No one ever asks to relive their angsty preteen years. When watching Disney movies becomes too childish and Santa Claus coming down a chimney seems outright laughable, those ages shortly before becoming a teenager and entering high school are often an awkward time of growth, transition, and for many, great isolation.
In Enlighten Me, Minh Le’s new graphic novel for young readers, Binh, a young Vietnamese American, perfectly demonstrates what a difficult time this can be.
While not central to the plot in any significant way, Enlighten Me is clearly set in a time well before smartphones. Readers of a certain age will relive late ‘80s, early ‘90s nostalgic charm in this book, which is packed full of wonderfully subtle details in the art by bestselling illustrator Chan Chau. There is the great faux-wood paneled station wagon, shaggy hair, muted colors, and of course, a whole lot of 8-bit video game renderings featured throughout this book.
In its opening pages, readers first meet Binh with a Game Boy in his hands, staring intently as the video game onomatopoeia of “boing boing,” “fwp fwp,” and “whomp whoomp” sounds come to life as it is revealed the his family is going on a road trip to an unknown destination. We quickly learn through Binh’s older sisters that they are going to a meditation retreat.
“How come other kids get to go to basketball camp, horseback riding camp, space camp, camping camp, but we get to go to a silent meditation camp? How’d we get so lucky?” they jokingly ask each other on the long drive.
Throughout the long car ride up to the mountains, Binh is silent, too enamored with his video game to talk to his family. His parents, however, want to know what made Binh snap and fight his bully at school, a driving mystery that recurs throughout the story. While his parents are relieved Binh doesn’t face a suspension, Binh doesn’t understand why he’s in trouble at all: “I just did what I was supposed to do — I took on the villain!”
The family finally arrives at the Three Jewels Mountain Retreat and everyone must go completely silent, not using their voice at all. But worst of all for Binh, he must give up his Game Boy, the only thing in the world that seemingly gives him joy.
From here, the central story kicks in as the kids get broken into daily classes led by Buddhist monks who teach the story of Siddhartha, the origins of Buddhism, and the Jataka tales of the Buddha’s past lives.
Binh begins to visualize these teachings as video games he’s playing on his Game Boy. In time, these video game lessons that he dreams up begin to form useful life lessons, as he begins to understand what enlightenment is all about.
In one of the penultimate moments in the book Binh is reminded by his teacher that “instead of trying to lose yourself in the moment, you should think of it as trying to find yourself in the moment,” a refrain that makes Binh smile for the first time in the book.
While the book has frequent flashbacks to Binh’s fight with his bully, it is never specifically revealed what actually was said or done to make him finally snap and act out. When talking to his sisters in a flashback to the day of his fight with the bully, Binh angrily thinks to himself, “At school, I’m not American enough. At home, I’m not Vietnamese enough,” leaving us to believe that Binh was bullied for being Asian, a point further confirmed when the white school principal punishes Binh without permitting him to explain his side.
The uncertain details of the past are a strength of this book overall. Enlighten Me is afterall a great introductory read on Buddhism and meditation, making the specific details of Binh’s past simply not as significant. What is past is past, and Binh’s only way to move forward is to simply focus on the present.
Third Place Books will host author Minh Lê and illustrator Chan Chau at their Seward Park store on Tuesday, September 19 at 7 p.m. They will be discussing ‘Enlighten Me,’ joined in conversation by local children’s book author Lily LaMotte. This event is free and open to the public.