Gene Luen Yang (Librarians are Rockstars!)

 

[Alison Tran] We are here at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago with Gene Yang, Prince award winning artist and author. His latest work, a two-volume graphic novel set called Boxers And Saints comes out in September and you guys, I’ve read it, and it’s awesome, and I’m still thinking about it. I loved it. So Gene thank you for coming on the show.

[Gene] Thank you, thank you for having me, I’m excited to be here.

[Steve] How are you enjoying the conference so far? What’s it like being surrounded by 20,000 librarians?

It’s awesome! It’s awesome, you know I came with a friend of mine, Tim Fam, we did a book called Level Up together and we started tabling last year at ALA’s Artist Alley and we have decided that this is our favorite conference to come to.

Ohhhhh.

Great.

Because I mean we love Comic Con, don’t get me wrong, we love Comic Con, but here, you know, nobody’s ever asking you where the video game booth is, everybody reads, it’s awesome, it’s amazing.

Yeah, well we know you just finished your signing here at the Macmillan booth and it was a crazy long line, so you know librarians love you.

Yeah, it was great, it was great.

That’s awesome. Well, in addition to being an artist and an author, you are also an educator. So, what’s your take on the way students are interacting with libraries these days? How do you see them using it?

Well I think reading’s still a big deal with kids, you know, I think it’s important as educators to push it, but I also think that if you find the right gateway, kids will still get addicted to reading and it might be a little more complex now than it used to be, to find that right gateway book , but if you do, that love of reading will blossom, just like it always does.

Yes, so your latest work is historical fiction? About the Boxer rebellions?

Yes.

Taking place in China in the late 1800s or early 1900s, did you do a lot of research for this and if you did, did you use libraries for all your research?

I did, I did, I, this is my very first foray into historical fiction, so I was really nervous about it. I actually got some help getting started on my research with my school librarians. I work at a high school and we have an awesome school librarian named Annette Counts and she got me started.

Shout out.

Woohoo, go, Annette!

And then, after that for about a year, every Wednesday night I would go to our local university library to do research and I ended, I ended my research with a trip to France. There is a Jesuit archive in France. Which is a library of sorts containing all these letters and photos and from Jesuit missionaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and that’s how I did it..

That is awesome. And any excuse to go to France right?

Absolutely, absolutely.

That’s an, like your book’s about China, but you’re like well I have to go to France.

Yes.

Did you go to China too though?

I did go to China, but not for research, yeah.

Also any excuse to go to China. I went for the food once, just for the food.

Oh, man.

And it delivered.

Yeah, I believe it.

Alright, so tell us about the process of writing and drawing Boxers and Saints. It’s a two-volume set with an intertwining story, did you outline it meticulously? How did it all come together?

I did, I outlined, I’m an outliner now. When I started comics I was a discovery writer, I guess they call them pants writers too, right? ‘Cause you’re flying by the seat of your pants. But I was a discovery writer and I’ve, I know there are amazing writers who can do it, I am not, I can’t do it. I found that when I was a discovery writer I would paint myself into corners, so eventually I started the outlining and that’s how I do all my books now. For Boxers and Saints I researched for about a year before I even tried to write a story and after that I did several iterations of the outline to see how everything would come together.

And was American Born Chinese, was that, that kind of your discovery writing?

No, that was outlined as well, that was outlined as well.

So you, you are an advocate for using comics in education. As a librarian we sometimes encounter parents who want their kids to stop reading comics and start reading something educational. How would you respond to a parent like that?

A valid way of using comics is with those reluctant readers, as a bridge from media that you watch to media that we read. I think that comics shouldn’t be limited to that role, but that’s definitely a great place for a parent who might be reluctant to use comics to start. I also think that for that parent often, you know, if you ask your kid to stop reading comics they’re just going to stop reading. That’s not, that’s not the way to go. I think a more proactive approach, a more positive approach is to find those books that don’t tell on the comics that your kids are already reading.

I remember when I read, was reading comics as a kid, I learned the world invulnerable, just from reading comics. I had never seen that word before in my life, and that’s where I, so there’s a context like that that kids will pick up words and –

Yeah, absolutely. I remember I learned the word “skinflint” from an Uncle Scrooge comic and that showed up on our SAT that I took years later.

Awesome, see mom.

Yeah.

Look at that.

Exactly.

Yeah.

I got like 10 extra points for it.

Just for reading that comic.

Yeah.

Really, yeah, like the word educational was definitely, I hope everyone heard the air quotes around that as, you know, I mean parents listening, please, comics are educational and especially Mr Yang’s Boxers and Saints will teach you a lot about the Boxer rebellion, so, so awesome. We have time for one more question so could you tell us how you used libraries as a young genius?

Oh, when I was a kid?

Yes.

Yes.

When I was a kid I loved the library, I absolutely loved it. My parents, I think, took me there once a week. I thought it was because I loved books so much, but nowadays when I look back on it, especially now that I’m a parent, I think maybe they just wanted a break, right? ‘Cause they could just let me wander and I would, I would leave them alone for a, you know, a couple of hours.

That’s strategy.

Yes. I think just like every other kid, I used the library to learn about other worlds, other people’s lives and I really think that because of my experiences with the library, I became a storyteller.

I love that, that’s so inspirational and thank you for the stories that you tell, it’s, you’re definitely opening up other worlds for now the kids who are opening up your books, so thank you.

Well thank you, thank you so much.

Thank you so much for coming on the show again.

Yeah, thank you for having me, it was great.