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This graphic novelist and reading ambassador tells kids to reach beyond their comfort zone

December 22, 2016 at 6:20 PM EST
Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang wrestled with his identity growing up, but he’s made the Chinese-American experience one of the main subjects of his critically acclaimed work. One of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship winners and the national ambassador for young people’s literature, Yang sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss his childhood, his love of coding and the feeling of being an outsider.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally tonight, an author channeling his inner child through graphic novels. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Gene Luen Yang, one of this year’s MacArthur Genius Award winners.

GENE LUEN YANG, Ambassador for Young People’s Literature: I’m super excited to be here with you. My name is gene.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gene Luen Yang can seem like one of the kids himself.

GENE LUEN YANG: This is what I look like in real life. That is what I look like as a cartoon and this morning, what I’m going to do is I’m going to share with you about two things that I love.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sharing things he loves is now part of his official job description, as the national ambassador for Young People’s Literature, an honor given him by the Library of Congress earlier this year.

And the two things he loves? Comic books and coding. We spoke recently as he visited Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, Virginia.

GENE LUEN YANG: I think they’re so related. Coding and writing stories, I really feel like I use the same parts of my brain to do both, right?

When you’re making a comic what you do if you take a fairly complex storyline, and you have to break it up into individual panels. And coding is very much the same way. You take a complex concept and you break it up into individual lines. So, it’s all about taking the complex and breaking it into simple, understandable pieces.

JEFFREY BROWN: I don’t think everybody thinks of it that way, thinks of the connection between writing and coding.

GENE LUEN YANG: I think there is a tendency in modern American culture to separate the sciences from the arts, and to me it just feels like such a false dichotomy. You know, there are so many people who are interested in both. There are so many people pursuing both and who want to become good at both.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yang began drawing as a young child and creating comics and graphic novels by fifth grade. The son of Chinese immigrants, he grew up in California, majoring in computer science at U.C. Berkeley with a minor in creative writing. He taught computer science at an Oakland, California high school for 17 years before turning to full-time writing.

In 2006, his “American Born Chinese” became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. And the two-volume “Boxers and Saints,” about the boxer rebellion in China, also received a nomination, in 2013.

What is it about comics, or graphic novels, that somehow works? Because not everybody gets it, right?

GENE LUEN YANG: Yes, yes, yes. For me, I love the combination of the visual with the text. And as a reader, I just think that the interplay between pictures and words can be so complex. You know, like in the hands of a really good cartoonist, you can get some really amazing things out.

JEFFREY BROWN: I see you with the kids and you play up their kind of insecurities that you had, right, you’re very upfront about that.

GENE LUEN YANG: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: “I’m a nerd, I was this, I was that.” Why?

GENE LUEN YANG: Well, first, because it’s true! I think, this is what I realized as an adult, as somebody who has been doing comics for almost 20 years now, that self-doubt just never goes away. It’s constantly with you and I think that’s true for maybe not every creator but almost every creator. Getting over that self doubt is huge and to realize that even adults have those issues, I think it’s important.

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s been an advocate for diversifying the faces and stories of graphic novels —

GENE LUEN YANG: Are you Chinese?

WOMAN: Yes, I’m from Shanghai.

JEFFREY BROWN: — and made the Chinese-American experience one of his main subjects.

GENE LUEN YANG: Growing up, I did go through a period when I really struggled with my own ethnic heritage. I remember being in late elementary school and junior high and realizing that who I was, the culture that I came from made me different from most of the kids around me. And you get — like I think every kid goes through this period where you want to excise all the stuff that makes you different. It took me a really long time to come to a place where I felt like I accepted myself as a Chinese-American.

And a lot of my work is about that, is about how you can build an identity out of two pieces that don’t always easily fit together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just connected with the students, his avid readers, on this visit.

MAN: You can be an outsider to different situation like different cliques and groups and sometimes it feels like that in life.

WOMAN: I know about like binary numbers before, and it was cool how he showed us like the 1,100 could be like 12, I was like, whoa, that is so cool.

GENE LUEN YANG: Reading is a great way of exploring the world. Every ambassador picked a platform. The platform that I chose was “reading without walls”, and by that, I mean just getting outside your own comfort zones through books.

One of the best things about books is that it gives you a window into somebody else’s mind, into somebody else’s soul. So, I’m challenging kids to read books about people who aren’t like them, who don’t look like them or live like them. Number two, read books about subject matter they might find intimidating. And, number three, read books in different sorts of formats.

So, if you’ve never read a graphic novel, you’ve never read a book in verse or even a chapter book, I want you to give it a try.

So, what I’m going to do now is show you what logo looks like on a modern computer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even while taking on his duties as an ambassador for reading, Gene Yang continues to work on a variety of projects, including a graphic novel version of the television show, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”, and a D.C. comics’ new series about a Chinese Superman. Coming up: a nonfiction graphic novel about race and sports.

From Manassas, Virginia, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour”.

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