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

By Kate Stoltzfus — August 03, 2016 4 min read
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Gene Luen Yang is the author of more than 20 graphic novels—which often tell complete stories from beginning to end—and comics—which often tell stories in a series of installments—for children and young adults. His stories push readers to think about themes of identity, adolescence, and cultural differences. 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. Earlier this year, Yang was named the national ambassador for young people’s literature, and for the next two years, he will be working to spread awareness about the importance of reading for younger audiences.

BookMarks recently spoke with Yang about lessons he took from the K-12 classroom, how he gets students excited about STEM learning, and his favorite YA books for summer.

(Read the first part of our interview for Yang’s thoughts on how to bring more diversity into the book world.)

BookMarks: Summer-learning loss is still a prevalent issue, particularly for low-income students. What thoughts do you have on engaging students in reading and learning during the summer to help close this gap—from your varied perspective as a parent, an author, a former K-12 educator, and now the national ambassador for young people’s literature?

I have seen a lot of awesome summer-reading programs that local libraries are putting on. My local library has a graphic-novel-making contest where it asks students to write and draw graphic novels all summer and publish them as an anthology. By telling our own stories, we learn to respect other people’s stories and the reverse is true as well—reading other people’s stories helps you to respect your own. As a parent, I am very appreciative of media tie-ins in reading. I think it gets a bad rap, but authors use characters that readers already know from other media to hook them into the discipline of reading. Finally, as adults, we have to model reading. I feel the pull of the screen myself—my iPhone is always in my pocket, and it’s kind of an unconscious instinct to pull it out—but we have to model reading books for our students and kids.

BookMarks: What are some of your favorite YA books and graphic novels to recommend for summer?

Some of the books [and graphic novels] I’ve read recently that I’ve really liked: Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung; Smile and Sisters and Drama by Raina Telgemeier; Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series; Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons, which is all about growing up and one of the books I have found most influential on my own writing; Gary D. Schmidt’s Orbiting Jupiter, about a 13-year-old kid who is trying to get custody of his baby daughter that I thought was wonderful; and Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap, which was this year’s Prinz Award winner, is a stunner. You read that, and you can tell why she won.

BookMarks: As a former computer science teacher, how did your experience in the classroom and your students make you think differently about young audiences and how to connect with them?

I spent 17 years in a high school classroom. A few ways in which my years in the class have influenced me as an author: 1.) They have taught me to not underestimate teenagers. Do not underestimate their sense of self, their emotional intelligence, or their understanding of the world. A lot of the wisdom I saw in my students was surprising to me, especially in the early years. 2.) In many ways, the things we struggle with as teenagers don’t necessarily go away after we become adults. When I was a teacher, I saw a lot of things I was struggling with in my own life mirrored in the lives of my students and vice versa.

BookMarks: Your most recent book, Secret Coders, is a story that incorporates coding fundamentals. As schools continue to push STEM learning, are there others ways you plan to bridge reading with technology, math, and science as both an ambassador and a writer?

The course I taught most frequently in high school was computer science. I

would teach in a visual way—drawing on a board in my lectures—and I thought a lot of what I drew would work well as a graphic novel. There’s an artificial divide between stories and science. We tend to think that the people who are good at one are not necessarily good at the other, and I don’t think that’s true. I think it makes kids who are interested in both stories and science feel like they have to choose one or the other, and I don’t think that’s the case. There are so many awesome books that tell stories about science. My publisher, First Second Books, is putting out a graphic novel series called Science Comics. They recently published another book about bugs called The Last of the Sandwalkers by Jay Hosler, who is both an author and university biology professor. It’s a trend happening that I’m excited about, and I’m hoping that that wall will eventually break down.

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

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