October 20, 2017

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Gene Luen Yang, Ambassador and Nerd, Inspires | SLJ Day of Dialog 2017

Photos © Julian Hibbard for School Library Journal

Gene Luen Yang, U.S. National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, kicked off SLJ’s Day of Dialog on May 30 in New York City with a witty, dynamic presentation about superhero comics, computers, reading, and his life as a nerd. The multiple award-winning author of American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints, (both First Second; 2006, 2013) and the “Secret Coders” series (First Second), illustrated by Mike Holmes, fired up the crowd and touched on “Reading Without Walls,” his chosen theme as Ambassador.

“I am a nerd. I like superhero comics,” Yang told the standing-room-only crowd gathered at New York University’s Kimmel Center in Greenwich Village. He fell in love with a Marvel Two-in-One comic, “Thing and Rom,” as a kid, and begged his mother to buy it. But she said, “‘That’s way too scary; it will give you nightmares.’” Instead, she bought him “Superman and the Atomic Knights,” in which the knights ride around on mutant dogs after an atomic bomb obliterated most of humanity. It kept him up.

Yang went from comic book reader to creator in fifth grade, making comics with a school friend whose mother photocopied them at her office. They sold them and made eight dollars.

“All you need is pens, paper, and a healthy ignorance of your own artistic limitations” to make comics, he said.

Superman the immigrant

Yang speculated that he loved superheroes as a kid because he felt a kinship with the immigrant story, usually a through-line in these narratives. “It was hard for me to find characters that looked like me” in books, he recalled. There was “no [TV] show like Fresh off the Boat. Superheroes were the closest I could find.”

“Two Jewish teenagers living in Cleveland” invented Superman, he noted. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both of whose parents emigrated from Europe, who “put pieces of their cultural heritage into story.”   Superman has two identities, Yang described—deep down he knows he’s from another culture, and is a foreigner, an immigrant. He hides his true culture to get through life—a daily reality for Siegel and Schuster and their families.

The Superman origin story was “basically a sci-fi version of Moses,” Yang added, to laughter; while the concept of a “strongman with superhuman strength” and a weakness—glowing green kryptonite—“mirrors Samson, whose critical weakness was haircuts.”

“Juggling two identities resonated with me,” Yang said. He used an American name at school and another at home; spoke two languages; and grew up with two sets of cultural expectations. “Some have argued that Superman might be Asian American,” he joked.

About walls

Yang’s love for computers and coding flowered when his mother signed him up for “summer enrichment classes” when he was a kid, and he learned LOGO on Apple 2E computers. Now, he can “make a living as a nerd—making comic books about computers,” he said, referring to “Secret Coders,” about students who solve mysteries and teach readers a bit of coding long the way.

Holding up his Ambassador medal for the audience to see, Yang said, “I love wearing this.  It’s the most bling thing that I own.”

After his appointment, “I wasn’t sure what [the] Ambassador was supposed to do,” he went on. He turned to superhero comics for his answer, taking Wonder Woman, who also holds an ambassadorial role, as his guide. She has “always been a symbol of women’s potential and women’s power,” Yang observed. Noting his similarities to Wonder Woman, he added, “We both look great in red boots; have black hair; and are stronger than we look.”

Yang then turned to his “Reading Without Walls” initiative. People define themselves in certain ways as they grow up, he said, building metaphorical walls that enclose themselves and the things they identify with. Walls aren’t all bad, he added: “They sometimes define a home and help us figure out who we are” growing up. “I am a Chinese American, love computers, and superhero books,” he noted. But walls can “become a prison” if we don’t go outside them.

As someone with no talent or interest in basketball, Yang ventured beyond his own walls by reading Kathleen Yep’s book Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground, about the Chinese basketball scene in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1940s. That led to a long learning curve about basketball, a close friendship with high school basketball coach Lou Richie, and his next book, about a high school basketball team.

Yang’s three-step Reading Without Walls Challenge includes reading about a character unlike you; reading about a topic you don’t know much about; and reading in a format you don’t normally read for fun.

With a nod to Rudine Sims Bishop, he said, “Every kids needs books that are ambassadors and books that are advocates.”  Books can “teach us to love ourselves”—and “be a window into the lives of others. Being able to love other people the way we love ourselves is the foundation for a moral society.”

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Sarah Bayliss About Sarah Bayliss

Sarah Bayliss (sbayliss@mediasourceinc.com, @shbayliss) is associate editor, news and features, at School Library Journal.

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