Gene Luen Yang. (Cavna’s Canvas 2016 / The Washington Post)

GENE LUEN YANG, the cartoonist and educator whose “American Born Chinese” (2006) was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award, has just received an honor that puts an exclamation point on everything he has already achieved in his still-rising career.

Yang, 43, has just been named a MacArthur Fellow — one of 23 recipients of the so-called genius grant this year, the MacArthur Foundation announced Thursday. The class of 2016 also includes New York graphic storyteller Lauren Redniss.

“It’s just crazy,” the Bay Area-based Yang tells The Post’s Comic Riffs. “I feel incredibly blessed.”

Each fellow receives a “no-strings-attached” $625,000 grant that honors “exceptional creativity and potential for future contributions to their fields.”

 

Five years ago, Redniss (“Thunder and Lightning”) was named a National Book Award finalist for “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout” — the first nonfiction graphic narrative to be so honored. Redniss, 42, an assistant professor at Parsons, the New School for Design, told Comic Riffs at the time that she was “particularly gratified” to be recognized for a visual nonfiction book.

Gene Luen Yang speaks in January at the Library of Congress, during his inauguration as the incoming national ambassador for Young People's Literature. (photo by The Washington Post 2016)
Gene Luen Yang speaks in January at the Library of Congress during his inauguration as the incoming national ambassador for young people’s literature. (The Washington Post )

In January, Yang was inaugurated as the Library of Congress’s new national ambassador of young people’s literature — the fifth person to hold that post and the first graphic novelist to do so.

Prior to that, he had spent nearly two decades as an educator, teaching computer science at an Oakland-area high school — experience that informs his current YA comic series “Secret Decoders.”

Yang has also written Superman stories for DC Comics and the graphic novel “The Shadow Hero,” which is based on a World War II-era character who might well be the first Asian American superhero in comics history.

Yang is also a two-time National Book Award finalist for cross-cultural masterworks — not only for “American Born Chinese” (a classroom staple that has sold more than a half-million copies) but also more recently for the sweeping Boxer Rebellion epic “Boxers & Saints.”

Yang began drawing comics in fifth grade, and his rise as a cartoonist began two decades ago when he received the Xeric grant for his self-published “Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks.”

The Post’s Comic Riffs will be in conversation with Yang on Saturday night at the Washington Convention Center; he is the headliner of the Graphic Novel Night event as part of the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival.

Yang says the MacArthur honor still doesn’t feel quite real — “I half-thought it was my friends pulling a prank” — so he’s focusing on the immediate. “I’m trying to keep my brain on the festival,” Yang tells Comic Riffs, “and [on] finishing a script for DC Comics.”

This post has been updated. 

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(MacMillan / First Second Books)