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Gene Luen Yang Challenges Us to Read Without Walls

I recently had the great pleasure of meeting award-winning author Gene Luen Yang during his Words and Pictures visit hosted by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures.

In addition to chatting with him in the green room about favorite manga, the joys of mentoring teens and how the heck metal fuses with glass (I had just come back from a road trip to the Corning Museum of Glass!), I was also able to ask him four library-related questions as well as introduce him to the stage!

But let me back up… it all started with my work on the system-wide Battle of the Books Library program. One of our booklists featured Gene’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese (Really great book! Seriously, go borrow it… I’ll wait.). When Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures heard about the book tie-in to the upcoming author visit, they jumped at the idea to promote this crossover of programs and great titles in one big space.

In addition to the great honor of interviewing and introducing Gene before his talk, I was also able to help Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures secure four schools that had competed in the 7th & 8th grade Battle of the Books (where Gene’s graphic novel was read) as part of a seven-school video conference with Gene. These schools were able to tune in simultaneously to hear him speak about his various books and ask him questions, while learning a little more behind the creation of one of their book trivia titles.

Gene asks for a show of hands from the audience to test their comic knowledge.


For those who were unable to attend this author visit, here’s a short snippet from my introduction:

A line spoken early on in the book (and coincidentally one of my trivia questions) is this: “It’s easy to become anything you wish… so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.” 

While that’s a pretty rough response to a young boy who just wants to be a Transformer when he grows up, it’s also a key theme of the [American Born Chinese] stories — transformation is indeed possible, but does not always come easily (or without a price!). Gene is no stranger to this concept, as he experienced bullying growing up because of his nationality. A more lighthearted version of this followed him through his teaching career, where he struggled to connect his lessons to his students, who commented that he was more interesting on the page as an illustrated character than he was in real life!  

[Gene Luen Yang] is still a down-to-earth, friendly, slightly nerdy but altogether charming person… just like us!

But all of these experiences shaped Gene into the person he is today — an award-winning graphic novelist, an MFA professor at Hamline University, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and a literal genius for his recently awarded MacArthur Genius Fellowship. The great news is that he’s still a down-to-earth, friendly, slightly nerdy but altogether charming person… just like us!

Among his amazing array of visual slides (he made some really great comparisons between himself and Wonder Woman, as well as why Superman might really be Asian-American!), Gene was a charming and funny speaker who took time to highlight and appreciate a young audience member who held up several of his books when they were mentioned. He admitted to being a complete nerd, and why that has worked out so so well for him — allowing him to write stories about both his experiences growing up as well as budding interests, like basketball.

Gene also talked about his work as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and how books can act as ambassadors in the same way that people do. Every ambassador has a platform that they promote and encourage, as part of the larger goal of getting kids to read (and read more!). His platform is called “Reading Without Walls,” and it is essentially a way to tear down the barriers we put up to protect or shield ourselves from newer or different reading experiences outside our comfort zone.

This ties in with the concepts that the We Need Diverse Books campaign promotes, in which we try to find more ways to provide books that help reflect our various cultures, ethnicity, gender and abilities. This challenge can be completed by doing 1 of the 3 listed rules below, but really it’s way more fun (or challenging, depending on how you look at it) to try and find a title that falls into all three categories.

Curious how the “Reading Without Walls” Challenge actually works? Click the image above to access your own starter kit and watch video podcasts on the project!

Read a book by Gene Luen Yang

...or two or three!


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