In 2008 the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council, and the nonprofit organization Every Child a Reader established the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature position to celebrate and promote books for children and young adult readers. The current ambassador, graphic novelist and recent MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Gene Luen Yang, started his term in January 2016. Yang has devoted much of his work to his Reading Without Walls Challenge, which encourages kids to read books with unfamiliar characters, topics, and formats. Yang is the perfect advocate for such an undertaking: His popular graphic novels American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints have pushed against cultural stereotypes and blurred the lines between the comic-book and book-publishing industries. More than halfway through his two-year term, Yang spoke about his work as the ambassador.
What inspired you to come up with the Reading Without Walls Challenge?
We want kids to read outside their comfort zones, and we want them to do it in three ways. One: We want them to read about characters who don’t look like them or live like them. Two: We want them to read about topics they don’t know anything about. And three: We want them to read books in different formats. So if they normally read only graphic novels for fun, we want them to try a chapter book, and if they read only chapter books for fun, we want them to try a graphic novel.
What are you planning next?
Right now we’re trying to promote the Reading Without Walls program. We’ve put together a bunch of downloadable materials: recommended reading lists, posters, and certificates of completion. We’re hoping librarians, booksellers, and teachers will download, print, and use these materials to promote the initiative with their classes. And we’re trying to do a wider national push for the summer.
What else is involved in the national ambassador position?
It’s pretty flexible. I have a few speaking engagements—I was at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., in the fall, which was a ton of fun. I’m going to go again this year, and I’ve done a few school visits, some of them in person, some of them over Skype. We’ve tried some online stuff. I have a video podcast called the Reading Without Walls podcast—it’s just me having conversations about children’s books with people I really like. I had one that came out with Lois Lowry, who wrote The Giver; another one with Patrick Ness, who wrote A Monster Calls. I also do a monthly column at Book Riot about making comics, and we’re probably going to start another podcast this year.
Why do you think it’s important for kids to read books with characters who don’t look or live like them?
There are studies that show that fiction in particular builds empathy—that when you read about characters who don’t look or live like you, you begin to understand them a little bit better. You understand what makes you similar and how vast the differences are, and it helps you to be a little bit more compassionate toward people who are different from you. Right now it seems like—not just in America, but around the world—we need a little more empathy. And I include myself in that too. I worry about how technology affects us. Just recently with the presidential election, there was all of [this research] about how Facebook basically shows you stuff you like to read. And then even beyond that, you can literally read about yourself all day. You could just fill your whole day with pure narcissism because of digital media. And I think fiction is the exact opposite of that. Well-written fiction pulls you out of your own mind space and helps you see into the thoughts and lives of somebody else.
Can you think of a book where you were reading without walls as a kid?
As an Asian American kid growing up in America in the eighties, almost every book that I read was outside of my own walls, because they were about kids that were part of the majority culture. I do think that maybe gender-wise there were books that pushed me outside of my walls. Like almost every kid in the eighties, I loved Beverly Cleary and I loved the Ramona books. I think as a character Ramona really broke stereotypes and cultural norms about the way little girls should act, because she was creative and rambunctious and kind of loud. And there was a lot of overlap in the way she saw the world and the way I saw the world as a little kid. So I think that that pushed me out. And there were also books that mirrored my life. I started collecting comics in the fifth grade and got really obsessed with superheroes. I wonder if part of that obsession comes from the fact that these superheroes negotiated two different identities—Superman wasn’t just Superman, he was also Clark Kent. In some ways that mirrored my own reality since I had a Chinese name at home and an American name at school; I lived under two different sets of expectations. And Superman is actually an immigrant too—he deals with the cultures of both Krypton and America.
Have your experiences as a graphic novelist informed the challenge, especially the part about reading in different formats?
Yes, absolutely. I think in America, up until pretty recently, the comic-book market and the book market were really two separate entities. They had their own stores, distribution systems, norms, and readerships. It’s only in the last ten or fifteen years that they’ve started working together. I really think I’ve been a beneficiary of that merging, and it’s exciting to see. It’s exciting to see how publishers and authors who are prominent in one area are starting to embrace the work from the authors in the other area. More and more we’re seeing publishers who typically only publish prose books start to add graphic novels to their list. On the other side, we’re starting to see comic-book publishers recruit writers who are primarily known for their prose, like Ta-Nehisi Coates over at Marvel.
Do you think that’s because people’s opinions or the form itself is changing? Can you diagnose why that shift is happening?
I think there are three prominent comic cultures in the world. There’s the American one; there’s an Asian one that’s centered primarily around Japan, and there’s a European one centered around France and French-speaking Belgium. And in those other two cultures, comics have been prominent for a long time. If you go to Japan, there will be people of every age and gender reading graphic novels and manga on the subways. In France, it’s the same way: They televise the comic awards shows. In both of those cultures, it’s always been a big deal. It’s only in America that comics have been in this backwater. And that really goes back to the 1950s when the child psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent, in which he argued that comic books cause juvenile delinquency. The United States Congress took it very seriously and had a series of congressional hearings where they called comic-book authors, publishers, and artists to Washington, D.C., to testify to see if comics actually caused juvenile delinquency. These hearings lasted for a few weeks, but didn’t end conclusively—there was no congressional decision that came out of it. But they damaged the reputation of comics in the eyes of the American public, and that lasted for decades. That didn’t happen in Japan or France. I feel what happened in Japan and France was a much more natural development of the medium, whereas in America it was stunted. It wasn’t until the last couple of decades that people have forgotten about what happened in the fifties. People have finally started to realize that comics don’t cause juvenile delinquency.
What draws you to working with and writing for young people?
I think it’s kind of my natural storytelling voice. When I first started writing comics, I was a self-publisher. I was working at a tiny scale. I would Xerox comics and I’d try to sell them at shows. I’d sell probably a dozen or two—tiny scale. And when you’re working at that level, you don’t think about demographics. I wasn’t actually categorized as a young-adult author until I signed with First Second, my primary publisher. They come out of the book world, not the comic-book world. In the book world age demographics are huge; that’s how booksellers decide where to shelve their books and how to sell them. So I was categorized there. It’s not something I had in my head when I first started, but I think it sits well—probably because I was a high-school teacher for a long time. I taught high-school computer science for seventeen years, so I was just surrounded by teenage voices, and a lot of that just bleeds into you. When you spend so much time in the hallways of a school, the voices of those hallways just kind of get into you.
Dana Isokawa is the associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.