Does graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang have the chops to get youngsters reading more?
Talk to experts about the state of youth literacy and you’ll hear the gamut: Kids are not reading and wind up in prison as the result. Children read all the time, but they just do it online. Negative reports about literacy rates are simply adults overreacting to new technology. Instagram and Snapchat are the deathbeds of literacy and there’s data to prove it. Graphic novels will save the world from illiteracy—or cause mankind’s downfall.
It’s fair to say that some kids are reading and others are not. Why? And what will inspire a non-reader to bury herself or himself in a book?
In 2008, the Library of Congress created the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature program to promote lifelong literacy beginning with young people. Boosting youth literacy is its central mission. Together with the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader, the Library of Congress selects a new ambassador every two years. Gene Luen Yang, a San Jose writer and until recently a computer science teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, was appointed this year.
“In my own life, there’s a lot of stuff competing for my attention,” Yang says about distractions that prevent people from reading, regardless of their age. “I have a phone in my pocket that buzzes me, screens all over my house. We live in a loud world.”
Deep, immersive reading, he says, is like meditation and requires silence. And if literature is a long conversation about what it means to be human, opportunities to tell their own stories are as important as quiet time for kids to become engaged. At the very least, he says educators and parents must allow kids to make their own choices. Yang discovered the wonder of reading through comic books, but it took some deception.
“To get to the comic store, we’d get our parents to drop us off at the library, wait until they’d drive away, sneak out, walk 20 minutes to the comic book store,” he recalls. “It was like a weird, dingy clubhouse populated by teenagers. We’d sneak back to the library and check out large format books to hide the comic books in when our parents came to pick us up.”
Yang’s American Born Chinese in 2006 was the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award and won the American Library Association’s Printz Award and the Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album. In 2013, his two-volume graphic novel, Boxers & Saints, was nominated for a National Book Award and won the L.A. Times Book Prize.
Like the superheroes that dominated the comic books he treasured during his childhood, Yang says his position as ambassador demands a bold platform. “Reading Without Walls” is the name he has selected for a three-tiered message aimed at diversified reading. “We’re asking kids to find things that are intriguing to them, but that they might turn away from.” Yang says “getting outside our own cultures” is a reflection of 21st-century life. “Our world is becoming more diverse. It’s impossible to go through your whole life without interacting with someone who’s not like you. As a society, we’ve been sorting ourselves to surround ourselves with like thinkers. It’s not necessarily good. Reading bridges that tendency.”
Walter Mayes, the library media specialist at The Girls’ Middle School in Palo Alto, would likely give a hearty “hear, hear,” to Yang’s position. His expertise pertains primarily to teens, and Mayes says that concerns about kid’s reading habits come from “the age-old problem of adults wanting to have more say over what teens read; as if they aren’t really reading unless their choices are adult-approved.” Instead, Mayes says the circulation statistics in his library are steady and handheld devices have served to increase kids’ reading.
Jon Scieszka, best known for the Time Warp Trio and picture books created with Lane Smith, served as the inaugural ambassador from 2008-2009. He believes kids are starting to read more, largely due to increased options. “The ambassador program grows bigger and better with each new ambassador,” he says. “The five we have so far give a perfect snapshot of the crazy fun range of kid lit.” Even so, he says nationwide reading statistics for Hispanic and African-American boys are “atrocious,” and the correlation between third-grade illiteracy and the prison population is “frightening.”
If the magic potion to get kids reading is to offer expanded book selection, does Yang have the clout to bust down the walls preventing choice? Perhaps, because he’s not as concerned with bursting barriers as with opening windows. His ideas? School libraries that are open all the time, not just one day per week; technology embraced by parents and educators instead of feared; and a general mindset that says other media are not the enemy. “We’re not going to come out with the next iPhone, but we want to at least experiment with new technology, new ways to access books,” he says. “Tie-ins like cartoons and high-end comics are sometimes derided as shallow, but they perform a function. There was a lot of fear around e-readers, but digital wasn’t eating away at print comics; it was actually growing the pie. The print world is the same. It’s part of the diversity: more things side by side, instead of either-or.”