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TeenLIVE: Gene Luen Yang on Comics and Reading Without Walls



Gene Luen Yang is the current National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. It is a two-year job that he began in 2016. We were lucky enough to have him join us on March 31, 2017 at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building for a conversation about comics and his Reading Without Walls challenge. Amie Wright, Coordinator of School Outreach for NYPL, introduced the author.

Yang was entranced with comics when he was a kid. In fact, he is a self-described nerd. When he first visited a comics store, he really wanted a gory comic that promised much adventure, but his mother refused. Instead, she agreed to purchase a Superman comic for him.  After all, this superhero is pretty much the equivalent of a giant boy scout, a sanitized version of a comic book character. Such started Yang's fascination with the stories and art that proliferated inside the covers of graphic novels. 

Writing Comics

In fifth grade, Yang and his friend Jeremy started coming up with stories during lunch period. Together, they created a superhero who was pretty much a rip-off of Robin Hood. He used a Power-Point that included comics to tell the story of his childhood. At some point, he took a hiatus from writing comics in order to explore the social prowess that one of the popular kids from school emanated. This other boy was popular and he had a bubble-gum blowing girlfriend. However, he grew tired of that kind of existence, and he developed a renewed interest in comics in 10th grade. He started collecting comics, and he self-published his first graphic novel after college.

American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese became a success beyond Yang's wildest dreams. He had no idea that the novel would become so popular, and it opened up doors for him to further progress as an artist and graphic novelist. Prior to the book's success, he taught high school computer science for 17 years. While, he enjoyed being a teacher, the book's success enabled him to pursue writing comics full time. It still floors him that kids are doing their homework based on a comic that he wrote. Books that influenced him in his writing career include Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground by Kathleen Yep and Secret Identities: the Asian American Superhero Anthology, edited by Jeff Yang, et. al.

Yang  is trying to write outside of walls and his comfort zone by writing about basketball, a world that he did not like because balls tended to find a way to hit him in the head during sports activities. However, he came to appreciate the sport by striking up dialogue with a basketball coach at his school. That friendship led to him following the team around and observing games for a season. This was research for his current project, which is writing a basketball comic. 

Yang enjoys being an ambassador for young people's literature, and he believes that comic characters and books are ambassadors as well. He attempts to help people understand the world of books. Especially in this political climate, it is important to read outside of walls. This can be done in a myriad of ways. 

Reading Without Walls

1. Read a book about a character who does not live like you or look like you.

2. Read about a topic that you know little about and do not usually read about.

3. Read a book in a format that you do not ordinarily read (eg. graphic novel, audiobook, nonfiction, fiction, book for teens, adults, kids etc.)

Audience Questions

An audience member asked if he has faced serious racism in his life.

Yang responded that he had been the subject of racism, but that his experience was nothing compared to what people went through in the 1930s. Unfortunately, he internalized the comments and behavior and he came to believe that he was less of a person than others. This was painful as is Hollywood's long tradition of giving Asian roles to white actors, which simply perpetuates a culture that is whitewashed. 

Another person asked about the duties associated with his role as National Ambassador of Young People's Literature.

He stated that he writes a blog, and he is required to conduct four speaking engagements per year of his two-year term. 

A teen asked if he felt pressure to be something that he was not as a kid.

Yang did not have the benefit of protagonists in stories who looked like him as a kid. This made the cauldron of insecurity that is junior high all the more difficult to surmount. 

All in all, this TeenLIVE event was a wonderful evening full of conversation about comics, literature and life. Hopefully, you can join us at the next TeenLIVE event.


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