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Meet the New National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature

The Library of Congress’ decision to appoint graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang to the post reflects a growing acceptance of comic books

Gene Luen Yang becomes the first graphic novelist to be appointed as the national ambassador for young people's literature. (Ken Seet/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

How can adults get kids more interested in reading? It’s a question that librarians, booksellers, educators and parents have been grappling with for decades. Today, the Library of Congress made a powerful suggestion, in naming a graphic novelist the national ambassador for young people’s literature for the very first time. Get the kids some comics. 

As George Gene Gustines reports for the New York Times, the Library of Congress, the Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader offered graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang the ambassadorship. The program was created in 2008 to highlight the importance of young people’s literature, promote literacy and support better, richer lives for young people. Jon Scieszka, author of The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs!, and Katherine Paterson, famed writer of Bridge to Terabithia, have been recognized in past years.

Yang is best known for his 2006 graphic novel, American Born Chinese, which won the prestigious Printz Award and was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for a National Book Award. The story parallels the lives of an Asian American middle schooler, a Chinese folk hero and a white American teenager, as they struggle to embrace their own identities. His 2013 Boxers & Saintsa pair of graphic novels about a boy who starts the Boxer Rebellion and a girl who wants to be like Joan of Arc—almost snagged a National Book Award, too. Yang has written Superman and Avatar: The Last Airbender comics. He started drawing comics in the fifth grade after being given a comic book by his mother and tells Gustines that as a child of immigrants he took comfort in the double lives of comic book superheroes.

Yang has been calling for more diversity in publishing, an industry that has been slow to adopt multicultural perspectives. For example, a 2015 study by the University of Wisconsin's Cooperative Children's Book Center showed that in a sample of 3,500 children's books, 179 were about African American characters, 36 about Native American characters, 112 about Asian American characters and 66 about Latino characters. Issues of representation persist in the comic book industry, too, despite attempts by companies like Marvel and DC to include more characters of color. Yang says that it's up to artists to change the status quo. "If people want diverse comics, we just gotta make 'em," he tells Mother Jones' Michael Mechanic.

In a release about the honor, the Library of Congress notes that the ambassador is chosen for his or her contributions to literature for young people, ability to relate to children and teenagers and dedication to fostering children’s literacy. During the two-year term, the ambassador will recieve a stipend to promote reading among young people. Yang will replace Because of Winn-Dixie author Kate DiCamillo, who served as ambassador in 2014 and 2015.

By naming a graphic novelist to the post, the Library of Congress is echoing the growing acceptance of comics and graphic novels as a legitimate form of literature. The genre's popularity has jumped significantly, with more than a five-fold increase in sales since 2001, and comics are becoming more prevalent in classrooms and libraries. Perhaps with Yang’s involvement as literacy ambassador, they’ll gain even more recognition as tools that can get kids reading.

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