Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

My oldest daughter is almost seven and she is an advanced reader, but up until recently, she has been particular about what she read. She preferred graphic novels, and I was happy to oblige: graphic novels are cool! Fortunately, our town library has a large selection of graphic novels for children. They also have an equally large selection of graphic novels for teens/young adults. Most of the content in the young adult section is not appropriate for a seven year old. That’s too bad for my daughter, but there’s a veritable treasure trove out there for me to read.

Boxers and Saints is a two-volume collection written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang. Both books take place during the tumultuous time in Chinese history known as the Boxer Rebellion.

Boxers is the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a family in rural China at the end of the 19th century. He finds himself caught up in the movement against the influence of “foreign devils” in China. He raises an army, and although it is made of peasants with no formal training, they draw their strength from envisioning themselves as ancient Chinese gods. As their movement gains momentum, they find themselves facing more formidable foes- are they strong enough to face the British army?

Saints is the story of a young girl, who also lives in rural China. She is known as Four Girl; her parents did not even bother to give her a name. She is initially drawn to Christianity because of the snacks they get during catechism, but Four Girl also experiences visions of Joan of Arc. She is baptized, and takes the name Vibiana. As a Chinese Christian, she has aligned herself with the foreign devils. When their sanctuary is attacked, she must either renounce her faith, or face being killed for that faith.

Little Bao and Vibiana have more in common than they realize. They meet each other as children. Vibiana is being taken to the doctor because she won’t stop making faces, and on the way, she passes by Little Bao. He is struck by her appearance, and vows to marry the girl with the face like an opera mask. When they meet for a second time, it is under entirely different circumstances.

Boxers and Saints can be purchased separately, but they are sold as a bundle, and they really ought to be read together in order to appreciate the magnitude of the story. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I did not know much about the Boxer Rebellion. I vaguely remember studying it briefly in high school, but that’s it. Boxers and Saints provides a solid overview of the situation from very different perspectives.

The illustrations are amazing. Yang has a very cartoony style of drawing. It is perfect for the moments of levity scattered throughout the book, but they seem at odds with the more serious moments. Characters commit horrific crimes, and they are subjected to violent attacks. Yang is a gifted artist, and storyteller.

I would absolutely recommend Boxers and Saints. As I have mentioned, there is mature content, so I would recommend these books for teens and adults. This is an engrossing look at a historical conflict that is not necessarily covered in history classes. If you would like to find out more, you can do so here: Boxers & Saints Boxed Set

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