ON THURSDAY, just a block apart in the shadow of the Capitol Dome, stood two of the best ambassadors for comic art and storytelling.
In the morning, bathed in the arch-window light of the Jefferson Building, a crowd of young and old eagerly gathered around a podium, where the Library of Congress inaugurated Bay Area-based author-educator Gene Luen Yang as its new national ambassador of Young People’s Literature. Yang is the fifth person to hold the two-year post, and the first graphic novelist to do so.
As seasoned historians sat near students from Washington’s Savoy Elementary, the event began with warm words from John Y. Cole, who directs the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book; acting Librarian of Congress David S. Mao; and the program’s outgoing ambassador, two-time Newbery Medal recipient Kate DiCamillo (“Because of Winn-Dixie”). Mao officially presented the ambassador’s medal to Yang, who stepped up to the lectern and proceeded to swiftly display why he’s an eminent selection for the post.
Yang opened with a simple statement of declaration: “I am a nerd!” Rousing laughter washed over the room. Aided by a series of deft screen visuals, Yang — a charismatic, high-energy speaker — was able to present himself dually as both authentically dimensional scholar and simplified cartoon character. This touch was brilliant, because not only did Yang offer a humbly nerdy avatar that the grade-schoolers could instantly warm up to, and perhaps some even identify with; he also was displaying the very strength that most distinguishes him as an ambassador: the ability to connect through the magical marriage of words and pictures.
Yang gave a swift audio-visual trip through his childhood, as a non-athletic geek who first began cartooning in fifth grade, after spotting a Marvel team-up comic book on the rack. This future Superman writer was soon hooked on superheroes. (Later during this talk, some of the Savoy schoolkids would keep asking him about superheroes; already, you can see how many of Yang’s visits as an educational envoy will unfold — with great power comes great connectivity by bringing up Spider-Man and Thor.)
The theme of Yang’s talk was scaling the obstacles that divide, be they the hurdles toward discovering new platforms and formats for information; new technologies for reading and storytelling; or the borders we put up between ourselves and other people and cultures. The author-educator, who taught computer science at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland for 17 years, provided a cartoon visual of how even teachers at his longtime school ate lunch divided along such subject areas as science and tech (the “nerds,” in Yang’s kid-friendly classification) or sports (“the athletes”).
Yang, however, came to know one of the coaches, and ended up following the school’s basketball team for a year, gaining access to document a season. The result will be the first nonfiction graphic novel for Yang, who is a two-time National Book Award finalist, for “American Born Chinese” and “Boxers & Saints.” By researching this project, Yang not only did a 180 on his disinterest in sports, he emphasized, but the cartoonist also befriended people he might otherwise never have known.
Yang ended his talk with words intended to resonate with schoolchildren today and through his two-year stint: “My challenge to you is that you read without walls.”
NEARBY, that very afternoon, Rep. John Lewis returned from a floor vote. In his House Cannon Building office, amid photos and mementos acquired from a lifetime fighting for civil rights, sat an award for his graphic-novel series, “March” (Top Shelf).
While Yang long worked in the classroom, Rep. Lewis travels to schools to illuminate the history of the civil rights movement, his illustrated narrative in tow. Lewis, like Yang, was first moved as a child by the power of comics, and so he knows firsthand how the combined forces of words and pictures can engage and excite a child.
Lewis, too, knows about walls, having spent the better part of a life protesting and petitioning, marching and getting arrested in the name of tearing down the walls of oppression and fear and hate.
The congressman knows as well that it is crucial to get children not only reading at an early age, but also researching young, doing the homework of life so you can employ informed critical thinking.
As the congressman and I chat, I see on the walls old maps of Selma, where he marched on that infamous Bloody Sunday, and in a cabinet proudly sits a police mug shot from the ’60s, before voting rights had been secured.
And when I go out of the balcony and look west, I see the Mall on which Rep. Lewis preached at age 23, as the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington. So many clashes and walls ago, with so many social hurdles yet to clear.
— Michael Cavna (@comicriffs) January 7, 2016
At the morning inauguration, Gene Luen Yang spoke of the Library of Congress’s history of educational outreach as a legacy of light.
That night, when I depart from a day on the Mall, I stare up at the scaffolding surrounding the illuminated Capitol Dome and reflect on the fact that democracy is built on the foundation of education, passed generation to generation — and that spreading that light is forever a work in progress.