Gene Luen Yang Inspires Kids to Read as the New National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

Comics Features Gene Luen Yang
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Gene Luen Yang Inspires Kids to Read as the New National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

Yesterday morning at 11 AM, Gene Luen Yang stood within the ornate, golden dome of the Library of Congress and became the fifth Ambassador for Young People’s Literature—the first graphic novelist to assume this role. Created in 2008 by the Children’s Book Council, its parent foundation, Every Child a Reader, and the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress, the role will send Yang off on a two-year campaign to “raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.” Following previous ambassadors Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, Walter Dean Myers and Kate DiCammilo, Yang will provide lectures throughout the country to promote reading among children and teenagers.

And for any reader who’s followed Yang’s professional trajectory, there’s no role more perfect for the former computer science teacher and current Superman scribe. The son of immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong, Yang channeled his experience of cultural realization and heritage in the 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese, a triptych of stories that charts American culture clash and Asian myth. The book won the annual Michael L. Printz Award from the American Library Association and was also a finalist of the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.

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During his time as a cartoonist, Yang also taught computer science (his undergraduate major at Berkeley) and served as Director of Information Services at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California. The experience would bleed into works that would become progressively more educational, including history (Boxers & Saints), math (the webcomic Factoring with Mr. Yang & Mosley the Alien) and coding (Secret Coders with artist Mike Holmes). This combination of educational experience and craft was instrumental in his new role, expanding his reach to a new audience.

Paste spoke with Yang after the ceremony to discuss the current state of kids and comics, how to get adolescents out of their comfort zone and his new basketball-centric graphic novel.

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Paste: Congratulations on your new position. You were inaugurated this morning in Washington, DC. How was the ceremony?
Gene Luen Yang: It was wonderful. It was at the Library of Congress, which is an amazing, historic venue. David Mao, who’s the acting Librarian of Congress, gave a short introduction and John Colman, who’s a Librarian of Congress Emeritus, he also gave a talk. And then Kate DiCamillo, who’s the outgoing ambassador, also gave a talk. And then I gave a talk as well to the folks who were there.

Paste: Last November, Presidential candidate Marco Rubio said that “we need more welders and less philosophers” and Old Navy was recently criticized for releasing t-shirts disparaging the arts as an aspirational path for children…
Yang: This is what I think. When I was a kid, I really wanted to become a cartoonist, and I have an immigrant Dad. Not every immigrant Dad is like this, but my immigrant Dad hit a lot of those stereotypes. So he basically wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer. He wanted me to do something practical. So we fought a lot about this, and as an adult, now that I have my own kids, I get what he was getting at.

I feel like I’ve softened in my view of my Dad. I get that he worked really hard to come to this country. Now that I’m in the arts, I get that it’s hard to make a living in the arts, especially in comparison to a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. And then at the same time, I really feel like our job is to balance the practical concerns of our parents with the dreams we have. I don’t think that art and practicality are necessarily incompatible with each other. Almost every artist I know has had, or continues to have, some other kind of job. For me, I taught high school computer science for about 17 years. For years I was a part-time teacher and a part-time cartoonist. But I found that one would feed into the other. I think that for a lot of artists we get inspiration for our art from our everyday life. I think more and more, you see people with “practical jobs” also have something on the side that’s art. So that Old Navy shirt, where they crossed out artist and put in astronaut or president, I think a better way of approaching that shirt would be putting the ampersand in. So you dream of being an artist & an astronaut. There’s no reason you can’t do both.

Paste: You’re the first graphic novelist to assume this position since its creation in 2008. If the position is to raise awareness of how beneficial literature is to young people, how are you articulating the value of the comics and graphic novels?
Yang: The position is about elevating reading in general. I am the beneficiary of all this hard work that cartoonists before me have done. Art Spiegelman putting out Maus, winning the Pulitzer Prize in the early ‘90s, Craig Thompson putting out Blankets, Adrian Tomine and Dan Clowes, The Hernandez Brothers, Lynda Barry…all of them have basically created this space in people’s heads for literary comics. Now when you’re talking about literature, you’re not just talking about prose, poems or picture books—comics are also included. So I feel like as the first graphic novelist, I want to make sure that graphic novels are represented, but I also want to make sure that not only graphic novels are represented.

When I was a kid, a lot of my science fiction geek friends only read prose books. They wouldn’t read comics. And when I talk to kids, I meet the opposite. I meet a lot of kids who only read graphic novels and don’t read other books. What I want to push for is diversity of format, so that you experience books in every possible way, including graphic novels and prose novels. Every ambassador picks a platform, and the platform that came out of the meeting that I had with The Children’s Book Council and my publisher, First Second, is Reading Without Walls, and what we mean by that is that we want kids to pick books that they wouldn’t normally read. This includes books with characters that don’t live or look like them, this includes books about topics they may be unfamiliar with, and this includes books in formats that they’ve never read before.

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Reading Without Walls Graphic by Gene Luen Yang

Paste: You’ve been following a high school basketball team around for the past year and worked as both a high school director and teacher. What have you seen as the biggest hurdles in getting kids to read either comics or prose?
Yang: I can speak to this from my own life, because I think it mirrors something that’s happening in wider society. For me, the biggest enemy of reading is distraction. We just live in a society that’s filled with noise. A lot of that noise is useful, but not all of it. In order to read, you really have to set aside quiet time to dig into a story, to dig into a book. It’s being intentional about that. It’s seeing the value of the benefits I can get from books that I can’t get from other storytelling media and making sure I have that time on a regular basis. I think the same thing is happening for our kids as well.

Paste: First Second, the publisher of many of your works and a sponsor of this program, has been instrumental in getting comics into bookstores and libraries. One could also argue that comics have been slow to adopt digital functionality for mainstream audiences, though comiXology has certainly made some headway. How much do you think format and access influence kids reading comics at the moment?
Yang: I think it’s a huge thing. I feel like a good number of them don’t really care if they’re reading it on a screen or reading it on a page. And I think our side is growing diverse in every sense of the word. That includes reading styles and preferences, so I don’t think it’s an either or world—it’s a both/and world. It’s not like publishers are abandoning print in order to embrace digital. I think they’ll probably have to do both. Mark Waid wrote an article almost a decade ago talking how digital was going to replace print, and then he did Thrillbent. Then a few years later, he wrote a second article that said that his first article was wrong, that digital has supported print and vice versa. And then he bought that retail store. I think he’s right. I think the second article is totally right. I think the way you reach a new generation of readers is you offer your stories in as many formats as possible.

Paste: One of the core elements of the program is to encourage kids to read books about topics they find intimidating. Are there any topics you see especially relevant under this guideline?
Yang: I think it depends on the individual, but my pet project within that is science, technology, engineering and math. A number of kids find those topics intimidating, and I think stories are a great way to get into those topics.

Paste: That definitely makes sense in context of Secret Coders.
Yang: That was a lot of that. Have you seen Howtoons from Image? It’s an amazing book. I have a 12-year-old and he loves it. It really fits in well with maker culture.

Paste: At the end of your two-year term, what needs to be accomplished for you to consider this a success?
Yang: On a very micro level, if I can get one kid to read a book he wouldn’t have otherwise read, I feel pretty good about that. But more broadly, I hope to be part of a continuing discussion about reading, about how society can get more kids to read, and kids to read more.

Paste: As far as your current comic projects are involved, you’re wrapping up your Superman run as well as prepping a basketball comic.
Yang: Basketball has always been something that’s been outside of my purview, outside of my world. I’ve slowly gotten interested in it recently. Part of it is because I read a couple of related works on basketball, part of it is my son is really interested in basketball. I got to know the coach at the high school where I used to teach. He invited me to follow his team for a season, and during that season I discovered this amazing story. I got to interview some of the players, I got to interview some of the other coaches. It was just wonderful and formed a narrative arc that I find really compelling, and I want to get that on paper. We don’t have a title yet, but it’ll be the next big book that I write and draw.

Paste: Was this team at Bishop O’Dowd, the high school where you taught and served as director?
Yang: It is. Biship O’Dowd’s men’s varsity team.

Paste: How did they do? Does the narrative of the book directly follow this team’s season?
Yang: It does. The team has some really intense drama. The coach of the team—Lou Richie—he is an alum of Bishop O’Dowd, and when he was a junior, his team went to the California State Championships. He took the last shot of the game when his team was down by one. He took that last shot and made it, and Bishop O’Dowd thought they’d won the state championship, and then referees invalidated that shot because one of the teammate’s hands was in that sacred space above the rim. Supposedly. If you look at the replay, it’s really unclear.

So that shot has haunted him. It was invalidated, they lost the championship, which haunts him. He comes back as a coach, he’s brought five teams to the state championships. They’ve lost all five times and the last year was supposedly there best shot at finally fulfilling this dream that Lou’s had since he was a player.

Paste: So this is a biography more than it is a work of fiction.
Yang: It’s nonfiction. It’s not strictly a biography, I have a chapter on the coach, and then I’m focusing on six players. I try to pattern it on Friday Night Lights, the book as opposed to the TV show.