Congratulations to Gene Luen Yang!
Gene Luen Yang, a graphic novel artist and writer, was recently named National Ambassador for Young People's Literature!
"Why does young people's literature need an ambassador?" you might ask.
Yang answers this very question in his first speech delivered as ambassador. He explains the role that books have played in his own life, as a kid and as an adult, and talks about how books themsevels are ambassadors that help people form connections between each other and the rest of the world.
It's a great speech, and it reminds us here at Nomad Press of one of the reasons we exist: to help kids make connections between themselves and the larger world. I admit, we can get caught up in the marketing, the fact checking, the day-to-day minutiae, and those are all good things to get caught up in because those details are what make our books solid bets. But it also helps to keep our eyes on the main goal, our reason for being. To inspire in kids a curiosity about the world that last long after the last page has been turned.
We also like to be inspired, as much as we like to inspire kids. And Yang's speech is inspiring. I'm looking forward to his tenure as ambassador!
Here's an excerpt from his speech. You can read the whole thing here.
But here’s the thing. Books themselves are ambassadors. Let me explain to you what I mean.
As we get older, we figure out who we are. We figure out the pieces of our identities.
For example, I am a Chinese American. I love computers and superhero comics. I love drawing. (My mom tells me that I started drawing when I was two.) And I love books.
Eventually, we put a wall around who we are. We know what is a part of us and what is not.
I am not a sports guy. I was terrible at all sports, but I especially didn’t like basketball. For some reason whenever I played, the ball would always hit me in the head. It was like my head was a magnet for basketballs.
So I made sure I always kept basketball outside of my walls and away from my head.
We keep these walls with us as we get older. Even teachers have these walls. For seventeen years, I taught at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California.
In the faculty lunch room, the P.E. teachers sat at one table, the Drama teachers another, and the nerdy teachers another. I, of course, sat with the nerdy teachers.
Some teachers would move from one table to the other, but most of us stayed where we were most comfortable. We stayed within our walls.
Every now and then, however, something happens to push us outside our walls. And for me, books played a key role.
One of the things that is most important to me is my Chinese American heritage. I love learning about Chinese American history. One day, I came across a book called Outside the Paint by Kathleen Yep. Ms. Yep has many older relatives who grew up in San Francisco Chinatown in the 30’s and 40’s. They were from poor immigrant families who couldn’t afford much, but they could afford basketball. All these kids, both boys and girls, loved playing basketball. In fact, for several years, San Francisco’s city youth leagues were dominated by these Chinatown teams.
Outside the Paint was a great book. I learned about a corner of Chinese American history I’d previously known nothing about. But it was also about something outside my walls: basketball.
I enjoyed the book so much that I wanted more. I found more books about basketball. Here are just a few:
* Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue is one of the most popular manga series in the world, about a group of Japanese high school students obsessed with basketball.
* Ball Don’t Lie is by superstar young adult author Matt De La Pena. Matt is a friend. (Yes, that’s a name drop.) He isn’t just a great writer, he’s also a great ball player. He draws on his experiences as both a Mexican American and a basketball player to tell this story.
* Kwame Alexander’s Crossover is a novel in verse, which means it tells its story through poems. It recently won the Newbery, one of the biggest awards for children’s books in America, and for good reason. The author is able to capture the rhythm of the game with the rhythm of his words.
After reading these books, I wanted to talk with someone about basketball, so I started talking with another teacher at O’Dowd, a guy named Lou Richie.
Lou is a P.E. teacher and the varsity men’s basketball coach. He’s a good guy, but to be honest, he’s not the type of guy I’d normally be friends with.
After all, he’s an athlete and I’m a nerd. He and I sat at different tables in the faculty lunch room. But as we talked, we became friends. Lou invited me to his teams’ games. I even got to travel with them. The team played in a big tournament in Missouri and I tagged along.
I slowly learned to watch basketball. I’m still no expert. I don’t know all the rules. But I do know enough to understand why people love basketball, why it’s important.
I also discovered that Lou and I have more in common that I’d originally thought. Like me, Lou loves books. He especially loves reading books about history. Lou also loves numbers. When he was a kid, he memorized so many baseball statistics that the other kids in his neighborhood called him “The Professor.”
So Lou isn’t just an athlete, he’s also a nerd. He’s a nerdlete.
I followed Lou’s team for a season. I sat in on their team meetings. I interviewed Lou, the other coaches, and the players. And during that season, I discovered an amazing, compelling story – the team’s story.
The story is so compelling that I want to tell it in a book, so my next graphic novel will be about their team. It will be about basketball.
So you see? Books were ambassadors to me into a world I didn’t understand.