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  CEAS Bulletin arrow Featured Articles arrow Adventures at the National Book Festival Sunday, 29 November 2015  
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Adventures at the National Book Festival PDF Print E-mail
Written by Linda Smetana and Dana Grisham   
Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Imagine two literacy professors at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. It is Saturday, September 28, 2007, and there, on the Capitol Mall, are numerous grand tents as if for the circus, shining white in the clear sunlight of a perfect fall day. Milling around those tents are literally thousands of families and groups, a perfect snapshot of the diversity that makes up our American culture. Laura Bush has organized a picture perfect event that has the excited air of adventure at a theme park. BUT (and this is the most perfect thing) it is all about BOOKS and READING! Well, we were pretty excited, too.

We had to get our pictures taken by the Magic School Bus, even if they wouldn’t let adults go inside for the tour. For both of us, that Magic School Bus took us back to our K-12 teaching days—such great memories!  Of course, we had to check out the differently themed tents and, naturally, buy some children’s books.

Dana Grisham and Linda SmetanaImage

We wandered into the adolescent (Teen!) tent, where we arrived just as a presentation began. The festival brought wonderful authors to speak at various times and we were excited to hear an author by the name of Gene Yang talk about his graphic novel. We didn’t know it, but we were about to be truly surprised! Gene Luen Yang is a high school teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, where he teaches computer science and mathematics. He is also the author of American Born Chinese, a graphic novel that was nominated for the National Book Award.

The first surprise for us was the many men and boys of varying ages, who listened and laughed as Gene described three reasons why it is bad to become a graphic artist:  (1) it takes forever to make a graphic novel, even a simplified one; (2) it isn’t particularly remunerative—around the turn of the century it was a shrinking market, although recently comic books and graphic novels have been making a comeback and constitute a growing segment of the book market; (3) comics and graphic novels are not “sexy” (not even a little bit, he insists).

Gene Luen YangImage

But Gene was fated to be an avid storyteller because both of his parents were. His father used to tell stories to him featuring a little boy about Gene’s age. This recurring character was usually involved with some onerous task such as picking up manure with a rice bowl and chopsticks—and the moral was usually quite clear to young Gene. His mother was more traditional in her storytelling, and she passed on the lore of China to her son. He started drawing (his parents told him) at the age of two and as he got older, he wanted to be an animator, carrying the image of a certain famous mouse around with him while a picture of Walt Disney resided in a place of honor above his bed.

But in the fifth grade, Gene discovered Marvel comics and began, with a friend, to create their own comics, which they photocopied and then colored by hand. When they sold their first comic book for 25 cents, they considered themselves professional authors! One of Gene’s first books had bionic fruit as the protagonists—they were called Transmurfers. Gene really likes the intimacy of being a comic book creator—that is, one person can do the whole production of a comic. When asked about the “chops” at the top of each page of ABC, Gene laughed and related how he went to Chinese School for 12 years. His parents nagged him to pay more attention to learning to write there, but he was a typical boy and didn’t learn as much as he should have—now he laughs and admits they were right!

Gene is married and has a three-year-old son and a newborn daughter—he has been working at Bishop O’Dowd for ten years.  He is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where he majored in computer science and minored in creative writing. He took this path because his parents worried about him making a living as a cartoonist. It wasn’t until he was nominated for the National Book Award for ABC that his father stopped sending him want ads for computer programmer jobs.  Gene earned his Master of Arts in Education degree at CSU East Bay.

American Born Chinese or ABC is really three stories in one about the identity formation of a middle school boy named Jin Wang, the Monkey King featured in ancient Chinese fables, and Chin-Kee, the ultimate negative Chinese stereotype. Gene wrote all three separate stories having to do with his own ethnic heritage and identity formation, but in his words, “Each was to some extent deficient by itself.” Then he realized that all the stories could be paralleled and connected for the reader at the end.  Please refer to the excerpts provided, reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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(click on images for larger view)

Gene is currently working on a collection of short stories—collaborating with a friend, who is doing the illustrations. This collection concerns the connection of reality and fantasy and grew out of the fantasy genre. He previously published two other comics/graphic novels. The first, Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks was published in 1996 and deals with life lessons. In this book, an alien spaceship flies up the protagonist’s nose and Gordon makes friends with the King of the Geeks (the alien). Gene says the work was inspired by his own sinus problems. Loyola Chin and the San Peligran Order was the follow on to Gordon Yamamoto.

Gene has used his own comics in his teaching in at least two ways—though he doesn’t teach using them at the current time. First, he taught an elective course called Computer Art with a comics unit and used his own work, which, he notes worked pretty well. Someone else now teaches the course. Second, he was a long-term substitute in a mathematics class, where a previous commitment made him miss some face-to-face sessions. After trying to tape himself doing a lecture (abject failure, according to Gene), he hit upon drawing the missed sessions as comics and the kids loved it!

During our interview, Gene talked about how comics are an untapped medium for both storytellers and educators. Gene has heard from teachers he has met during his travels that interest is high. There are several online resources for teachers interested in using comics/graphic novels. The first is Diamondbookmark (published by Silver Bullet Comic Books Comics) – The second is ComicLife (a Macintosh product) that allows you to use iphoto to create panels for your work. Finally, he also recommends (freeware provided by the Carnegie Foundation), which teaches computer programming visually.

When asked why he thinks that comics and graphic novels are attaining such notice right now, Gene replied that technological media occur along a continuum; he believes that today’s young people are attracted to multimedia. Graphic novels/comics combine the media of text and graphics. In addition, today all of us must master more than text; we must be able to create through multimedia, connecting text and the visual world.

In the US, particularly since the 1940s, boys have dominated the readership of graphic novels/comics. For example, before the 1940s there was a series featuring Lois Lane and readership was more balanced. The gender balance in readership is more notable in countries outside the US, for example, in Japan. But teachers tell Gene that graphic novels/comics are a gateway to reading and research seems to indicate that once students, particularly boys, begin reading graphic novels/comics, they also read in other genres.


© Gene Luen Yang, used with permission of First Second Books

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