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A Conversation with The Ambassador: Gene Luen Yang

(c) ALBERT LAW    porkbellystudio

(c) ALBERT LAW porkbellystudio

We have a brand-new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature: Gene Luen Yang. We know he makes graphic novels. We know he won a Printz Medal for his book American Born Chinese. What do you say we a little more about him? Yang’s publisher, FirstSecond (Macmillan), shared this Q&A with me, and I now share it with you:

As the new Ambassador of Young Peoples’ Literature, what’s the one thing you want to say to kids across America?

Read without walls.


Sometimes, walls are a good thing. Wall can define a home, for instance. But if you can’t get through those walls, then your home becomes a prison.

As you get older, some folks are going to try to put walls around you. They’re going to expect you to act a certain way and only like certain kinds of things because of what you’re good at, or what you look like, or where your family’s from.

Break through those walls by reading. By reading, you can get to know people outside of your community and your culture. You can learn stuff other folks don’t expect you to know. You can develop surprising and unexpected passions.

So read without walls. Find a book that no one expects you to like and read it.

Gene Yang Self-Portrait

You’ve taught high school! How did you get your students excited about books and reading?

I taught Computer Science, math, and art at a high school in Oakland. I never read a book with my students the way an English teacher would, but we did talk about story. In my art class, I taught a unit on comics. We read a few comic books and graphic novels as examples. We talked about what made for a good story, and how pictures and words can work together.

How did you learn to read?

In first grade, I was one of the weakest readers in my class. I remember, every month or so, our teacher would have us line up by order of how many pages we read to pick prizes from the prize table. I was always either last or second to last. I usually got Tootsie Rolls because nobody in my class liked Tootsie Rolls.

My mother wasn’t happy about it, so she sat down and read with me every day after school until I got good enough to enjoy books.

Even now, though, I’m an incredibly slow reader. If I gathered a group of my friends and made us line up by order of how many pages we read in the last month, I’d probably be in the back half. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we develop a habit of reading, that we read every day, regardless of how quickly or slowly.

What’s the best thing about children’s literature?

Kids don’t bring many preconceived notions to the stories they read. Their brains aren’t filled with biases or assumptions or nostalgia. This makes writing for children both freeing and challenging.

What’s your favorite thing about libraries?

Libraries are physical embodiments of possibility. Every book has the potential to be the beginning of something new – a new perspective, a new love, a new plan for your life.


About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. I love his point about reading without walls.