Graphic novelist taps own life to win children’s literature prize

Author advises children to explore the magic of books containing exotic subjects and characters to help “create bridges that connect people”

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 January, 2016, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 11 January, 2016, 11:00pm

The number five seems to be a lucky one for author and illustrator Gene Luen Yang.

At a recent ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, he became the

fifth US National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. And it was in fifth grade that he began writing and drawing the comic books that led to this honour.

At the time Yang and a friend created a superhero who lived in the woods like Robin Hood. Instead of using a bow and arrows, he flung a heavy disc at the bad guys. Bam! Yang and

his buddy made copies of their small books and sold them to schoolmates.

Now 42, Yang writes graphic novels, including American Born Chinese and Secret Coders. Like comic books, graphic novels use words and pictures to tell a story.

“That interplay between words and art is magical,” says Yang, who lives near San Jose, California. It allows people to create tales in exciting new ways, he says.

During his two years as ambassador, Yang plans to travel and talk to children about books and reading. He calls his programme “Reading Without Walls”. He believes that books help to create bridges that connect people.

“Books help kids to explore the world,” he says. “They are the real ambassadors.”

One way to explore might be to read about a subject that’s completely new to you, Yang says. Or pick up a book with a child on the cover who looks nothing like you. There are so many different people, places and things. Through books, you have a chance to learn more about them.

Yang also hopes to use technology to connect children and reading. As a computer science teacher for 17 years, he saw how fascinated students were by programming and the digital world. In his latest book, Secret Coders, the main characters use coding skills to solve a mystery.

The new ambassador often gets ideas from his own interests and experiences. In his middle school, he was one of only a few Chinese American students, and he drew upon his feelings of difference and loneliness to create American Born Chinese.

No matter who you are or what you look like, you've probably felt teased or left out, too. American Born Chinese has funny and painful parts that most readers can relate to. It was the first graphic novel to win a major award in children’s literature, the Printz Award.

Yang's childhood fascination with superheroes continues with new projects. The first comic book he ever bought featured Superman, and he now writes about the Man of Steel for DC Comics in Superman.

And a high-five to Yang for taking his own ambassador’s advice. He’s exploring a type of book that’s completely new to him: non-fiction. He is using words and pictures to share the amazing highs and lows of a high school basketball team in his native California.

“The book is like a sports documentary, and it's a challenge,” Yang says with a laugh. He’s clearly enjoying the task of bringing this new world to his readers.

Tribune News Service

Mary Quattlebaum is a children’s book author