GENE LUEN YANG, the two-time National Book Award finalist, describes himself as a non-athletic fiction author who, until recently, knew next to nothing about basketball.
One thing Yang does know about, though, is the intriguingly tricky creative challenge. Which might explain why he has decided to make his next big project a nonfiction graphic novel. About — yes — basketball.
Yang and publisher First Second Books/MacMillan are announcing today — as part of Children’s Book Week — that the cartoonist’s first major solo effort in three years will be “Dragon Hoops,” a true-life illustrated account of the 2015 Bishop O’Dowd High School boys’ basketball team and its run at the California state championship.
Yang, who was named the Library of Congress’s national ambassador for Young People’s Literature early this year, taught computer science at O’Dowd in the Bay Area for nearly two decades.
The publisher says that “Dragon Hoops” — scheduled for a 2018 release — will focus on “sports culture, race, the tension between high school academics and athletics, and the race to victory.”
“Dragon Hoops” is Yang’s first solo graphic novel since 2013’s historical epic “Boxers & Saints,” which marked his second time as a National Book Award finalist; the first time was for 2006’s highly acclaimed “American Born Chinese.”
Yang has a particular gift with mining culture clashes for textured and illuminating narratives.
“As always, Gene pops up next where you least expect him—and then oddly, it’s also seems like the obvious next step on his amazing trajectory as an author, an artist and a vital voice of our times,” says Mark Siegel, editorial director at First Second Books.
Although Yang didn’t know much about basketball, he was fascinated by the dynamics of a diverse team at this Catholic school. The author focuses on six players on the squad, all of whom are seniors — including one member who is the only Sikh player in the league. “With him,” Yang tells The Post’s Comic Riffs, “I want to talk about culture and race and religion, and how those things have played into the history of basketball.”
Yang, who will use real names and games in the book, says his focus is really “on each of these kids,” from their struggles and cultural differences to their shared dreams and achievements. In writing the graphic novel, he adds, he is inspired by such books as “Friday Night Lights.”
“Basketball can bring together a community,” Yang tells Comic Riffs. Not just athletes and coaches and team parents, of course — even an outsider cartoonist.
“I was a fly on the wall to a certain extent,” Yang says of his season with the team. “I’m still not a basketball guy, but they made an effort to include me.
“I’m much more knowledgeable now.”
Exclusive drawings from Gene Luen Yang’s “Dragon Hoops” sketchbook: