Gene Luen Yang’s become one of today’s most prolific and acclaimed comic book creators, from the historical fiction of Boxers & Saints to the slice-of-life American Born Chinese to his action-packed graphic novels continuing Avatar: The Last Airbender and of course his current run on Superman at DC Comics. But while Yang’s work represents a broad range of storytelling, he’s now become a representative of reading for the entire country -- and he's being called up to tell others.
Yang was recently announced as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress – a position designed to help promote lifelong reading habits and diverse reading choices. He’s the first graphic novelist to take on this position, joining such literary legends as Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia), Walter Dean Myers (Monster), Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux) and Jon Scieszka (The True Story of the Three Little Pigs). Yang’s two-year term as ambassador puts him in a unique position to promote literature – graphic and otherwise – on a large scale.
Newsarama spoke with Yang to get a better idea of his new position, what it entails, some comics he recommends, and more.
Newsarama: Gene, congratulations are in order –
Gene Luen Yang: Thank you! It’s been kind of crazy.
Nrama: My understanding is that you had to keep this on the down-low for a couple of months…?
Yang: I did, yeah. I got a call in October from my editor at First Second, Mark Siegel – so I’ve had to keep it under wraps since then.
Nrama: That is weird, because that’s about when I saw you in Raleigh, when you were at Quail Ridge Books –
Yang: I don’t think I knew then! But I love Raleigh, it feels like home.
Nrama: You should chase that feeling. [both laugh] But you have to do even more traveling for this new position, correct?
Yang: Yeah, I do a decent amount of touring already – like when I saw you last. But when I tour for my own work, it’s usually about two trips per month. Now, I’m going to be traveling a lot more frequently, to talk about reading in general.
Nrama: That gets into what I wanted to ask about regarding the responsibilities of this position –
Yang: Right, the mission itself is just to promote reading itself – to promote good books to young people. And every ambassador has to add something on top of that, sort of their own agenda.
What came from the first meetings I had was the idea of “Reading Without Walls” – to promote the world through books. It’ll become something more concrete over time, but the idea is for a reader to, at least once a month, you should pick up a book that’s outside your “walls.”
That is, pick up a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you. Pick up a book that is on a topic that you might find to be intimidating – specifically, I’m thinking of books about science, technology and math, it might not be that – I love books like that! – but that’s a topic that’s intimidating to a lot of people.
And finally – pick up a book that’s in a format that you haven’t tried before. If you haven’t picked up a graphic novel – try one! If you’re a young person who mainly reads graphic novels, I hope they try a book in verse, or a hybrid graphic/prose novel, and so on.
Nrama: That actually speaks to my own grade-school experience, and something I’ve had to remind myself of more and more as an adult. A lot of books I read in school were about kids everywhere from Holland to the Andes, but they were just kids, with problems like mine. It’s something easy to forget as you get older, even as you have more experiences.
Yang: Yeah. One writer named Brian MacDonald, he has a book called The Golden Theme where he talks about this – how when you approach stories from people who are different from yourself, you are experiencing a common humanity. And that’s why I think it’s important to read stories about people who are outside your experiences – you’re reading about people who aren’t really different from us.
I think nowadays we’re at a really interesting point in the conversation about diversity, and racism, and race relations. And I think stories have an important role to play in this conversation.
Nrama: Have you talked with any of the previous ambassadors? I saw the last one was Kate DiCamillo –
Yang: Yeah, we’ve texted back and forth a few times, which is just unbelievable for me. I mean, I have her in my phone as a contact now! And I’ve heard from Jon Scieszka, who was the first ambassador. If I have even an ounce of that guy’s energy, I’ll be okay.
Nrama: Now, you talked about recommending comic books and graphic novels as part of what you want to do – what are some works like that appropriate for younger readers that you’d recommend right now, off the top of your head? Handicap: You cannot recommend your own work, being evil here.
Yang: [laughs] I think I’ll be talking to a broad range of kids. For really young kids, I’d recommend anything Toon Books puts out. In particular, I recommend Otto’s Orange Day, and The Shark King.
For slightly older kids, I like Meanwhile by Jason Shiga, probably one of the top 20 graphic novels ever produced. And everything from Raina Telgemeier, of course, and in talking about a variety of experiences, El Deafo, which is an amazing book about growing up deaf.
For older readers, I recommend The Last of the Sandwalkers by Jay Hosler who actually did this while working as a professor at a college. It’s a wonderful book.
Nrama: You actually walked into a question there – you’ve been teaching for years on type of writing, drawing and touring. With this ambassadorship, have you had to cut teaching out of your schedule?
Yang: I have transitioned out of the classroom – I stopped teaching high school in June. And I miss it – I miss that interaction with the students. The nice thing about this ambassadorship is that it will allow me to connect with students again.
Nrama: In terms of your works with DC Comics – they’ve done some great all-ages comic books, they’re reprinting some great all-ages comic books, but I’m curious if they’ve talked to you about all-ages work since you received this ambassadorship?
Yang: DC has been great – we were actually talking about some new projects even before this announcement. I can’t talk about anything right now, but we have been talking about some new projects. One of the things about DC as a company that is very positive is that they have that ability to reach multiple audiences across multiple age groups, and they’re doing that with the different types of books they publish.
Nrama: Well – speaking in terms of comics as a whole, print and electronic, larger and smaller publishers – there are a lot more options for younger readers than there were a decade ago, both in terms of new material and older material that’s being reprinted.
Yang: It is insane! [laughs] So much good stuff. Kids today, they don’t know how good they got it.
Nrama: What would you like to accomplish the most through this ambassadorship?
Yang: Well, the broader mission is to get more kids reading – to get more kids reading, and to get kids reading more. If I can get one kid to read more books than they were reading before, I’ll have accomplished that goal – but I hope to get a lot more than that!
Nrama: In terms of your own comics work, what do you have coming up?
Yang: Well, I’m still writing Superman, and right now I’ve got him fighting Vandal Savage, who is without question one of my favorite supervillains of all time – there is so much potential with that guy. I got to work with some other Superman writers on the annual recently, which was so much fun.
I have the next volume of Avatar: The Last Airbender coming out, and the next volume of Secret Coders, that’s in August. And I’m working on my next big book, which is about a high-school basketball team. That’s through First Second.
It’s a joy working in comics right now. I mean it.