sports. This would be prefect for non-readers as well who enjoyed the Michael Jordan documentary.

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  7. I agree with Lisa. This one has been on my radar for a while. I wasn't sure if it is more of a high school book or an elementary book. If it was the latter, I would be more in a rush to buy it for work. If it was the former, I would want to read it myself, but not not buy it for my library. Anyways, I really enjoyed your thoughts on the book, thanks for the post.

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  8. I love your enthusiasm for this read!

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  9. I'm glad you managed to get to this. Gene Yang is just brilliant. I do hope that someday you get to American Born Chinese.

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  10. Sounds like you really liked this one. It's always fun to find a new author to love. Thanks for the post.

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  11. This book sounds great! I'm always looking for new graphic novels. Thanks for the review.

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  12. Oh the description sounds great! So cool that the books shows how the sport has changed his life so much.
    446 pages - wow, that's fantastic for a graphic novel!
    Great review!

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