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Children’s Book Week Comics Blog Tour: Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Graphic novelists John Patrick Green and Gene Luen Yang discuss comics, Legos, and more!

Children’s Book Week Comics Blog Tour: Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Today marks the start of Children's Book Week, and FYA is pleased as punch to participate in the Children's Book Week Comics Blog Tour! Here's a little background on this celebration of graphic novels.


It’s Children’s Book Week – where we celebrate how amazing books for kids and teenagers are!  We’re delighted to be celebrating the awesomeness of kids comics this week with a blog tour that features a star-studded line-up of graphic novelists, talking about the creative process, their inspiration, and the books they love.  Follow along throughout the week to see some of your favorite comics creators – and meet new ones, too!

Joining us today is John Patrick Green (Hippopotamister), who's here to interview Gene Luen Yang. In addition to having created graphic novels like the Printz Award winning American Born Chinese and  the National Book Award finalist Boxers & Saints, Gene was named as the 2016 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. 

JOHN PATRICK GREEN: Hello, Gene! Congratulations on being "King Emperor Master Ruler Admiral of Comic Books and Children's Literature of All Time." I'm pretty sure that's your full title and a plaque stating as such is being permanently installed onto the wall of an official building somewhere.

GENE LUEN YANG: Thank you! I’ve been trying to convince my wife to put that on our mailbox. No dice.

GREEN: Your latest series, Secret Coders, is not just a fun adventure about kids going to a computer programming school, but also an introductory manual for readers to learn how to code themselves. By now many people should realize that comics can be a useful teaching tool, but what do you think is the strongest argument for it?

YANG: Certain types of information are best conveyed through comics. Those little instruction books that come with Lego sets are probably the best example. Can you imagine trying to give those instructions in text?

When it comes to education, the comics medium has a number of strengths. I’ll give you just two. First, the comics medium is visual. Our students are immersed in visual media. They’re used to visual information. Comic books speak their language.

Second, unlike other visual storytelling media like animation and film, the comics medium is permanent. Let me explain how I’m using that term. By “permanent” I mean that in comics, past, present, and future all sit side by side on the same page. Because of this, the reader can read as quickly or as slowly as she wants. The rate of information flow is firmly in control of the reader.

GREEN: You've written and illustrated many of your books, but have also collaborated with artists on a number of them, such as The Shadow Hero (with Sonny Liew) and the aforementioned Secret Coders (with Mike Holmes). What makes you decide if a project is one you want to draw or have someone else draw? What are the pros and cons to working with a co- creator compared to doing a project solo? Have you ever drawn a comic that someone else drew?

YANG: When I write and draw a project, I have complete control of every word and every line on every page. That’s nice.

When I work with someone else, the project becomes the expression of a relationship, of a friendship. There’s a back and forth that happens. I can rely on the other person’s strengths to pull off things I couldn’t on my own. Sonny Liew, for example, blends drama and comedy and action in this beautiful, unique way. Mike Holmes has a real Saturday morning energy to his work. I would not have been able to do either The Shadow Hero or Secret Coders on my own.

I haven’t yet drawn a comic that someone else wrote. I’m open to it, though.

GREEN: You've tackled many topics in a number of genres: memoir, historical fiction, adventure with Avatar: The Last Airbender, and of course superheroes with the Green Turtle and Superman. What subject are you itching to tack a crack at next?

YANG: Right now, I’m working on my very first sports graphic novel which is also my very first nonfiction graphic novel. I am not a sports guy, so this is something very new to me. Just a few years ago, I started getting interested in basketball. Specifically, I became fascinated with basketball as an expression of culture. Early on in its history, basketball was an outsider’s sport. More established communities and institutions gravitated towards more established sports like baseball and football.

Last year, I followed a high school basketball team for a season. It was great. I went to most of their games. I travelled with them to tournaments. I got to know the coaches, players, and parents. My next book will be about them.

GREEN: What are your favorite children's or comic books as a child, and what's currently on your nightstand?

YANG: When I was a kid, my absolute favorite picture book was Dr. Seuss’ Happy Birthday to You. Not only does the protagonist get all these awesome presents, the book contains a wonderful – and slightly frightening – meditation on existence.

I also loved Disney Duck stories by Carl Barks and Don Rosa. They took a relatively shallow set of characters and fleshed them out into an entire world.

I just finished Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt. Full disclosure: Gary and I teach together at Hamline University. We are part of their MFA program. I’ve always admired Gary, both as a writer and as a human. Orbiting Jupiter just deepened my admiration.

I’m just a few pages into Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion. She’s another one of those folks I admire, both as a writer and as a human.

I’m also reading 52, which is this sprawling epic that DC Comics published a few years ago. If you like superheroes, this book is chock-full of them.

As for adult reading, I’m about halfway through Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. Because, you know, I’m an amateur at manhood.

GREEN: Do you keep a writing journal or a sketchbook, or both? Do you doodle? Is "Gene Yang the writer" different than "Gene Yang the illustrator"?

YANG: I keep both a writing journal and a sketchbook. One is lined and one is not. The distinction is kind of meaningless, though. I end up drawing in my journal and writing in my sketchbook.

GREEN: What is your favorite part about making comics, and what is the hardest part?

YANG: The writing is always the hardest part. Always. Right before I start, I want to wash dishes, sort through yesterday’s mail, rearrange my Lego minifig collection, anything but write. Usually, if I can get going for at least fifteen minutes, that initial resistance subsides.

But it’s still there. For my entire session, it’s still there. Usually it embodies itself as my phone. It calls to me, telling me about all the urgent Facebook status updates I’m missing.

The easiest part is the inking. I love inking. At that point, the war is pretty much won. I can relax, put on the latest episode of Brian Koppelman’s The Moment, and ink.

Thanks so much for stopping by, Gene and John! You can find Gene on his website or Twitter (@geneluenyang), and John on his website and Twitter (@johngreenart).

As National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Gene's platform is Reading Without Walls, which encourages readers to seek out "books presenting diverse cultures, content, and formats". Learn more about Reading Without Walls here.

Follow the rest of the Children's Book Week Comics Blog Tour!

May 2:
Forever Young Adult feat. Gene Luen Yang
Read Write Love feat. Lucas Turnbloom
Kid Lit Frenzy feat. Kory Merritt

May 3:
Sharp Read feat. Ryan North
Teen Lit Rocks feat. MK Reed

May 4:
Love is Not a Triangle feat. Chris Schweizer
SLJ Good Comics for Kids feat. Victoria Jamieson

May 5:
The Book Wars feat. Judd Winick
SLJ Fuse #8 feat.Eric Colossal

May 6:
SLJ Scope Notes feat.Nathan Hale
The Book Rat feat.Faith Erin Hicks

May 7:
YA Bibliophile feat.Mike Maihack
Supernatural Snark feat.Sam Bosma

May 8:
Charlotte’s Library feat.Maris Wicks
The Roarbots feat.Raina Telgemeier

Children's Book Week runs from May 2nd to May 8th.