Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang has had a busy year. He published the second volume of his Secret Coders series, which teaches basic computer programming concepts; kicked off New Super-Man, a DC Comics series that imagines a Chinese boy as the cape-wearing hero; won a MacArthur “genius” grant; and was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress.
Yang doesn’t wear a cape in his role as ambassador, but he does have a super goal: “to get more kids reading, and to get kids reading more.” During the National Book Festival in Washington, he talked about his new position and his early love of comics, which led him to write such books as “American Born Chinese” and “Boxers and Saints.”
Were you a comic-book nerd as a kid?
From fifth grade through maybe seventh grade, I just collected comics — or I tried to. One of my friends and I would get our parents to drop us off at the library. After they left, we would walk over to the comic-book store.
But that wasn’t always the case?
During middle school I stopped because a friend told me that if I kept collecting comics, I would never get a girlfriend. But it didn’t happen: I stopped collecting comics, but I didn’t get a girlfriend. So I started again when I was in high school.
When did you start making comics of your own?
Pretty shortly after I started buying comics. When I was really young, I wanted to be an animator. I knew I wanted to tell stories by drawing in some way, and back then, if you wanted to make a movie, it was practically impossible for a kid to do it. But comics was not like that. It felt like anybody could make a comic.
You have a new book, “Dragon Hoops,” coming out in 2018. Can you tell us anything about it?
It’s about the men’s basketball team at the high school where I used to teach. I followed that team for a season and got to know the players and the coach, who had an amazing story. As a kid and as a coach, he had lost in the state championship seven times. That season that I followed him was supposedly their best shot at finally winning.
One of your goals as national ambassador is to get kids to read more about people who aren’t like them. Why do you think that’s important?
Our nation and our world are becoming more and more diverse. We can’t move forward as a species without some sort of respect for diversity. One of the main strengths of books, especially of fiction, is building empathy. To read about people who don’t look like you is a way of building empathy for people who are different from you. On a very practical level, it’ll help you with your job when you’re older. On a more philosophical level, you can’t have peace without empathy and understanding.
Gene Luen Yang shares five books he thinks kids would enjoy receiving this holiday season.
The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ages 10 to 13)
I was terrible at basketball as a kid, but this novel in verse made me feel that I could have been good. If I’d had this book back then, I could have let the rhythm of Alexander’s words sink into my nervous system, and then maybe I would’ve been able to dribble without bouncing the ball off my feet. (But probably not.)
Little Night,, by Yuyi Morales (Roaring Brook, age 6 and younger)
I love everything about this book. I love the art and the words and how they get together and do a little dance. This is a story about bedtime, but it’s a bedtime unlike any you’ve ever experienced. It’s a bedtime of epic proportions: a bedtime that’s as old as time itself and as new as your next idea. Also, so much cuteness!
Lowriders in Space , by Cathy Camper and Raul the Third (Chronicle, ages 9 to 12)
Check out these names: Lupe Impala. Flapjack Octopus. Elirio Malaria. Now imagine how awesome a story about characters with these names ought to be. Then double it. That’s pretty much how awesome this graphic novel is.
Meanwhile, by Jason Shiga (Abrams, ages 8 to 12)
If a maze and a comic book were to have a baby, the baby would basically be this graphic novel. The story is about big topics such as probability, mortality and loneliness, but it’s also a lot of fun. Shiga shows how little decisions — such as what flavor of ice cream to get — can change our lives forever. It took me weeks to solve this book. (Yes, this is a book you can solve.)
Mighty Jack, by Ben Hatke (First Second, ages 9 to 12)
Hatke’s cartooning prowess is simply dazzling. This is the most imaginative retelling of “Jack and the Beanstalk” I’ve ever read. Actually, it’s not “Jack and the Beanstalk” at all. It’s more like “Jack and the Leafy Monster Hands and the Giant Snails and the Creepy Rutabaga Babies and the Magic Berries That Give You Superpowers and the Snarky Dragon.”
KidsPost and Book World children’s book reviewers share their picks for the best books of 2016.
As Brave As You, by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum, age 10 and older)
Genie is curious about everything, including dog poop, stars and the secrets he uncovers on a visit to his blind grandfather. In this fresh, funny novel, each new bit of information leads to another question about the mysterious guys in his family.
The Inquisitor’s Tale, by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton, age 10 and older)
Three kids and a saintly dog deal with sinister knights, a farting dragon and an enraged queen as they seek sacred objects in this thrilling story set in medieval Europe.
Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, age 10 and older)
A lonely girl finds comfort in two unlikely friends when her father abandons the family. They share dreams, baton lessons and a rescue mission to an animal shelter in this hopeful, humorous tale.
The Wild Robot, by Peter Brown (Little, Brown, ages 8 to 12)
In this compelling adventure, a shipwrecked robot named Roz befriends the wild animals in her island home. Together, they battle the robot squad sent to retrieve her, and the fight ends in a very surprising way.
The Best Man, by Richard Peck (Dial, ages 9 to 12)
Archer Magill shares laugh-out-loud stories about a wedding disaster, a mistaken school lockdown and the confrontation with three gay-bashing bullies. Clueless, Archer manages to figure things out with the help of his savvy friend Lynette and his easygoing dad.
In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives, by Kenneth C. Davis (Henry Holt, age 10 and older)
Davis looks at five people who were enslaved by presidents before and after the American Revolution as a corrective to history books that hide or play down slavery’s role in the United States. Details about these enslaved people are known because of their connection to powerful men, but Davis makes clear that they were impressive people in their own right.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph, by Roxane Orgill and Francis Vallejo (Candlewick, ages 7 to 11)
On a summer day in 1958, a group of jazz musicians gathered in Harlem for a photograph that has become a classic American image. In Orgill’s picture book showing how the photo shoot came about, her poems work with Vallejo’s striking illustrations to celebrate sweet serendipity and jazz genius.
Some Writer!: The Story of E.B. White, by Melissa Sweet (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ages 7 to 10)
The author of “Charlotte’s Web” lived a long and colorful life. Fittingly, Sweet’s picture-book biography about E.B. White is both substantial and vibrant, full of family photographs, examples of his writing and Sweet’s intricate collages.
Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story , by Caren Stelson (Carolrhoda, age 10 and older)
Sachiko Yasui was 6 years old in August 1945, when American forces dropped an atomic bomb half a mile from where she was playing. This informative and gracefully written book tells about what happened to Sachiko and her family that day and in the decades after World War II.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat , by Javaka Steptoe (Little, Brown, ages 6 to 9)
Author and illustrator Steptoe seems to channel Jean-Michel Basquiat’s creative drive and vision in this singular picture book. Mindful of his young audience, Steptoe focuses on Baquiat’s influences and the distinctive artistic path he forged.
Freedom in Congo Square , by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Little Bee, ages 4 to 8)
In antebellum New Orleans, Congo Square was where people of African heritage, free and enslaved, were allowed to gather Sunday afternoons. Accompanied by Christie’s expressive paintings, Weatherford’s poetic text depicts the liberation and the community that Congo Square Sundays provided each week after six days of hard labor.
¡Olinguito, de la A a la Z! Descubriendo el bosque nublado, (Olinguito, From A to Z! Unveiling the Cloud Forest), by Lulu Delacre (Children’s Book Press, ages 3 to 10)
Delacre’s charming and graceful verse in Spanish and English takes readers on an alphabet adventure in the Ecuadoran cloud forest in search of a newly discovered little mammal — the olinguito. Lovely, precise illustrations are filled with the flora and fauna of this special place.
School’s First Day of School, by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, ages 3 to 8)
A newly built school, Frederick Douglass Elementary, admits to being a little nervous about the arrival of children and all the new experiences that come with first days. Rex’s sweet and funny story is well matched by Robinson’s endearing, lighthearted art.
They All Saw a Cat, by Brendan Wenzel (Chronicle, ages 3 to 6)
Try on another set of eyes — or several — in this astounding and artful look at the world from the perspectives of other creatures. You don’t have to like cats to enjoy Wenzel’s gift of seeing what one small cat might look like to a dog, a goldfish, a snake, a fox or a bird.
Thunder Boy Jr. , by Sherman Alexie; illustrated by Yuyi Morales. (Little, Brown, ages 3 to 7)
A young boy thinks about the possibility of choosing a name that is especially about him but also connects him to his dad. Alexie gives a glimpse of an experience both personal and universal, and Morales’s delightful illustrations convey family joy and affection.
Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead , by Michelle Markel; illustrated by LeUyen Pham. (Balzer + Bray, ages 4 to 8)
Markel tells a true story that is both entertaining and heartwarming about a girl who was fearless, outspoken and determined to do good things in the world right from the start. Pham’s illustrations offer cameo appearances by other lively, noteworthy women of substance and voice.