Besides introducing children to the love of reading and creating stories as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang has a secret, more nefarious goal: to increase the nerd population. “I hope every kid will love [Secret Coders],” he says about his newest series, a kids-rule adventure story that’s also a coding tutorial. “But we are actively trying to engage the nerds and the nerds-in-training.”
Yang grew up a “comic book addict.” Soon after buying his first one, DC Comics Presents: Superman, in fifth grade, he started creating his own comics. “I grew up in a house full of stories. My mom tells me I started drawing when I was 2, and I haven’t stopped. Comics are a great way to tell stories through drawing.”
His best-known release is probably American Born Chinese, a funny, and anguished, graphic novel about trying to fit in as a racial minority in a new school. Many kids he’s talked with in his role as ambassador can relate. “The children of immigrants, regardless of what country their parents came from, connect most deeply with the book. As ambassador, I rely pretty heavily on [Ohio State University professor] Rudine Sims Bishop’s idea that books are both mirrors and windows. Every reader needs both kinds of books.”
A former teacher himself, Yang also strongly believes in using comics and graphic novels to help students delve into ideas and express themselves. “Comics belong in every teacher’s toolbox. They are not the best way to teach everything, but they are the best way to teach some things.”
“We live in a multimedia world,” he continues. “When we teach our students to read comics, and especially when we teach them to make comics, we [help] them to think in a ‘multimedia’ way. For each piece of information a kid wants to convey through a comic, she has to make the decision: Should this be done through the picture in the panel or the words in the caption box?”
The graphic panels that follow are Yang’s paean to an especially wonderful teacher he had in fourth grade, who instilled a deep love for books in her students.