“I am a nerd.”
With that admission, Gene Luen Yang launched into a humorous, inspirational, and self-illustrated talk in the lead-up to his inauguration yesterday as the 5th National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
Yang is the first Asian American and first graphic novelist to serve as the National Ambassador. The mission of the position, established in 2008 by the Library’s Center for the Book, the Children’s Book Council, and Every Child a Reader, is “to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people.”
Each of the previous National Ambassadors—Jon Scieszka (2008-2009), Katherine Paterson (2010-2011), Walter Dean Myers (2012-2013), and Kate DiCamillo (2014-2015)—has adopted a unique platform through which to achieve this mission. Yang’s platform, which was the focus of his inaugural talk, is “Reading Without Walls.”
Introduced by outgoing ambassador Kate DiCamillo before a standing-room only audience in Room LJ119 of the Library’s Jefferson Building, Yang encouraged young people to read without walls—to read diverse books outside of their walled-off comfort zones in order to learn about new literary forms, unfamiliar cultures, and the lives of people who are different from themselves.
Yang’s self-identification as a nerd—he began writing comic books and studying computer programming in the 5th grade—led him to explore the ways people construct their identities. For Yang, his Chinese-American heritage, as well as his love of computers, superhero comics, and books, are some of the key markers of his own self-identify. According to Yang, people often build a wall around these types of markers. The wall is a construct that helps people understand themselves, but can quickly become a “prison” for anyone who refuses to explore the world outside of it.
Well outside of Yang’s own wall was basketball, a sport that little interested him and at which he was “terrible”—one of his own illustrations during the presentation showed him getting knocked in the head with the ball. Yang, though, made a deliberate effort to better understand the game and why so many people love it by reading books such as Kathleen S. Yep’s Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground, Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk (a manga series), Matt de la Peña’s Ball Don’t Lie, and Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Medal-winning Crossover.
Reading the books worked—he finally “got” what people enjoyed about the game—and he was inspired to break down his wall further by talking to Lou Richie, the head coach of the Bishop O’Dowd High School varsity men’s basketball team in Oakland (Yang taught computer science for 17 years at Bishop O’Dowd). Before long, Yang was sitting in on the team’s halftime locker room talks and had become good friends with Richie, with whom, it turns out, he has more in common than he thought. Another payoff: his experiences with Richie and the Bishop O’Dowd basketball team will be the subject of Yang’s next book, his first foray into non-fiction.
Yang’s experiences led him to a realization as he pondered his plans as National Ambassador. Yes, he is now an ambassador, he thought, but “books are also ambassadors.” His reading about basketball—not to mention Wonder Woman comics, whose relevance he cheerfully detailed during the talk—helped show him how books can break down walls and serve as ambassadors to new and diverse ways of thinking about other people, other cultures, and the larger world.
Yang ended his talk with a challenge to everyone: “Read without walls and see what happens. I guarantee it’s going to be amazing.”
After Yang’s talk, he fielded questions from students from the Savoy Elementary School in Washington, D.C., who made a special trip to see the new National Ambassador. The final question came from a student who wanted to know whether Yang ever wanted to write a book but couldn’t find enough inspiration to do so.
Writing a book is “a lot like a marriage,” Yang said to much laughter, though “not my marriage” he quickly clarified with a grin and quick glance at his wife, who was in attendance.
“You gotta stick with it ’til one of you is dead.”
We’re very happy that Mr. Yang has survived his encounters with his books thus far, and looking forward to the great work he will no doubt accomplish during his two-year tenure as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.
UPDATE: Video of Mr. Yang’s talk is now available online and can be viewed below.
To learn more about Mr. Yang, read Mark Hartsell’s profile of the new Ambassador on the Library of Congress Blog. Yang has appeared at both the 2007 and 2014 National Book Festivals. A video of his appearance in the Teens Pavilion at the 2014 Festival follows below.