What young readers need is a superhero—or, at least, someone who knows how to write about one. The new National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature is Gene Luen Yang, the current writer of DC Comics’ Superman series, winner of the Printz Award, and two-time National Book Award finalist.
“I was on my way to a middle school in October when my editor, Mark Siegel, called to tell me I’d been chosen and swore me to secrecy,” Yang recalled. “I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, not even the escort who was taking me to the school. But I was super excited. Does anyone say no to this? It’s an amazing opportunity.”
Yang succeeds Kate DiCamillo, who served on the seven-member committee of educators, librarians, and booksellers that selected her replacement. “I did love these two years even more than I expected to,” said DiCamillo. “But it’s a lot of traveling so I’m tired, but thrilled to be handing the torch to Gene, who is just a brilliant artist.” DiCamillo said she had read Yang’s graphic novel duology, Boxers and Saints, which “knocked my socks off,” but was also impressed by his ability to connect with the ambassador’s key constituencies: the adult gatekeepers of children’s literature as well as the target audience.
“[Gene] can give a great presentation on the history of comics to a room full of adults but he is also fantastic with kids,” DiCamillo said. “That’s what you want: someone who is really good with both groups.”
The ambassador program was established in 2008, by the Children’s Book Council, Every Child a Reader, and the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, to highlight the importance of young people’s literature in developing a literate, tolerant, informed citizenry. Yang will serve a two-year term, traveling the nation to champion diversity in all forms—and formats—with his platform, “Reading Without Walls.”
“Reading breaks down the walls that divide us,” he said. “By reading, we get to know people outside of our own communities. We gain knowledge others don’t expect us to have. We discover new and surprising passions. Reading is critical to our growth, both as individuals and as a society.”
In 2006, Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese (Macmillan/First Second) became the first graphic novel to be named a finalist for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature. It also won an Eisner Award. Boxers and Saints (Macmillan/First Second), his two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion, was a 2013 National Book Award finalist and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature. He is also the author of the Secret Coders series (with artist Mike Holmes). In addition to his work on the Superman comic book series, Yang is also the current writer for Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender comics.
Yang is the first-ever graphic novelist to be selected as ambassador. In addition to DiCamillo, the post has been held by Jon Scieszka (2008–2009), Katherine Paterson (2010–2011), and Walter Dean Myers (2012–2013).
“What an inspired choice the selection committee has made,” said Jon Yaged, president and publisher of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “[Yang] is a brilliant storyteller who makes meaningful and profound connections with readers of all ages. And he has been a de facto ambassador for reading, inclusion, and graphic novels for years.”
An inauguration ceremony will take place on January 7 at 11 a.m. in room LJ-119 of the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building in Washington, D.C. The event is open to the public; no tickets are required. Yang says his speech may also include a first. “I’m using slides. I don’t know if the other ambassadors used slides but I always do,” he said. “It’s a crutch.”