There’s something special, author Gene Luen Yang says, about the first time a reader encounters a literary character that shares the same cultural background.
In his case, the character was Jubilation Lee, an X-Men comic-book figure who, like Yang, was a Chinese-American with immigrant parents but who, unlike Yang, could release explosive plasmoids and detonate matter at a subatomic level.
Jubilation, aka Jubilee, was one of the few Asian-American characters Yang saw in any media as a child in California in the 1980s – a lack of cultural diversity he felt keenly then and wants authors today to correct.
“For readers who are part of the majority culture, it’s important to have diversity because one of the functions of literature is to grow empathy and compassion in the reader,” Yang said by phone last week. “You need windows into other people’s lives in order to do that.
“For readers from minority communities, you need the diverse books just so you can see yourself reflected. Maybe it’s superficial, but there is something validating about seeing your story portrayed on a page.”
Yang now has a new platform to share that message: This week, the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader named him national ambassador for young people’s literature – the first graphic novelist to serve in the position.
The program was established in 2008 to highlight the importance of young people’s literature to lifelong literacy, education and the betterment of young people’s lives. The ambassador serves a two-year term, appearing at events around the country and encouraging young people to read.
A Natural Storyteller
The young Yang wasn’t an especially prolific reader.
Early in grade school, a teacher would line up students from Yang’s class by the number of pages they’d read in a month. The leaders would take first pick from a table of prizes. Yang, usually near the end of the line, got the leftovers – the Tootsie Rolls no one else wanted.
“I was one of the slowest readers in my class,” he said.
Still, Yang felt naturally drawn to storytelling.
Both of Yang’s parents immigrated to the U.S. – his father, an electrical engineer, from Taiwan and his programmer mother from Hong Kong. Mom and Dad, seeking a way to connect their son with the culture they’d left, told Gene “a ton” of stories from their homelands.
Yang soon found he wanted to tell stories of his own. Early in grade school, he began keeping a notebook of his drawings and writings.
“It was always there,” Yang said. “Storytelling seemed natural to me, largely because of the kind of family I was growing up in.”
Eventually, Mom bought him his first comic book – DC Comics Presents Superman #57 – and Yang discovered the medium that would change his life.
“There’s something about the combination of words and pictures that really fascinated me,” Yang said. “[Words are] a much more precise instrument of communication. But when you’re trying to communicate emotions through pictures, it’s almost like you can put an emotion directly in a reader’s gut – almost like bypassing their brain.”
Finding a Calling
Yang didn’t expect to make writing a career. He majored in a “more practical” subject – computer science – at the University of California, Berkeley, with a minor in creative writing.
He figured he’d hold a full-time job and do graphic novels on the side – a self-published, money-losing labor of love.
“I just thought that whenever I put out a comic I would be losing anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars because I would be printing it up with my own money,” Yang said. “Some people, they play golf for fun and they lose a ton of money at that. I will make comic books for fun.”
That’s what happened, at first. After graduating in 1995, Yang took a job writing software code. But it didn’t feel quite right.
In college, he’d been involved in youth ministry, a gratifying experience. “It felt like something I was meant to do,” he said.
So, Yang embarked on a five-day silent retreat to think through his life.
“It’s hard not to talk that long,” he said. “But what it allowed me to do was think a little more clearly about my life without all the noise and make some decisions.”
The big decision: Quit code-writing and teach computer science and math at Bishop O’Dowd, a Catholic high school in Oakland, California.
He loved it.
“There is something like a teacher’s high,” Yang said. “There’s something about sitting down with a student and watching them struggle and seeing it click that is extremely satisfying. That makes you feel like it’s a pointer to the meaning of life.”
A Blossoming Career
All the while, Yang was writing.
In 1997, he began self-publishing his own comics with “Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks.” More followed, and Yang eventually signed with a publisher.
In 2006, he published “American Born Chinese” – the first graphic novel to be named a finalist for the National Book Award and the first to win the Printz award as the best book for young adults. In 2013, his “Boxers and Saints” also was named a National Book Award finalist.
Following the success of “American Born Chinese,” Yang increasingly found himself pulled away from teaching by his blossoming writing career.
Last June, after 17 years at Bishop O’Dowd, Yang quit to devote himself full-time to writing and, for the next two years, to his work as ambassador.
Yang frequently discusses the importance of diversity in literature – diverse books, diverse characters, diverse authors – and chose as his platform “Reading Without Walls.”
That is “just a fancy way” to say he hopes to get children to explore through reading – different literary forms, different cultures and the lives of people who are different from them.
“Stories can be both a mirror and a window,” Yang said. “They can be a mirror into your own experience and a window into somebody else’s. In order for stories to effectively serve both of those purposes, we do need diverse books.”