We caught up with graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang this week, just days before his arrival in North Central Washington. He was traveling between speaking engagements, but kindly pulled off at the nearest exit to chat on his cell phone from the side of the road. Here’s what the award-winning writer/illustrator and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature had to say.
NCRL: What do you plan to talk about during your upcoming visit?
GLY: I’ll be talking about graphic novels in general. In schools, I’ll focus on the “Secret Coders” series. It teaches kids the basics of computer science, and especially targets middle-grade students. For the general audience, I plan to talk about how I got started in graphic novels and a bit about my Reading Without Walls program.
NCRL: How did you get started in graphic novels?
GLY: I began collecting comics in fifth grade. Then I started making my own. With comics, the dividing line between who is a reader and who is a creator is almost not there. Anyone can make a comic. I’ve basically made comics ever since.
NCRL: Can you explain your Reading Without Walls program?
GLY: Every ambassador picks a platform. For me, it’s Reading Without Walls. I want students to explore their world through reading. Reading books about people who aren’t like them; books about topics they might not know anything about; and books in a varietc of formats.
NCRL: How important is it for kids to read stories with characters who do and don’t look like and live like they do themselves?
GLY: When we read stories about people who look like us and come from a similar cultural background, it serves as a minor. It can give us a sense of validation. It makes us feel like we matter. When we read books about people who don’t look like us and live like us, it’s a window. We are given the privilege of seeing the woold through someone else’s eyes. It helps us build empathy and compassion. Reading books about people like us helps us to love ourselves. Reading books about people who aren’t like us helps us to love our neighbors. Both are cornerstones of a just and compassionate society.
NCRL: When is the last time you read outside of your comfort zone?
GLY: Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo, which is a wonderful book about friendship. I’ve written female protagonists, but I still haven’t been able to write about female friendship. Also, Burn Baby Burn, by Meg Medina, about a Latin American girl growing up in New York in the 1970s.
NCRL: How would you encourage someone who’s never read a graphic novel to pick one up?
GLY: I’d hand them a copy of Persepolis. It shows the power of the medium and is told in an accessible enough way that even a first-time (graphic novel) reader can get into the story.
NCRL: Why graphic novels?
GLY: I really think there are certain types of information best communicated through sequential still pictures. Look at the cards in the back of airplane seats. It’s a simple idea. Or instructions for building Legos. Those are basic comics…it would be next to impossible to convey that information through text. And with a video you don’t have control over the speed. With sequential images, you an go as quickly or as slowly as you need…There are certain things – algorithms, mathematical concepts, chemical reactions in science – that are just made so much easier to understand if you describe them in pictures.
NCRL: What do you like to read?
GLY: As a kid, I read everything that most kids like to read, like Dr. Seuss. Then it was comics, Super Heroes, a little bit of sci-fi. Books like Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Piers Anthony. As an adult, I really enjoyed Silent Spy.
NCRL: What are you working on now?
GLY: I just turned in the first draft for the fifth volume in the Secret Coders series. We’ll be doing six books in all. I’m also doing the New Superman series for DC Comics, which is about a 17-year-old Chinese kid who inherits some of Superman’s powers. I’m doing a new series in Avatar, the Last Airbender, and I’m doing my first nonfiction graphic novel, Dragon Hoops, which will be out next year. It’s about a high school basketball team I followed around for a year.