Graphic Novelist Gene Luen Yang: Read Beyond Your Comfort Zone, Part I

By Kate Stoltzfus — August 02, 2016 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When the graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, the recently inducted fifth national ambassador for young people’s literature, shared his reading platform earlier this year, he reminded readers nationwide that books, too, could be ambassadors—to help people understand other religions, cultures, and lives.

Yang is the first graphic novelist to hold the position—an honor appointed by the nonprofits Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader and the Library of Congress to promote reading nationally. He is widely recognized for dozens of graphic novels—which often tell one complete story from beginning to end—and comics—which often tell stories in a series of installments—that draw K-12 readers (and adults, too) into new ways of thinking about identity, adolescence, and cultural differences. His stories often weave themes from his own experiences as a second-generation Chinese American and a former K-12 educator. After teaching high school computer science for 17 years, he is now an instructor for Hamline University’s MFA program in writing for children and young adults.

Yang’s audience grew with the release of his graphic novel American Born Chinese (First Second Books, 2006), a story about Asian-American adolescence that wrestles with harmful stereotypes. The graphic novel was the first in its category to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award for young adult literature. Boxers & Saints (First Second Books, 2013), a graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion, was also a National Book Award nominee. His most recent YA book, Secret Coders (First Second Books, 2015), draws from his love of computer science while also subtly teaching readers the fundamentals of coding. He also created the first Chinese Superman in a comic series released this month by DC Comics.

Given the renewed effort in recent years to address the lack of diversity in children’s books, as well as the current social and political climate which many feel reveals a tangible fear of difference, Yang’s “Reading Without Walls” campaign for his national platform encourages readers to choose books they wouldn’t normally pick up, especially those with characters who don’t live or look like them.

BookMarks recently spoke with Yang about his work to shape young readers and writers in his roles as author, teacher, and national spokesperson. He hopes his two years as ambassador will give students, adults, and even himself “a little nudge to get outside of our comfort zones.”

Look for the second part of the interview on Wednesday.

BookMarks: Your platform as national ambassador is “Reading Without Walls"—an effort to encourage young people to read books with characters who are different from them and topics they wouldn’t normally be drawn to. Say more about why you think it’s important for students to expand their reading boundaries.

Exploring the world is an important part of growing up. There are three prongs to the platform—and the first is for kids to pick books with protagonists that don’t necessarily look or live like them. I wanted to put emphasis on that because I think, given the world today, empathy within society seems to be diminishing. It’s the feeling I get from reading the newspaper. There has been research on how fiction is a way of building empathy. People who read fiction regularly tend to score higher on tests about compassion. It’s so important for us to empathize with people who are different from us because our world is getting smaller. Technology is making us more connected. Just to get things done, just to get through everyday life, you’re going to have to interact with all these different people who don’t look or live like you. Reading about these different people will prepare you to interact in an empathetic way.

BookMarks: To push this question a little further, I’d like to put it in context of the current climate in the United States and around the world—one that is very much steeped in the fear of difference. How can this idea of “reading outside the world one is used to” help students make sense of what’s happening?

We’re afraid that by interacting with people who are different from us, by immersing ourselves in cultures that are different from us, we’ll lose our sense of self. Someone much smarter than me said that fiction is both a mirror and a window—it’s a mirror into window into our own lives and a window into other people’s lives. I think fiction can both reinforce our own sense of self and also help us be empathetic to other people and help us deal with those differences. There is a balance there, and a reading habit—a diet of books that includes both books about who we are and books about who other people are—is a great way of managing that knowledge.

BookMarks: In a speech about the need for books with diverse characters and writers at the National Book Festival in 2014, you said that authors are “afraid of writing characters different from themselves because [they’re] afraid of getting it wrong,” but that the responsibility of writers “is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage our readers to do the same.” As a writer and artist, you have successfully imagined stories that address multiple identities, experiences, and stereotypes, including ties to your personal experiences of Chinese-American adolescence and immigration. What is your advice to other authors for how to be fearless?

That talk came out of the work I do at Hamline University as a teacher in its MFA program. Our students are interested in writing for young people. The summer before I gave that speech, we had a focus on embracing diversity as authors. We gave examples of diversity gone wrong—books where the authors didn’t do their homework and presented cultures in two-dimensional ways that were flat or false. A lot of my students became afraid of writing characters that were different from them. As an author myself, I know how much fear you have to deal with just to get words on the page, and as a teacher of authors, I am very reluctant to add more fear. Authors have to give themselves permission to make mistakes in the first draft. We have to be willing to do our homework so we can fix those mistakes. It’s also helpful to have a support system around you that is knowledgeable enough to point out those mistakes and guide you in the right direction. If you’re writing about a culture that is not your own, it’s always helpful to have someone on your team who is an insider into that culture.

Image Credits: Gene Luen Yang, used with permission from First Second Books

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.