New York Times (by George Gene Gustines):
Gene Luen Yang often mines his life for his graphic novels. He has explored being a first-generation American, and harnessed his love of computer programming. Starting this week, he will have a whole new experience to draw on.
On Monday, the Library of Congress is to name Mr. Yang the national ambassador for young people’s literature, the first graphic novelist to be so honored since the post was created in 2008.
“When I was coming up in the ’90s, the comic book industry and the book industry were largely separate — they had their own awards, distribution systems and stores,” Mr. Yang said in a telephone interview from his home in San Jose, Calif. But now, “these worlds are really converging in interesting ways.”
Mr. Yang’s stories leapfrog genres and often pose questions about acceptance, identity and culture. Perhaps his best-known graphic novel is “American Born Chinese,” about Jin Wang, a boy who has trouble fitting in when he moves to a new school in the suburbs. The New York Times greeted the book as “a dark exploration of Asian-American adolescence” that blends two cultures “in inventive, unexpected ways.”
An excerpt from Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel “American Born Chinese” (2006). CreditGene Luen Yang
“American Born Chinese,” published by First Second in 2006, achieved a couple of firsts for a graphic novel: It was a finalist for a National Book Award and it won the Michael L. Printz Award. It also received an Eisner Award, one of the most prestigious honors in the comic book world, for best graphic album.
His other books include “Boxers and Saints” (2013), a work of historical fiction with dollops of mysticism set during the Boxer Rebellion in China; and “Secret Coders” (2015), illustrated by Mike Holmes, about students solving mysteries at an unsettling school. (The text slyly teaches readers basic computer coding.) In June Mr. Yang joined the group of writers working on Superman for DC Comics.
Mr. Yang, 42, the son of Chinese immigrants, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. He began drawing at 2, he said, and “I basically never stopped.” His gateway for comic books was Superman, which he began reading in fifth grade. Marvel’s Fantastic Four and Spider-Man soon followed. He started creating his own comics. “I was always interested in telling stories through drawings,” he recalled.
At the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Yang majored in computer science partly to please his father, who wanted him to pursue something practical, and minored in creative writing. He worked as a computer engineer for two years after graduating and then began teaching computer science at a high school, a job that lasted 17 years. He gave it up only when his travels in support of his books began to involve too much time away.
“Secret Coders,” released in September, was inspired partly by his teaching experience. “What I wanted to do was combine a narrative with lessons,” he said. “You ought to be able to do basic programming from reading the first volume.” Mr. Yang is also running an art contest related to the book to encourage readers to try some basic programming.
Mr. Yang also taps his background for his work with DC Comics. “When DC approached me, ‘Superman as the prototypical immigrant’ was one of my first thoughts,” he wrote in an email. He noted that dual identities are a daily reality for the children of immigrants. “Many of us use one name at home, another at school,” he said. “We move between two different sets of expectations the way many superheroes do.” When he recounted Superman’s origin story in an issue published in November as part of an adventure set in Oakland, Calif., he gave the superhero some immigrant anxieties about belonging.
In reflecting on his new role as ambassador, Mr. Yang said he found his wife, Theresa, a development director for an elementary school, a tremendous resource. He said that he was inspired by her program for encouraging students to read and write in different genres and that she was enthusiastic about the ambassadorship. His children — a son and three daughters — are a little harder to satisfy.
“It is difficult to impress any kid that you see on a daily basis,” Mr. Yang said. The same is true of his children’s reactions to his books, though all of them are avid readers. “They tell me they like them, but they like other people’s books better than mine.”