For many years, Gene Luen Yang led something of a double life. By day, he was a mild-mannered teacher, walking the halls of his Bay Area high school. By night, though, he would lose himself in tales of superheroism and dual identity. If his greatest power was literary imagination, his second-greatest involved stellar feats of time management. Yes, after dark, Mr. Yang became . . .
A comic-book creator.
Ever since, his list of achievements has grown as imposing as a tall building leapt in a single bound volume — from bestsellers to award-winners.
On Monday, reflecting his accomplishments as both author and educator, Yang will be named the new national ambassador for young people’s literature. The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader will inaugurate Yang on Thursday in Washington at a free event open to the public.
Yang, who said he was thrilled and humbled by the honor, embraces this opportunity as a welcome part of his professional progression. “I’m really attached to furthering the integration of the book and comic-book worlds,” says Yang, whose current projects include writing a young-adult book series and for DC Comics’ Superman character. “This is the next logical step.”
Yang is accustomed to logical steps that also represent pioneering firsts. A decade ago, his cross-cultural masterwork “American Born Chinese” (2006) became the first graphic novel to be named a National Book Award finalist — a feat he repeated more recently with his sweeping Boxer Rebellion epic, “Boxers & Saints” (2013). Now, Yang becomes the first young people’s literature national ambassador to be a graphic novelist. (The authors previously appointed to the two-year position have been Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson, Walter Dean Myers and Kate DiCamillo.)
The literary ambassador program was created in 2008 “to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature,” according to its organizing bodies. With that in mind, Yang says, “One of the things I’m supposed to do as ambassador is promote great books, and because I’m from the world of graphic novels . . . I have to give them a little bit of an extra push.”
Yang is accustomed to coming to Washington and winning over fans for graphic novels. In 2014, the author-educator spoke at the National Book Festival gala, sharing the stage with E.L. Doctorow, Nina Khrushcheva and Kai Bird. Yang drew some of the night’s loudest cheers and highest praise by talking passionately of the imperative for culturally diverse literature and also of the courage authors need to write about cultures outside of their own.
“We talk about our need for diverse books with diverse characters written by diverse writers,” Yang said that evening. “I wholeheartedly agree. But I have noticed an undercurrent of fear in many of our discussions. We’re afraid of writing characters different from ourselves because we’re afraid of getting it wrong.
“This fear can be a good thing if it drives us to do our homework, to be meticulous in our cultural research,” Yang continued. “But this fear crosses the line when we become so intimidated that we quietly make choices against stepping out of our own identities.”
Immediately afterward, Yang told me that his speech also functioned as a pep talk for himself as a writer. That’s crucial because the notion of identity — both discovered and secreted — runs through most of his work, including “The Shadow Hero” (2014), which creates a new narrative for a ’40s comics character who was perhaps the first Asian American superhero.
Yang, who is in his early 40s, was raised in the Bay Area as the son of immigrants, and themes of being a Chinese American, as well as a Christian, recur in his work. He also often explores the idea of outsider status, which dovetails nicely with being a comics fan, he has noted, because the comic-book industry itself was founded largely, during the World War II era, by Jewish Americans who felt like outsiders.
Yang began drawing comics in fifth grade, and his rise as a cartoonist began two decades ago, when he received a Xeric grant for his self-published “Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks” (1997). His true breakthrough, though, came nearly a decade later with “American Born Chinese,” in which stereotypes and multiple identities are brilliantly explored. That book, which has sold more than a half-million copies and is a classroom staple, is the only graphic novel to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award.
Yang has long been a classroom staple, as well. After majoring in computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, he tried working as a computer engineer, only to realize that his true calling by day was teaching. For 17 years he taught — “mostly computers, some art and a little math” — at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, before deciding last June to devote more time to his thriving comics career.
And so this national ambassadorship not only comes at an ideal time, it also meets two of the cartoonist’s goals.
First, Yang — who has four children but misses the stimulating classroom environment — gains a post that feeds his desire to educate. “I still love being a teacher, and a classroom is something I want to have again,” says Yang, whose recent YA series are the tech-friendly “Secret Coders” and “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
Second, the ambassadorship provides Yang with a platform for promoting reading, including graphic novels, with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) goals. He says his focus, reduced to three words, is simply “reading without walls.”
“Walls are only a big thing if you’ve never crossed them or scaled them,” he says. “There are a lot of walls between cultures that reading can help bridge. Reading is a way to get to know people on a deeper level. . . . And we’re also talking about ways we can use technology to engage kids with reading, because the technology is so new.”
Such thinking surely made the author an attractive candidate for the young-literature post. “Gene Yang continues to prove himself as a pathfinder for publishing, for comics and for literature in our changing times,” says Mark Siegel, editorial director at Yang’s home imprint, First Second Books. “This is another great honor he has earned, and another first for graphic novels as a form — a vital, timely, flourishing form of human expression. Gene is exceptionally gifted.”
And at the center of those gifts is Yang’s eagerness to push past boundaries.
“After all, our job as writers is to step out of ourselves,” Yang said in his National Book Festival speech, “and to encourage our readers to do the same.”
Literature for young readers, in other words, couldn’t have a better emissary.
Cavna is The Washington Post’s “Comic Riffs” columnist/cartoonist and graphic-novel reviewer for Book World.