Kung Fu High School jumps right into the Kung Fu part as the book starts with a description of a Jimmy Chang, teen martial arts master defeating four attackers in under 10 seconds. The description is accompanied by stick figure drawings illustrating some of the high points of the fight. This is pretty much the way the rest of the book plays out, with action and the occasional page of illustrations thrown in.
The book is told from the perspective of Jen, a high school student at Martin Luther King High School. The once normal high school has fallen on bad times in recent years and now it is run by a young drug kingpin named Ridley and a corrupt principal named Dermoody. In fact calling it a school seems a bit of a stretch as very little book learning goes on. The students do learn a lot though, they learn to pick a “family” quick, because if you don’t belong to one of the six families, you’re dead. They also learn that to fight is to survive, the weak are quickly “transferred” at MLK High, transferring may mean to a new school or it may mean to the morgue depending on your luck.
Now a new element has come to the school; Jimmy Chang. A legend of martial arts prowess and international champion, Jimmy has hundreds of tournament wins and no losses. The fact that Jimmy has sworn to his mother that he will never fight again makes life hell for his cousin Jen and her brother Cue. They must try and protect Jimmy and themselves as he enters the school and must face the “kicking in” initiation where all new students are beaten. It is a right of passage that helps determine your place in the school and a legendary fighter, who won’t fight is everyone’s target.
“Kung Fu High School” comes across as a very straight forward book at first. It is filled with graphic descriptions of violence and at times almost non-stop fighting. Of course if you read a book titled “Kung Fu High School” that is what you’d expect, a martial arts movie on paper. Grattis delivers that, but he also brings a bit more. We journey with Jen through the pages of the book as she experiences not just physical, but emotional pain and must make choices that require more courage from this young girl than few people could ever muster.
Grattis’s book is not perfect by any means. Like many Kung Fu movies, the plot requires a lot of suspension of disbelief from the readers as students wear clothing with improvised armor and weapons hidden within it. Also, and this may be an optimistic view, but the way the authorities in this unidentified urban environment ignore the regular murders and disappearances seems hard to swallow. It is not hard to get beyond these points however, as the book does address them and Jen’s sad acceptance of such things as part of her day to day world add to the reader’s empathy for her character.
“Kung Fu High School” lives up to its name. Grattis delivers an exciting journey into a dangerous and unhappy world where the only way to survive is to fight. Exciting and at times ultra-violent, the book also carries a few more subtle messages about the ultimate price for violence and about the way society as a whole judges and sometimes writes off not just institutions like MLK High School, but also the people who, through little choice of their own are forced to go there. If you enjoy a good Hong Kong action flick then check out Ryan Grattis’s “Kung Fu High School” it’s a martial arts movie in your mind.