Every two years, the Children’s Book Council chooses a beloved author to be the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. This year, Gene Luen Yang, author of new classics like American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, was given the honor — and with his title comes a charge to speak at schools and libraries and get more kids reading. If you already are reading, Monday, April 25 is the last day readers can vote for the Children’s Book Awards — so be sure to cast your vote!
Yang chatted with EW by phone about choosing “Reading Without Walls” as his platform, how graphic novels have started to earn the respect they deserve, and how he is challenging himself to actually write outside his comfort zone — starting with a new book about a hard-working high school basketball team, which Yang previews in detail below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I read American Born Chinese in college, and I loved it — but it made me realize I can never watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s again. Thank you for alerting me to awful stereotypes I’d never known about.
GENE LUEN YANG: Well, thanks for reading it. I appreciate that. And I’m sorry about Breakfast at Tiffany’s — there are other merits of that movie besides that one character!
What exactly is your role as the National Ambassador for Young Peoples’ Literature?
The broad strokes are that I’m supposed to promote reading among kids. We’re supposed to try to get more kids reading, and kids reading more. Specifically, what that looks like is doing lots of speeches. I’m going to be going to these different book festivals and doing events there. I’ll also be speaking at different schools and libraries. We’re trying to figure out a tech thing we can do, too — we just started a podcast. It’s kind of janky, it’s basically me recording on my phone. We only have one episode up so far; it’s me talking to the former Ambassador, Kate DiCamillo.
I love her.
Yes, she’s amazing, as a human being and as an author! I have another episode coming up with one of my good friends, Derek Kirk Kim, who is the lead character designer for Adventure Time. So I want to talk to people both in books and outside of books about how books have affected them.
How did you come to your platform of reading outside your comfort zone?
I think right now in children’s books in particular and in society in general, there’s this conversation about diversity. So that’s how we started: “How can we address issues of diversity in a positive way?” Then we brought in that idea that diversity could include not just cultures, but also subject matter and format. So with “Reading Without Walls,” we’re trying to get kids 1) to read stories about people who are different from them — who look different and who live differently from them; 2) to read books about topics they might be unfamiliar with, or they might even find intimidating; and 3) to read in formats that they never tried before. So if a kid’s never tried a graphic novel, we want them to try a graphic novel. If a kid’s never tried a prose book, we want them to try a prose book.
Do you feel like graphic novels are being taken more seriously these days?
Oh yeah. It’s been crazy. Even the fact that — I did some prose writing in college, but I’ve never professionally done any prose writing — so for me, as a graphic novelist, to be the National Ambassador, I just don’t think that would have been imaginable 10 years ago. We just started hitting the New York Times best-sellers list in like… 2003? Around there. Now we have our own list on the New York Times. These are things that I could have never imagined when I was a kid.
That is awesome. What do you think was the tipping point where graphic novels started to get more mainstream acceptance?
I don’t know if there was one tipping point. I think it was sort of a collective effort. For decades in America, when people thought of comic books, they thought of superheroes, and maybe like, funny animals. And then the underground comics movement came around with Robert Crumb, and all of his contemporaries. Then the alternative comics movement came, and there was Lynda Barry, the Hernandez brothers. Art Spiegelman put out Maus, which was huge and won the Pulitzer prize. Craig Thompson put out Blankets, there was Daniel Clowes… I feel like the body of graphic novel work that had literary merit kind of built up over the course of several decades. When it finally reached a critical mass, your average person would know what a graphic novel was. And that happened, I think, just around the turn of the century — just around 2000, 2001, 2002.
I really feel like I came in at just the right time to benefit from all that, you know? I’m 42 now, so, cartoonists around my age, like Raina Telgemeier, we all kind of came in at the same time. A lot of us are definitely beneficiaries of the folks that came before.
If someone wanted to start reading graphic novels, what books would you have them start with?
It depends on how old they are. If they’re middle grade readers, I would choose Smile by Raina Telgemeier. There’s also Meanwhile by Jason Shiga, which is a choose-your-own adventure book and I think it’s amazing.
If they’re a little bit older, Maus by Art Spiegelman is shockingly good. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. And then there’s this book that people don’t always talk about anymore but I love: It’s called Birth of a Nation. It’s done by Aaron McGruder — the Boondocks guy — and two other creators, Kyle Baker and Reginald Hudlin. It’s almost like a comedy about a suburb of St. Louis, I believe, a predominately African-American neighborhood, that declares independence from the United States.
They set up their own government, they create their own flag, and it’s hilarious, too. The flag-creating committee is made up of all these African-American grandmas, so their flag is red, yellow, and green, with a giant picture of Black Jesus. It’s amazing, but no one ever talks about it anymore! The reason why they decided to declare independence is they’re angry about an election where a Texas governor steals it from the sitting vice president. They don’t say who those are, but that gives you around [when it was published].
Let’s talk about your next project. All I know is it’s about basketball — which you weren’t always into.
Okay, so if you saw me physically, you would know: I’m definitely not an athlete.
You look tall in pictures!
Yeah, well that’s the only thing, right? Because height is not genetically linked to coordination, which was my huge problem when I was a kid. So, as a kid, I always sucked at sports — especially sports that involved some kind of ball. The ball would always end up hitting me in the head, and basketball was the worst. I feel like for junior high boys, being good at basketball was the way you proved your masculinity. And I just always sucked at basketball, so I never liked it.
I remember when I was in college, I lived with these guys who were really into basketball, so when we would be watching a movie on VHS (that’s how old I am!) — at like 9:50, they would pause the movie to watch basketball highlights in the news. It drove me crazy. I never understood why people liked it.
Then, just recently, I started slowly getting into it. One reason was I have a son who started getting into basketball. Two, I read this book called Outside the Paint, which is about the basketball scene in Chinatown in the 1930s and ‘40s. I read it primarily because it was about Chinatown, but it was about basketball in Chinatown. It was an amazing book, nonfiction. And then Jeremy Lin: He feels like somebody I could have hung out with in high school. So those things kind of converged and got me interested in basketball.
I was teaching at a high school at the time, and the coach of the varsity men’s team is a guy named Lou Richie, and in a lot of ways, he’s just the opposite of me. He’s super confident, he walks around campus with his chest puffed out. He walks like a quintessential athlete: He has a swagger to his walk. We’ve worked on the same campus for years, but we barely ever talked, and then when I started getting interested in basketball, I started talking to him.
I found out about his team, I learned this amazing story, and I just felt like I needed to do a book about it. So I hung out with him and his team for the 2014-2015 season when they were making a push to get the state championship for California.
It was awesome. I flew with them, we went to Florida for a big game, we went to Missouri for a tournament, and I got to know those players. Essentially, what I learned was why basketball is important. Why people care about it.
Do you have that distilled down into a sentence? Why do people care about basketball?
I can tell you why Lou cares: Lou is actually an alum of that school, Bishop O’Dowd High School. He graduated in the late ‘80s, and he was on the basketball team. When he was a junior, he went to the state championship with his team. His coach was, at the time, the best high school coach in California — possibly the nation. They went to state, and they were down by 1 point with 7 seconds left. Lou gets the ball, he puts it up at the buzzer, it goes into the basket, and his team freaks out — everybody’s jumping up and down, they’re all hugging each other.
And then, the referees invalidate that last shot. Supposedly, one of his teammates, the power forward for the team, had his hand about… there’s this sacred zone above the rim, and no human hand can be in that sacred zone while the ball’s trying to figure out if it wants to drop through the hoop or not. So, supposedly, his hand was in there.
Lou played the replay for me, and he was like, “Do you think that hand was in that zone?” And I gotta say, on the replay, it’s really hard to tell. Even the commentators on the team — he lent me the tape of that game. It’s hard to tell. But the ruling stood, they lost the game, and that moment kind of haunted Lou. It’s like almost winning something. That’s what basketball was to him: Almost achieving something, and having it taken away.
So he ends up playing for East LA, and then Clemson, then gets injured and ends his playing career. He comes back to his alma mater to be a coach. As assistant coach and later as head coach, he led five teams to the state championship. They lost all five times.
So all together, as a player and a coach, he’s lost six times. As a school, we’ve gone to the championship eight years and lost all eight times. And the ’14-’15 school year was the year they were supposed to finally do it.
Is it a spoiler if you tell us what happened?
It was the craziest game I have ever seen. They made it to the championship game. Their opponents were the team that they last lost to the last time they were at the championship. They were behind for the entire game, so during the game, I was like, “How am I going to spin this in a positive way? How am I going to talk about the grit behind these players, how they learned all this stuff even though they lost?”
Then the last few seconds of regulation, this kid who is not one of the stars ends up getting the ball in his hands. He puts it up, ties the game up at the buzzer, they go into overtime, and in overtime they fall behind again. And at the buzzer again, at overtime, they tie it up, and our star player, a guy named Ivan Rabb who now plays for Cal — he’s probably going into the draft in a couple months — but he gets fouled, and he gets two free throws. If he just makes one of them, we win.
I followed them all season, and I’ve never seen him miss a free throw. He air-balls his first free throw. And then his best friend on the team, the point guard, goes up and whispers in his ear, and he makes the second one — and they won.
I have goosebumps!
It was crazy. And Lou, the coach, this guy who walks around campus with all the swagger — I watched him. Everyone else was yelling, jumping up and down, and he just starts crying. He starts crying, and then he calls his old high school coach, who’s really sickly. He couldn’t go to the game because he’s in a wheelchair now. Lou calls his old high school coach, and he’s crying into the phone, and he’s like, “We did it, Coach. We did it. We finally did it.”
I can’t believe that’s a true story.
Yeah, I was shocked at the material that I got by following them for a season. I have a cartoon friend, and when I told him that, he was like, “I hate you. I can’t believe this just dropped into your lap.”
What have you learned about yourself while working on this book?
I learned there actually is a lot of commonality between basketball and things that I do know about. I grew up in the Chinese Catholic community, and there’s something very religious about basketball. There are rituals that occur in every basketball game, there are things that are held in reverence. There are numbers… it’s almost like patron saints. There are certain patron saints in the world of basketball that people look up to. One of the kids on the team — amazingly talented, not super tall — loved Allen Iverson, who’s kind of like the patron saint of short, super-talented kids. I feel like there’s a certain tradition there that extends beyond the sport.