Children's Ambassador Issues Young Readers Challenge

Gene Luen Yang will be featured at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Rapid City and Deadwood Sept. 21-24. Visit his schedule page for information about when and where he will be speaking. 

Comic Book Artist, Graphic Novelist Appearing in Deadwood Sept. 21-24

By Ryan Woodard

When he decided to make a living drawing comic books, Gene Luen Yang faced not only the long odds that come with any such dream, but also an obstacle that may have sent a less-determined child running in the other direction.

Appropriately enough, the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature is using his platform to encourage young readers to push their own boundaries.

"They've done studies about how fiction, especially literary fiction, grows a person's capacity for empathy," he said. "And that's what I'm hoping for."

Reading Without Walls

Yang's "Reading Without Walls" ambassador platform encourages children to go against their instincts when choosing books. For example, a Harry Potter fanatic might be encouraged to investigate the D.C. or Marvel comic book universe.

The Ambassador for Young People's Literature, selected by the Library of Congress, "raises 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."

Yang hopes his initiative will promote more understanding and empathy in the young minds who participate in it.

The 2017 Festival presenter, who headlines an impressive lineup of children's/YA authors and illustrators for the Deadwood event, knows from experience the value of empathy, especially in youths' formative years.

An Early Challenge

In second grade, Yang was placed in a remedial reading group which, as any teacher or principal would explain to a stressed parent, is designed to improve common reading comprehension issues.

This mature mindset is not easily explained to a child who may feel inferior to his faster reading peers. But "discouraged" is not the adjective that immediately comes to mind when describing Yang's reaction.

Despite not being able to read stories as quickly as his classmates, he wrote his own.

Which is kind of like trying to overhaul your car's transmission before mastering the art of an oil change.

"I was still very interested in story," he said, explaining how his love for narrative propelled him over his initial stumbling block.

As parents know, convincing some kids to read is not easy. Necessarily, convincing kids to read books they aren't interested in is even harder.

But Yang, a remedial reader turned two-time National Book Award-nominated graphic artist and creative writing teacher, isn't easily dissuaded.

He obviously welcomes a good challenge. Perhaps that's part of why he chose a more difficult platform than was probably expected of him.

But, mainly, he chose "Reading Without Walls" because he feels empathy is vital, especially in a day and age where some might argue that humanity is diminishing at an alarming rate.

"(Reading) teaches you the underlying humanity between all of us," Yang said. "And I think that's really important - working out that empathy muscle."

Drawing at Age Two

Yang worked out his empathy muscles and his reading muscles from a young age. Growing up in a "house full of stories" with immigrant parents who loved the written word, Yang began drawing when he was two years old.

From Beverly Cleary's "Ramona" books to Marvel Comics, Yang was drawn to a variety of published work. He became a "self-published" comic book artist in fifth grade (read: he drew his own comics and showed them to his family and friends).

The real publishers would come calling soon enough.

In 2006, his book "American Born Chinese" became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association's Printz Award. It also won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album – New.

In 2013, "Boxers & Saints," Yang's two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion, was nominated for a National Book Award and won the L.A. Times Book Prize. He's worked on a variety of comics, including Dark Horse Comics' continuation of the popular Nickelodeon cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender and DC Comics' Superman.

Gene Luen Yang will appear at the 2017 South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood.

He also teaches creative writing through Hamline University's MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, alongside famous childrens' authors like Anne Ursu, Gary Schmidt, Laura Ruby, Matt De La Pena, and more.

It all led to his selection as the fifth writer to hold the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature position.

Perks of the Job

Besides the obvious benefit of advancing his career, Yang has noticed other perks. For one thing, he's broadened his own literary horizons.

"I feel like when we issued the challenge out to the general public, I was also issuing it to myself," he said.

And, he gets to hang out with people who not only like to read, but like to read his books. That's a great thing for any author.

"I really enjoy being in an environment where people are enthusiastic about books," he said, calling the chance to talk to people who have read and seen his work as a "thrill."

"Being an author can be really lonely. I spend most of my time by myself by a laptop or drawing table."

Festival of Books – Learn More About Yang

Students and parents who attend his festival of books sessions will learn about Yang's career and current national platform.

"I am going to be talking in a little more depth about the reading platform and how I got started as a cartoonist. How I went from being a comic book fan to a novelist."

They'll also, naturally, get to see him draw.

Students may get even more out of the session if they take Yang up on The "Reading Without Walls Challenge," which asks them to read:

  1. A book about a character who doesn't look like you or live like you.
  2. A book about a topic you don't know much about
  3. A book in a format that you don't normally read for fun (a chapter book, a graphic novel, a book in verse, etc).

Ideally, a student will choose a book that meets all three.

About the National Ambassador

Yang is the third straight National Ambassador for Young People's Literature to appear at the South Dakota Festival of Books, having been preceded by the late Walter Dean Myers (2013) and Kate DiCamillo (2014).

The position is co-sponsored by the Library of Congress, the Children's Book Council and the Every Child a Reader foundation.

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