Comics publishers just aren't used to getting National Book Award nominations. So when Gene Yang's American Born Chinese was nominated for the Young People's Literature award last week—the first graphic novel ever nominated for an NBA— his publisher was virtually the last to know.
"Suddenly emails were raining down on us," says First Second editorial director Mark Siegel. "Our competitors were calling to tell us," he explained, "because they wanted us to know that this nomination will help everyone publishing graphic novels." Siegel declined to say how many copies of the book were in print but said First Second will go back to press for more copies. The National Book Award winners will be chosen at the National Book Awards ceremony, held November 15 in New York City.
American Born Chinese is the story of Jin Wang, a Chinese-American kid growing up in an all-white neighborhood. But the book also retells the ancient Chinese fable of the Monkey King, combined with a parallel story introducing Wang's cousin from China, Chin-kee, a hilarious but embarrassingly racist stereotype and a character that transforms the book into a delightful allegory on contemporary Chinese-American identity.
Yang has won a Xeric Award, which is a grant given to outstanding comics artists to enable them to self-publish their comics. When he's not creating comics, Yang teaches computer science at a Catholic High School in San Francisco and he's passionate about the potential of comics as a teaching tool. Yang's website, HumbleComics.com, offers information on using comics to teach—including a history of comics in education and a survey of the medium's pedagogical strengths—and provides online examples of his own educational comics. "He's our special secret weapon when it comes to the education market," says Siegel. "He can speak directly to teachers."
In a phone interview from San Francisco, Yang says, "It's been crazy." He originally received a phone call from Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, who left him a message to call back without leaving the good news. But like a lot of comics folk, Yang had no idea who Augenbraum was. It wasn't until Siegel called the next day that he understood that American Born Chinese had been nominated. "This is a huge deal," says Yang, "but being a comic book guy, I never even considered it a possibility. I've always dreamed of getting an Eisner."
Yang says his parents, not always happy about his career choices, "are ecstatic," over the nomination, which was covered with much fanfare in the World Journal, a prominent Chinese language newspaper in San Francisco. "They got emails from all their friends. My dad says he couldn't sleep." Yang says he first published American Born Chinese, as a webcomic and then as a print mini-comic. Yang's good friend, comics artist Derek Kirk Kim, author of the acclaimed graphic story collection Same Difference and a First Second creator, bugged Siegel relentlessly until he finally read the book—at which point Siegel jumped to sign Yang's book.
But Yang also says he's a little worried about all the attention, specifically pointing out his use of harsh Chinese stereotypes in the book. "I originally wanted to use stereotypes and current events in the book. But I published it as a minicomic and I basically knew everyone who bought it," he says. Now, says Yang, "I'm a little freaked out. I am a bit worried about how it will be received. Comics are personal and it's important to be independent and not be self-conscious about what you create."
But all worries are dismissed when the subject turns to comics and teaching. "I have a passion for bringing comics and teaching together," he says. "I speak to teacher groups all the time. We have reached a tipping point. Text is being replaced by multimedia documents that bring together text, video and more. This is how kids learn today. Comics also combine text and pictures and allow you teach kids how to read in a multimedia environment. Comics are in the forefront and educators want them in the classroom."