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Graphic Novelist Named National Ambassador For Young People's Literature


At 42 years old, Gene Luen Yang already has been a lot of things - a computer programmer, a teacher, a graphic novelist, a National Book Award finalist and soon, an ambassador. The Library of Congress has just named him the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Yang is the first graphic novelist to hold the two-year job. And Gene Yang joins us now. Welcome to the show.

GENE LUEN YANG: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here.

MCEVERS: Your 2006 book - it was called "American Born Chinese" - was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. And first of all, I was wondering if you would just tell us about that book.

YANG: Sure. "American Born Chinese" took me about five years to make. I started it as a self-published project. So I would finish a chapter, and then I would take it to my local Kinko's. I'd run off copies, staple them by hand and try to sell them at local comic book conventions. So I was working on a very small scale, and then eventually, all those little self-published comics got collected into this big graphic novel by First Second Books, which is my publisher.

"American Born Chinese" is all about the Asian-American experience. So when I started that project, I'd had these stories with Asian-American protagonists, but their cultural heritage never played an important part in the story. And because that's such an important part of how I find my identity, I wanted to do some kind of a book where that was the central focus. And that's what "American Born Chinese" is.

MCEVERS: Why do you think that graphic novels make sense for young readers? I mean, do we know if there's a lot of crossover from graphic novels to prose novels?

YANG: Nowadays, you know, there's this whole new category coming up of hybrid books. Kate DiCamillo, who is the preceding national ambassador to me - her most recent book was "Flora And Ulysesses," which tells the story using both prose and graphic novel formats. And I think the divide - like the historical divide between comics and prose novels in American culture has largely been artificial. There haven't really been good reasons for it to be there. And we're finally seeing that particular wall come down.

MCEVERS: And you have said that we are in a really important moment when it comes to diversity and literature. You say everyone is saying we need more diverse books with more diverse characters written by more diverse writers, but you say that has also given way to fear that people - that writers are afraid of getting it wrong if they step out of their own identity. Tell me what you mean by that.

YANG: Yeah, I think fear is my big bad, right? That's the one thing that I struggle with the most as a writer. And I think this is probably true of almost everybody in my profession. We all struggle with fear. When we portray our characters, we want to do it in a compassionate way, in a realistic way. So the easiest way to do that is to just write from our own experiences.


YANG: But we live in a diverse world, which means we need diverse characters. And I think the answer is you have to do it with humility and with homework. You really got to do your research, right? But at the same time, I think you have to fight that fear. Sometimes that fear will keep you away from a project that you know deep inside that you ought to take on.

MCEVERS: It sounds like it's a pep talk you give yourself, but is it one that you give to...

YANG: Oh, totally.

MCEVERS: Yeah (laughter).

YANG: It's a total pep talk I give myself, absolutely.

MCEVERS: And so now you have this platform you talk about with kids. You're going to have this platform going around and talking to kids and young adults about literature and reading. What do you feel like are the main things you're going to say to them?

YANG: Well, I came up with a platform that we wanted to talk about reading without walls. And that's just kind of a fancy way of telling kids and readers in general to read books that might be outside of who you think you are.

MCEVERS: Gene Luen Yang is the incoming National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Mr. Yang, congratulations and thanks for being with us today.

YANG: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much. This was such a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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