Breaking Down Barriers

Gene Yang is a former teacher, graphic novelist, and the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. His work on graphic novels such as Boxers & SaintsAmerican Born ChineseSecret Identities, and Secret Coders have won countless literary nominations and awards for their value as a literary work in education, including being listed as a New York Times best-seller, nomination for the National Book Award, and winning several Eisner awards. 

After being named the fifth National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Gene Yang has used this position to empower students through the art of reading in educational and entertaining ways, including his official platform Reading Without Walls. This program takes the practice of leading readers to the same genres and formats they are used to reading and turns it around, challenging people to read something they wouldn't normally choose on their own.

Since the pilot program started in Fall of 2016, schools and libraries nationwide have participated in the program providing feedback and additional resources that might be needed in order to execute this program nationally in the summer of 2017. We interviewed Gene Yang about how this platform has grown and continues to flourish as we enter 2017.

Ashley Kronsberg (AK): Reflecting back on this past year, the ambassadorship was a such wonderful honor, for you and for graphic novels, in general. What did you learn from the experience? What lasting memories did you take away from it?

Gene Yang (GY): It was such a crazy experience! In January of 2016, I was invited to a fancy ceremony in Washington D.C.  There, the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and Every Child A Reader appointed me the fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

I’m the first graphic novelist to receive the honor, but I’m not the first ambassador to do comics. Kate DiCamillo, my immediate predecessor, wrote the Newbery-winning Flora & Ulysses, a book that uses both prose and comics to tell its story.

As ambassador, I’ve gotten to speak with students all over the country. I meet young cartoonists in every city I visit. There is so much talent out there!

It seems to me that more kids are reading comics than ever before. At the start of every presentation, I ask my audience how many of them love comic books. Almost always, every hand goes up. When I was a kid, it only would’ve been a fraction of the class. 

Kids today are reading a ton of comic books, but they’re not reading the same ones that my generation read when we were young. We mostly read monthly superhero comics. Today, they’re reading graphic novels by Raina Telgemeier, Ben Hatke, Kazu Kibuishi, Cece Bell, and the like.

AK: During that time, how were you able to raise awareness about comics and graphic novels?

GY: Well, I’m not sure I need to, at least not of the comics form itself. Like I said, kids are reading more comics than ever. What I want is for them to branch out. I want them to try graphic novels of every genre, by every kind of writer. And not just graphic novels. I want them try every kind of book.

AK: The theme for your ambassadorship was “Reading Without Walls,” How did you happen upon that theme?

GY: In November of 2015, I had a meeting with folks from the Children’s Book Council and First Second Books. The “Reading Without Walls” platform came out of that meeting. We want kids to explore the world through books. We want them to break out of their comfort zones. 

The Reading Without Walls challenge works like this: Give yourself a due date. (You can do this as a community, too.) Before that due date, read a book that is (1) about a character that doesn’t look or live like you, or (2) about a topic you know nothing about, or (3) published in a format that you don’t normally read for fun. If you want to go for the gold star, find a book that fits all three criteria.

AK: In what unique ways have you seen participation in this theme? Have there been any surprises along the way from your original expectations?

GY: I’ve gotten photos from librarians who have run the challenge with their patrons. Many of them created these beautiful, elaborate wall displays. Then, when a patron met the challenge, they would add some kind of certificate to their wall displays.

Bookstores are doing this, too. Over the summer, I visited the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minnesota. They made an awesome display right in the middle of their story. They even had a paper mache me! (I’ve always wanted meet a paper mache me.)

We’ve been so inspired by what these creative libraries and bookstores have done that we’ve put together a Reading Without Walls Challenge Kit* to help schools, librarians, bookstores, and comics shops issue the challenge to kids.  

AK: Reading Without Walls is something you’re going to continue to push in 2017 and beyond. What plans do you have to continue that initiative?

GY: I’m doing a bunch of speaking gigs, both in person and over Skype. We’re rolling out an official version of the Reading Without Walls Kit, which I mentioned earlier.

This interview is part of the initiative, too. We want the comics community to get involved. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get some Raina fans to read Gotham Academy or Ms. Marvel? Wouldn’t it be great if we could get some superhero fans to try March, a graphic novel trilogy about a real-life hero? Let’s issue the challenge through comic shops and see what happens!

AK: 2016 has been a unique year for the graphic novel industry with March winning the National Book Award and Ghosts becoming one of the most well-known books for kids. With your experience as an ambassador, have these events weakened the taboo of comics being taught in the classroom?

GY: The taboo against comics has been weakening for quite some time. March winning the National Book Award was huge. And pretty much every book Raina drops, including Ghosts, is huge.

I rarely meet anti-comics teachers and parents these days. Granted, that may be because they don’t come to my events. But I do think most readers recognize comics as a legitimate literary form.

AK: You’ve had several titles come out this year while travelling as an ambassador – New Super-Man, a new edition of Level Up, and Secret Coders. Of the three, which do you think was your favorite to work on? Were you surprised by audience response to any of these titles?

GY: They’re so different. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Picking a favorite project is like picking a favorite child! When my kids try to make me do that, I tell them my favorite child is a dinosaur that their mother gave birth to in secret, who now lives in our attic. When they were young, I would catch them looking up at our ceiling. 

I was so happy that folks responded well to New Super-Man #6, which came out last December. It was the end of an arc, the longest arc I’ve done in superhero comics. I had thrown a bunch of stuff in the air: the Great Ten, father-son issues, Chinese Freedom Fighters, a Genetically-Modified Starro. I spent a long time figuring out how to land it all.

AK: Would you say your intention for Secret Coders to become an introduction to foundational computer science concepts has been a success? How do the third and fourth volumes coming out in 2017 build upon the volumes currently available?

GY: Before becoming a full-time cartoonist, I taught high school computer science for seventeen years. I taught in a very visual way. I always thought that many of my lessons could work well in graphic novel format.

And that’s exactly what Secret Coders is – a graphic novel series that teaches computer science. I’m doing the writing and the fabulous Mike Holmes is doing the art. We originally signed to do three volumes, but the first one did well enough that we’ve signed to do six. The third one will be out in March. 

AK: Recently, the titles for Free Comic Book Day were released. Can you tell us more about your work on the comic adaptation of the Fresh Off the Boat TV series?

GY: I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say, but the Free Comic Book Day comic will directly tie in to one specific episode of the television series. I’m a big fan of Fresh Off The Boat and all the folks involved. Working on this project has been a thrill.

AK: How much freedom will you have in writing stories for the comic book?

GY: We’re staying within the world of Fresh Off The Boat, of course, but we want to tell a story that would only work as a comic.

How will the stories presented in the comic book fit into the TV series’ overall continuity (if at all)?

GY: I hope the story will be able to stand alone. But if you’ve watched the tie-in episode, there will be another level to your reading experience. (At least that’s the hope.)

AK: What can we look forward to in 2017 from you as an author?

GY: I’m currently writing more issues of New Super-Man for DC Comics. For those unfamiliar with the series, the main character is Kenan Kong, a seventeen-year-old Chinese kid who inherits some of Superman’s powers. Viktor Bogdanovic, Billy Tan, Richard Fiend, and Hi-Fi Color have handled the art on the issues so far. They’re all absolutely stellar.

First Second Books publishing two volumes of Secret Coders this year.

I’m also knee deep in a project that I’m writing and drawing. It’s my first non-fiction graphic novel, about a high school basketball team that I followed for the 2014-2015 season. It will be called Dragon Hoops.   


* The Reading Without Walls Kit will be available to order through the PREVIEWS catalog.

Ashley Kronsberg is the Graphic Novels Marketing Associate for Diamond Book Distributors as well as the Editor for Diamond BookShelf.