This week, the Library of Congress inaugurates a new national ambassador for young people’s literature: San Jose graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang.
Yang may be the first graphic novelist to hold this particular post, but he’s well known in the world of comics. Two of his books, American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, were nominated for National Book Awards. American Born Chinese is also the only graphic novel to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award.
"In a lot of ways, I just feel like I was in the right place at the right time," Yang says. "Historically in America, comics and 'traditional books' have been these two separate worlds. They really have been merging over the last decade or two. I think I've been a huge beneficiary of that.
Mark Siegel, editorial director at Yang’s home imprint, First Second Books, would say talent has a lot to do with his success, too. Siegel says he was hooked immediately by Yang's first book, American Born Chinese, when it was still an unfinished draft.
"This was tapping into a bigger conversation," Siegel explains. "There’s the universal immigration story, but the Chinese version of that story has not been told in the way he tackles it. Then there’s also the story of internalized racism in the second and third generations. This is part of America’s big conversation with itself."
Siegel adds Yang's body of work continued to unfold and mature with Boxers & Saints, which tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China at the turn of the 20th century. The story is told from two different, competing perspectives. "It’s kind of rare to find someone who can really rivet you with a story and teach," Siegel says. "He’s not clobbering you over the head with a message. He’s exploring something with you, and you feel that."
Yang is a professional educator. He spent 17 years teaching computer science at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland. Secret Coders, released in September, was inspired by that experience. “You ought to be able to do basic programming from reading the first volume,” he told the New York Times.
Yang is friends with author Marsha Qualey. "She says that at the heart of every young adult book is this equation: belonging+power=identity. I think that a lot of my stories are about those things, about somebody trying to find where they belong, somebody trying to find where their sense of power is, and out of that, trying to construct an identity for themselves."
Once Yang's publishing career took off in the last decade, the Bay Area native found himself increasingly pulled away from the classroom, until finally he decided to quit teaching at the end of the last school year. But his plans for the ambassador role indicate he's not giving up his primary focus: kids.
Yang says his passion right now is a program he calls Reading Without Walls, designed to excite young readers to stretch beyond their comfort zone.
"Pick up a book that features somebody on the cover that doesn't look like you, or doesn't live like you," Yang says. "Using books to explore subjects that you may not necessarily be comfortable with, or that you may find intimidating."
Then there's Superman. DC Comics invited to write new adventures for Yang’s first super-hero love. It might seem a departure from his deeply person work, but Yang doesn't think so.
"Superman is also the prototypical immigrant," Yang explains. "A lot of his life is about negotiating between these two different identities, these two different cultures. Superman really resonates with the Asian-American experience. You know, he has black hair. He wears glasses. His parents are these non-English speaking scientists who send him to America for a better life. I think all those things are connection points for me into that character."