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Amid calls for greater diversity in books for young readers, graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang says authors and illustrators of all backgrounds must overcome the fear of creating characters with stories that don’t mirror their own. We talk with Yang about the rising popularity of graphic novels, their role in education and how authors find the courage to create diverse characters.
- Gene Luen Yang Author, "The Shadow Hero;" Author and Illustrator, "Boxers & Saints," "American Born Chinese"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from “The Shadow Hero” by Gene Luen Yang. Copyright First Second, 2014. All rights reserved.
A Word With Gene Luen Yang
Michael Cavna of The Washington Post interviewed Yang this month as emcee of the National Book Festival’s first-ever Graphic Novel Night.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIGraphic novels and comic books have been enjoying a renaissance in recent years, despite the reluctance of some parents, teachers, and "serious readers" to, well, take them seriously. One of the author/illustrators leading the charge is this -- in this resurgence is Gene Luen Yang, who also happens to be a teacher, dad and a two-time National Book Award nominee. He's here to talk with us about his work -- which ranges in genre from historic fiction to a new superhero tale -- about the role of comics in the classroom and about the importance of creating diverse characters.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIGene Luen Yang is an educator, the author of numerous graphic novels, the latest of which is "The Shadow Hero," which kept me up all last night. His prior work includes "American Born Chinese," and "Boxers and Saints." He joins us from the studios of KQED, in San Francisco. Gene Yang, thank you for joining us.
MR. GENE LUEN YANGThank you for having me, Kojo. I'm very excited to be here.
NNAMDIAs I said, "The Shadow Hero," kept me up last night, but it was worth staying up for to read. Your first graphic novel with First Second Books, "American Born Chinese," is dedicated to your parents. Were they supporters of your -- supportive of your interest in comics as a kid?
YANGWell, first, thank you. Thank you so much for reading "The Shadow Hero." I'm really glad you had the chance to do that.
NNAMDIWell, you pulled me in when I heard you speak at the opening of the National Book Award…
YANGWell, I appreciate that.
NNAMDI…at National Book Festival here in Washington. We'll talk about that later. But, yes…
YANGThat was great. But about my parents…
YANG…you know, no. They were not. When I was a kid, you know, I remember I started getting into comics in the fifth grade. And early on I had to actually sneak to my local comic book store. I had a friend named Jeremy in the fifth grade, who had been collecting comics for years and years. So he devised this system that he let me in on. And what we would do is we would get our parents to drop us off at the local library, and then we would wait until they drove away, and then we would take the 20-minute walk to our local comic book store and we'd buy as many comics as we could out of the quarter bin.
YANGAnd then we'd take them back to the library and check out the biggest books that we could find, so that we could hide our comics and take them home. So early on, my parents were not into it. I remember my dad used to find these articles about how comic books would stunt your reading and how the lettering was so small it would make you have to wear glasses. So they were not fans in the beginning.
NNAMDIYeah, I do remember that my early relations with a lot of kids in school were only trading comics. That's the only relationship I remember having with them at all.
NNAMDIIn addition to being a writer, you're an educator with experience at the high school and college level. You've done a lot of work around the use of comics in the classroom. What are the strengths, what are the weaknesses of using them in the classroom?
YANGI've taught high school for about 17 years now. Nowadays I'm down to just one class of computer programming, but I've had a couple of experiences using comics in the classroom. First, I've taught my students to make comics in an art class. And then I've also used comics to convey educational information in a math class. And in both of those instances I've realized that comics are this very powerful tool that, here in America, at least, we are just -- we, as educators, are just starting to explore.
YANGSo a couple of things make comics stand out. First of all, comics are a visual medium. And our students are very, very used to receiving information visually, you know. And that's one of the big advantages it has over just pure prose or pure text. And then second, unlike other visual storytelling media, you know, there's film and there's animation. Comics -- when comics conveys information visually, the rate of information exchange from the comic, from the source material, to the reader is actually in the hands of the reader, the -- in control of the reader.
YANGThe reader decides how fast or how slow she wants to read that comic. That is not true of animation or film, you know. In -- at least in terms of visual storytelling media, comics is the only one that has that.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Our guest is Gene Luen Yang. He's an educator and also author of numerous graphic novels, the latest of which is "The Shadow Hero." 800-433-8850. Are you a fan of graphic novels? Tell us what appeals to you about them. If you've read Gene's work and have questions for him, give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIIt's interesting that now you teach a class in consumer -- in computer science, because you majored in computer science and that was, it is my understanding, in part to please your parents before you kind of moved on.
YANGIt was. It was in part to please my parents, but it was also -- I also had a genuine interest, specifically in coding, specifically in programming. You know, a lot of the hardware stuff I wasn't super into. But there's something really beautiful and really sequential about coding that I think is related to comics. In both of these art forms you have to break large ideas down into almost bite-sized, easy to consume pieces. And then put these pieces in sequential order. And you have to really think deeply about that sequence that you're building.
YANGSo, in a way, I really think there's this overlap. And I think it shows, too. If you look at the population, there's a huge -- if you draw this Venn diagram of coders and comic book fans, there's this huge overlap space.
NNAMDIWell, you earned the first-ever National Book Award nomination for a graphic novel, which you've since done again, as have others. And a graphic novelist was among the McArthur Genius Grantees this year. To what do you attribute this surging popularity? And where do you position your work within the range we're seeing now?
YANGI think it's pretty awesome. I think, you know, if you have told me when I was in fifth grade, starting to collect comics, that we, as an industry, would be where we are today, I wouldn't have believed you. And I feel lucky because I feel like I'm part of this big wave that's been building for decades and decades. You know, you have Neil Gaiman, who started off in comics and won all sorts of literary awards that were originally only won by pure prose works.
YANGAnd then you have Art Spiegelman's "Maus," which won the Pulitzer Prize in the early '90s. First, and so far only, graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer Prize. So for decades there have been cartoonists who have expressed very sophisticated and very personal visions in comics. And they've really convinced the general public that comics are a medium worthy of study. And they're a medium -- comics are a medium that are just as literary and just as legitimate as anything else out there.
YANGSo I kind of feel like in a lot of ways that the National Book Award nomination for "American Born Chinese," in 2006, was kind of me being at the right place at the right time. You know, the world of comic books and the world of traditional publishing were starting to merge in this very aggressive way. And "American Born Chinese" came out right when that was happening.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Ken, in Gaithersburg, Md. Ken, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENThank you, Kojo. I have two comments. The first is one really cannot, you know, talk about comics without mentioning pop art and people like Tom Wesselmann, who really brought the medium into fine art. The second is, I’m a physician twice over. I was educated overseas and in the United States, and what helped me get through calculus and physics were two books, "The Comic Guide to Calculus," and "The Comic Guide to Physics." Without them I'd have flunked out.
YANGYeah, Larry Gonick, the cartoonist who did those books, is great -- is a great example of somebody who is both a cartoonist and an educator. I think his first big book was called "The Cartoon History of the Universe." And it really is amazing. It's multiple volumes, hundreds of pages long, and he goes from the big bang, all the way to present day.
NNAMDII've got to tell you, without the newspaper comics I would not be here every day. I read them before I get out of bed in the morning. They're that important to me. But thank you so much for your call, Ken. One of the things that brings you here today I mentioned earlier, was a visit you made to the Library of Congress to help kick off this year's National Book Festival. There you spoke about the issue of diversity and specifically, the role that fear plays in, perhaps often subconsciously, squelching it. What inspired you to take that topic on in your address?
YANGI am part of the faculty at Hamline University. I teach as part of their MFA in creative writing for children and young adults. So I work with a lot of both published and aspiring writers there. It's really a wonderful storytelling community. You know, most of the folks there are either novelists or they're picture book writers or they're nonfiction writers. I'm one of a just few graphic novelists who are part of that program.
YANGBut one of the great things about that program is we get to talk to each other, you know. And we get to learn from each other's art forms. This past residency, this past summer -- every summer we fly out there, all the faculty and staff fly out there for about a week. And this past residency the theme was diversity. So we had all these discussions about how do we write about a diverse world in an authentic way.
YANGAnd what I noticed in talking to my students was, you know, in all of our discussions we were trying to achieve this balance. We didn't want to write other people's cultures in a way that was disrespectful, but at the same time, we didn't want our students to get so afraid of getting things wrong they didn't try anything, you know, they didn't try to go and explore an experience that wasn't that of their own. And what I found with a lot of my students is after all of these discussions about diversities, a couple of them got really freaked out about it.
YANGAnd one of them even straight up told me -- she said, "I will never write outside of my own culture because I'm going to get it wrong and it's going to be terrible." And I thought, as writers, you know, especially in a program like that, what we want to encourage is we want to encourage exploration. And we want to encourage courage. And we want to encourage people learning about themselves by writing about others.
YANGYou know when you write about others you find commonalities between your own experience and the subject of your writing. So all of those things were swirling in my head when I was asked to do the talk at the National Book Festival.
NNAMDILooking back at your own earlier work, do you feel as though that fear ever stopped, ever hamstrung you?
YANGWell, you know, in a lot of ways that talk that I gave was a pep talk for myself because in an upcoming book of mine, the two main characters, the two leads are a biracial girl, a biracial middle school girl and her best friend who is an African American boy. So in a lot of ways, at least, when I'm writing these two characters I'm writing outside of my own experience. And I felt it. When I started this project, I felt that fear. So I was trying to talk myself out of it. With my earlier work, you know, most of my earlier work featured Chinese American or Asian American protagonists.
YANGAnd "Boxers and Saints," you know, that was a historical book. That was based -- that was set during the time of the Boxer Rebellion.
YANGSo all of the protagonists are Chinese. But when I was writing that book I realized that even though I'm a Chinese American this is definitely a different culture. You know, when you travel back in time you are actually traveling into -- it's almost like going to another planet. It's a completely different way of thinking and a completely different way of living.
NNAMDIIs the book you are working on, that you just referred to involving mixed race and -- someone of mixed race and African American, "Secret Coders?"
YANGIt is, yeah.
NNAMDIOh, can't wait.
YANGYeah, "Secret Coders" is the book -- I'm really excited about this because, you know, in fifth grade I started programming and I started collecting comics. And finally in this project I'm bringing these two things together. So I'm working with an incredibly talented cartoonist named Mike Holmes. He's doing the illustrations and I'm doing the writing. And "Secret Coders" is kind of like "Harry Potter."
YANGYou know, these kids find this secret school, but the secret school, instead of teaching magic, teaches computer coding. And we're hoping that as the reader follows these kids in their journey to become coders that the readers themselves will become coders as well.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Mara in Silver Spring, Md. Mara, you're on the air, go ahead please.
MARAHi, thanks for taking my call. I am the mother of a seven -- a 10-year-old boy who is a great reader and is into the big chapter books. He's also been a big fan of the -- I think it started with "The Arrival" by Shaun Tan and then John Lewis' recent autobiography, the first section of that. "Nausicaa," huge, huge fan. He can read that over and over again. But my seven-year-old daughter asked me the other day why she didn't have any graphic novels of her own, which of course is the first time she asked it.
MARAAnd I'm taking note of the few of the ones you've mentioned. But I wondered if you had any other suggestion. And "Nausicaa" is an obvious one that she can and will read. But do you have other suggestions of novels with female protagonists, comics and graphic novels that would be good for her?
NNAMDIHow much time do you have, Mara?
YANGAnything by Raina Telgemeier would -- would work perfectly. Her most well-known book is "Smile," which is all about -- she lost her two front teeth in an accident when she was in late elementary school. And it's all about this dental drama. So any kid who has worn braces or will wear braces will relate to that book. It's beautifully, gorgeously written and drawn. There is a series called "Babymouse" by Jenny Holm and Matt Holm. That's absolutely wonderful female protagonist.
YANGAnd then there's the "Lunch Lady" series, which is about a lunch lady who knows kung fu. It's amazing. And it's by Jarrett -- Jarrett Krosowski -- Krosoczka. He has a really complicated last name. But if you look up "Lunch Lady" on your favorite book website, you'll find it.
NNAMDIMara, thank you very much for your call. We've got to take a short break. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, you'll find a link to Gene Yang's Comics in Education website, that's at our website, kojoshow.org. Gene Luen Yang is an educator and the author of numerous graphic novels. He joins us from studios in San Francisco. We'll be continuing this conversation, but you can still call, 800-433-8850. Are you a teacher who has used graphic novels in the classroom?
NNAMDITell us how they went over both with the students and their parents. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Gene Luen Yang. He is an educator. He's the author of numerous graphic novels, the latest of which is "The Shadow Hero." Prior work includes "American Born Chinese" and "Boxers & Saints." If you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you will find a link to Gene Yang's Comics in Education website. And we talk earlier about the fact that you made a visit to the Library of Congress to help kickoff this year's National Book Festival.
NNAMDIIf you go to our website, you will find a link to the text of his speech there and an interview that Michael Cavna had with Gene. But in the speech, you spoke about how important it is for people who are part of a minority group to see that group represented even if it's done imperfectly. How did that experience shaped the life and work of one Dwayne McDuffie, Gene?
YANGWell, you know, I've only met Dwayne McDuffie once and it was about a year before his death at a Comic Con. We were on a panel together. Dwayne McDuffie was an incredibly influential comic book writer. He -- he did work for all the major comic book companies -- Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, and even founded his own. He founded a company called Milestone Comics that started publishing diverse comics. Comics featuring diverse superhero characters when I was just finishing up my adolescence.
YANGAnd I remember seeing those books on the shelves and being blown away, being really excited and realizing that I was looking at something new. His most famous creation is this character called Static Shock who had his own -- he's an African American teenager who can shoot lightning out of his hands. He had his own series -- top-rated series -- cartoon series on TV for years and years. And overall, you know, if you look at the American comic book industry as a whole, Dwayne McDuffie has just had a huge impact, you know.
YANGAnd in this column that he wrote in the early '90s, he talked about how this character called the Black Panther, a Marvel Comic superhero brought him into comics. He first encountered Black Panther when he was 11, and immediately he was attracted to the dignity of this character. Black Panther is actually T'Challa who is an African prince of a fictional nation called Wakanda. And there are all sorts of problems with the Black Panther. You know, especially if you look at it from a modern lens.
YANGHe has the word "black" in his name, which was very common with early African American characters. As if what made them most notable was their ethnicity. You know, and -- and in his first incarnation, you know, he was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby who are legends in them in their own right.
YANGBut -- but in the first draft, he was actually called the Coal Tiger and he just looks so goofy. Luckily, that didn't actually -- you know, the final, the one that actually made it into the comic didn't look like that. But it just goes to show that, you know, even if you're as awesome as Lee and Kirby, when you're dealing with somebody's culture, sometimes you make a couple of missteps, especially in the beginning.
YANGSo the story of Black Panther and Dwayne McDuffie, I think, really points to the fact that, first, seeing yourself in media is incredibly empowering. And second is that we, as creators, we need to do our homework. We have to -- if we're going to write outside of our culture, we have to do our research, we have to talk to people who are insiders of that culture. But we shouldn't be afraid of jumping in there because, more likely than not, we'll end up making our storytelling medium of choice a little bit better, you know, and a little bit more diverse.
NNAMDII was in the room when you gave that speech and it was not only obviously well delivered, but well received. I had only, I think, heard the name Dwayne McDuffie a few times before that and it made me real curious so I went back again. But at the time, did you feel, when you made that speech, at all nervous making it?
YANGOh, of course. Of course. I was, you know, E.L. Doctorow took the stage after me. It was crazy. That's like a nutty thing that happened.
YANGEven when they asked me, I couldn't believe that that was going to happen. And -- and for a long time I thought about what can I talk about, you know, on a stage like that. And ultimately, I felt like I ought to talk about something that I felt passionately about. So something that happened to my life recently. You know, this discussion of diversity just happened this past summer, and somebody who I deeply admired. Dwayne McDuffie is one of my writing heroes.
NNAMDIHow did his work, even tangent -- tangentially shape your career path?
YANGWell, I think, you know, Dwayne McDuffie, when he was writing in comics, he was one of just a few African Americans working in the American comic book industry. And he was incredibly smart, too. He had a master degree in physics, so could have pretty much done anything he wanted in life. And he chose to write comics. He chose to go into a situation where he would most likely be an outsider, at least culturally speaking, and he chose to give it his all.
YANGSo just seeing that example and reading the stories that he produced, he's incredibly talented as a storyteller, really affected me. It kind of showed me that you ought to follow your own calling, even if it leads you to uncomfortable places.
NNAMDIFor your latest book, "The Shadow Hero," you turned to the superhero genre, which early -- which earlier character did you draw inspiration from? Where does your story, in your view, break with prior superhero tradition?
YANGWell, I love superheroes. I grew up with superheroes mostly because, you know, if you wanted to read comics in the '80s, you are most likely reading superhero comics. But the conventions of the genre, the masks and the secret identities, all of that stuff really got into me. And as an adult, I look back on my fascination with superheroes. And I wonder if it's because I'm an immigrant's kid, you know, the dual identity that every superhero struggles with mirrors the dual identity that a lot of immigrants' kids have to live through.
YANGA lot of us have one name at home and another one at school. We speak one language at home and another one at school. We live under these two different cultural expectations. And, you know, Clark Kent being Superman, that dual identity, kind of mirrors our own stories. I don't think that's an accident. If you look at all of the major superheroes, they are all created by these children of Jewish immigrants. So consciously or not, I really believe that they put their own experience as the children of immigrants into this genre that they were establishing.
YANGWith "The Shadow Hero," I wanted to take all of that, you know, and make it explicit. So "The Shadow Hero" tells a story of a superhero called the Green Turtle. And the Green Turtle is actually -- his secret identity is Hank Chu, who is the son of two Chinese immigrants. Now, the Green Turtle isn't my character. You know, the book is illustrated by an extraordinary cartoonist named Sonny Liew.
NNAMDIFrom (word?) .
YANGBut Sonny and I did not create -- yes, he's great. But he and I didn't create this character of the Green Turtle. He actually comes from the 1940s. There are -- you can find these issues of Blazing Comics with original Green Turtle comics in them. And he was created by this Chinese American cartoonist Chu Hing who was one of the first Asian Americans in the American comic book industry. And there's a rumor about the Green Turtle.
YANGThe rumor is that Chu Hing wanted him to be Chinese American but his publishers wouldn't let him do it. So Chu Hing reacts really passive aggressively. He draws all of those early Green Turtle comics so that we never get to see his face. Almost every panel has him with his back facing us. And then when turns around, there's a shadow or an arm or another character's head that blocks our view of his face.
YANGAnd the rumor is he did that. He hid his face from us so that he and his reader could imagine his character as he originally intended, as an Chinese American.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again where Meg in Centerville, Va awaits us. Meg, you're on the air, go ahead please.
MEGThank you so much for this show. I'm thrilled to speak with your guest. I am a 46-year-old woman who was always an avid reader, but never ever considered reading comic books. It just wasn't my thing. And I discovered your work through your book about rosary, which I bought for my children. And I have so enjoyed using it myself. And it has opened my eyes to the benefits of, you know, graphic novels and comic books because I have a daughter who isn't a strong reader.
MEGAnd so, having the pictures right there with the words helped her to build vocabulary and helped her to really understand what she's reading. So I would never have known that if it weren't for your book about the rosary. So I thank you so much for that work.
YANGWell, thank you. Thank you so much for reading it. You know, I grew up Catholic and I'm still a practicing Catholic. And I think there is a link between Catholicism and comics. If you go to any Catholic church anywhere in the world, they'll have stations of the cross hanging on the wall. And it's 14 images illustrating the last moments of Christ's earthly life. And whether or not the pastor wants to admit it, that is a comic. That is sequential images telling a story. So -- and I think it points to the storytelling power of still images put in sequence.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Meg. And you may have answered the question of Nancy in Hampstead, Md. But I'll let Nancy ask it herself. Nancy, you're on the air, go ahead please.
NANCYKojo, thank you for taking my call. My question was, I am the parent of a seven-year-old who, like many seven-year-old boys, has zero interest in reading. And I'm wondering if there is any research that proves the link between reading comics and enticing seven-year-old boys to read.
YANGThere absolutely is. There absolutely is. They've done these studies that have found that, you know, the average comic book reader in America reads six times as many non-comic books -- six time as many prose books in a year than your average American. So comics is definitely a gateway into other sorts of reading. I really believe that comics are worthy of study in and of themselves as their own medium.
YANGBut at the same time, for parents and teachers, using comics as a way of introducing students and kids to the discipline of reading is a perfectly legitimate use of comics. And for your seven-year-old son, there are all sorts of great comics for him to read. There's "Bone" by Jeff Smith. There's this book called "Zita the Spacegirl" by Ben Hatke, which is absolutely amazing. There's another book called "Amulet" by Kazu Kibuishi. There's just -- nowadays, in terms of diversity of genre, it couldn't be a better time to be a seven-year-old boy.
NNAMDIIndeed. Nancy, we got an email from Edie Ching, who is one of our resident librarians on our kids and young adults reading shows. Edie writes, "Graphic novels are an excellent way to engage reluctant readers and it also appeals to readers who are more visual learners. They are immediately into the story. And, of course, it continues the tradition that began with cave painting. And part of the excitement of Gene's books are how they also promote Chinese culture."
NNAMDI"The first celebrating the monkey king in 'Boxer & Saints,' a two-part story that looks at the Boxer rebellion from both sides. Thanks for having this wonderful author on your show." And, Nancy, thank you very much for calling. We move on now to Terry in Glenelg, Md. Terry, your turn.
TERRYHi, thanks so much. My question is about kids on the spectrum, as in the autism spectrum.
TERRYThere's a very famous author and speaker Temple Grandin who has written a lot about thinking and pictures that spectrum persons tend to think in pictures. So I wondered if the author has any opinion or knowledge how the spectrum kids are huge fans of manga, anime, and I certainly have a son who fits in that category. And we wonder how we can make that leap that the spectrum kids can use their hyper-focus and being visual learners into finding some type job or a hobby in your profession.
NNAMDIAnd we only have about a minute left, Gene Yang. By the way, Anthony tweeted to ask, "Can you comment on how manga, Japanese comics, might have influenced the resurgence of graphic novels in America?" All in a minute.
YANGYou know, there are three major comic book cultures in the world. There's the American one, the European one and the Japanese one. Each of them has their own way of telling stories. And it was only recently that there's been a lot of crossover between these three culture. So now it is in America, you know, comic book readers and comic book creators are drawing from both Japanese and American traditions. It's a really exciting time.
YANGIn terms of autism, I'm not an expert. But I do know that comics has always been a home for people who may be considered outsiders from the very beginning. I think that's why so many immigrants kids have been drawn into the medium and so many people who may feel like they're different from the mainstream I think are able to find a voice here. If your kid is interested in telling stories, I would strongly encourage them to look into telling their stories in comics, because as a medium, we just -- we need those outsider voices. We need...
NNAMDIThat's all the time we have. Gene Luen Yang...
YANGThank you so much.
NNAMDI...he's an educator and the author of numerous graphic novels. The latest of which is "The Shadow Hero." Gene Yang, thank you much for joining us.
YANGAll right, thank you. Thank you, Kojo. It was great.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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