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Interview: Gene Luen Yang talks Writing Diverse Stories and His New Role as Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

Reading without walls.

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photography by Albert Law : www.porkbellystudio.com

Writer Gene Luen Yang is about to embark on a very cool new literary endeavor! Last Thursday, the Boxer & Saints author was inaugurated as the Library of Congress’ National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, becoming the first-ever graphic novelist to receive that honor. Over email, Yang spoke to us about his plans as Ambassador, the most exciting part of being a reader in 2016, and how we can all help create more diverse stories for young people.

The Mary Sue: What are you looking forward to the most in your role as Ambassador?

Gene Luen Yang: I was a high school teacher for 17 years. I just left my teaching job this past June, and I really miss being in an educational environment. Being ambassador fills that void in a sense. I’ll get to connect with students again.

TMS: What does the category “Young People’s Literature” mean to you?

Yang: “Young People’s Literature” is a broad category. It includes everything from early reader to young adult. It also includes a variety of formats: picture books, prose books, books in verse, and of course, graphic novels.

TMS: What do you think is the most exciting aspect of being a writer for young people, or a young reader, in 2016?

Yang: Books are becoming more diverse in every sense of the word. There are now more books featuring diverse characters than ever before. We’re not where we need to be yet, but progress is being made.

There are also more genres and more formats available to young readers. Publishers, writers, and artists are taking real risks. They’re getting creative, not just with which stories they tell but with how they’re telling them. I’m particularly excited by the emergence of hybrid books, books that use both prose and comics to tell their stories. Ambassador Emeritus Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses is a wonderful hybrid book, and it won the Newbery.

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TMS: What do you anticipate will be the greatest challenges facing you in this position?

Yang: I’m particularly interested in using technology to promote reading. I want to help figure that out.

TMS: You’re the first-ever graphic novelist to be appointed Ambassador. What is the most exciting aspect of the graphic novel form for you?

Yang: I’ve loved comics and graphic novels since I was a kid. My love is pre-logical – I didn’t need reasons. That said, I deeply appreciate the interplay between pictures and words that you get in comics. You can do incredibly complex things with that interplay. There’s so much to explore and experiment with.

TMS: What’s the number one thing readers can do to help create more diverse books for young people?

Yang:  Read a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you or live like you. Read a book about someone from another culture, faith tradition, or way of life.

And if you like it, tell your friends.

TMS: What advice would you give writers who want to write diverse books but feel unqualified to write about a marginalized community that they don’t belong to?

Yang: Two words: humility and homework. Go in knowing that you don’t know everything. Be prepared to do homework. Do your research. Read. Talk to folks from those communities. Consider adding someone to your team (a co-writer, an illustrator, or an editor) who is an insider.

The questions for writers and publishers are different. I know how difficult it is to write, so I don’t want to put anything out there that impedes the writer. If you have a story that you want to tell, go tell it. Be humble, do your homework, and tell your story.

Publishers, however, need to carefully consider the current landscape of books. For example, if 90% of books about Korean adoptees are by authors who are not Korean adoptees, publishers need to ask why. They need to consider what they’ll be communicating by putting out yet another book about Korean adoptees by an outsider. (I stole that Korean adoptee example from Professor Sarah Park Dahlen.)

TMS: What did reading mean to you when you were growing up?

Yang: Reading meant learning about myself. Reading also meant getting outside of myself.

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