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National Ambassador for Young People's Literature: Gene Luen Yang

We were thrilled to hear that Gene Luen Yang --- award-winning author of graphic novels AMERICAN BORN CHINESE and BOXERS & SAINTS and the new Secret Coders series --- was named the fifth National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Below, Gene talks about his platform "Reading Without Walls," how his experience teaching has influenced his writing and why he thinks graphic novels --- and reading as a whole --- is so important. Congratulations on being named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature! Where were you when you first learned the news, and what was your reaction?

Gene Luen Yang: Thank you!  My editor Mark Siegel called me in October. I was on tour for the first volume of Secret Coders, which came out at the end of September. I was absolutely shocked.

Mark asked me not to tell anyone, so because I was in a car with my author escort, I couldn’t react in any way. But even in that forced silence, it was awesome.

KRC: Your platform as the National Ambassador is “Reading Without Walls.” Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

GLY: Reading Without Walls is about exploring the world through books. Through stories, we can get to know people who are different from us. We can pick up skills that others don’t expect us to have.  We can discover new passions. Stories can help us overcome the walls that divide us.

KRC: What are you most excited about in your role as National Ambassador?

GLY: I’m look forward to meeting young readers.  I really enjoy talking with kids about stories. I’d also like to figure out how to use technology to promote reading. The Children’s Book Council, First Second Books, and I have already been talking about this.

TRC: Have you received any advice from the previous ambassadors?

GLY: I’ve had a few email exchanges with Kate DiCamillo.  She’s wonderful. I’ve been a fan of hers for a long, long time.  She gave me advice on how to make my ambassadorship my own. I’m excited to be continuing her work.

KRC: You have four children. Do they have any opinion on your being named to this post?

GLY: I’ve been a parent for 12 years now. I was a high school teacher for 17. I can tell you from experience that it is very, very difficult to impress children that you see on a regular basis.

KRC: Your first graphic novel was AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, which was nominated for a National Book Award. What inspired you to write this book, and why did you choose the graphic novel format to share your story?

GLY: When I started AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, I’d been doing comics for about five years. I’d had multiple Asian American protagonists, but their cultural heritage was never an important part of the story. I wanted to do a story where that was the focus, and that’s what AMERICAN BORN CHINESE was.

I tell my stories as graphic novels because I love the interplay between the words and pictures.

KRC: You have been a champion of graphic novels for almost a decade now. Do you feel that being a National Ambassador who is a graphic creator can help further exploration of this format?  

GLY: Absolutely. In America, a wall divided graphic novels from the rest of the book industry for decades. Until recently, they were two different markets, each with their own retail stores and distribution systems. Teachers and parents ignored, or actively avoided, graphic novels.

That wall is breaking down. As ambassador, I want to help that trend along. I want to encourage teachers, parents and kids who’ve never read a graphic novel to give one a try. And I also want to do the reverse.  If a reader only reads graphic novels, I want her to try reading a prose novel, a novel in verse or a hybrid (half graphic, half prose) novel.

KRC: Have you been drawing comics your entire life?

GLY: I drew my first comic book in the fifth grade. I loved the experience so much that I’m still doing it.

KRC: Your most recent project is a series called Secret Coders. Can you tell us more about it and why you were inspired to write the books?

GLY: Secret Coders is written by me and drawn by an amazingly talented cartoonist named Mike Holmes. It’s a project I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. I taught high school computer science for 17 years. During that time, I always thought that my lessons would adapt well as comics.

And that’s what Secret Coders is. It’s a graphic novel that is both a fun story about a group of middle schoolers who find a secret school and a collection of lessons about computer science fundamentals.

KRC: Before you were a professional author, you were a computer science teacher. Has teaching helped your writing career? If so, how?

GLY: Before I became a professional author, I didn’t realize how much speaking authors do. Teaching definitely helps with that.  Being part of a school community was also a huge inspiration. I was around other people’s voices all day, and that informed my own writer’s voice.

KRC: Do you think that your teaching experience will influence how you approach the role of National Ambassador?

GLY: I left the classroom last June, and to be honest I really miss it.  Being National Ambassador will give me the opportunity to interact with students again. I’m looking forward to it.

KRC: What were your favorite books when you were growing up?

GLY: I loved anything by Beverly Cleary, Clifford Hicks’ Alvin Fernald books and the Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander.

I also loved comic books. I was mostly a Marvel guy, but a writer named J.M. DeMatteis did a run on an obscure DC Comics character called Dr. Fate that I just loved.

KRC: Do you have any advice to engage a non-reader?

GLY: Comic books and graphic novels can act as a bridge between the stories our students watch and the stories our students read. Many reluctant readers first develop a habit of reading through comic books.

That said, I want to emphasize that comic books are a medium worthy of study in and of themselves. They are definitely a gateway to reading, but they are also more than just a gateway.

KRC: What is the funniest thing that a fan ever said to you? What about the most touching?

GLY: Kids will sometimes ask me if I ever got a girlfriend. It’s weird, I know, but I think they’re genuinely worried about me. (Don’t worry, kids. I’m happily married.)

My books seem to especially resonate with the children of immigrants, regardless of where their parents are from. Those conversations are always especially gratifying.