Gene Yang on “Reading Without Walls”

Since being selected as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, comics creator Gene Luen Yang has hit the ground running, encouraging young readers to break out of their literary comfort zone to explore “Reading Without Walls.” In a recent interview with Education Week, Yang talks about the benefits and value to diversifying reading lists and how in becoming fearless readers, we become better people.

For over a decade, Yang has used his comics and background as a K-12 teacher to educate young readers on the importance of understanding global cultures beyond one’s own heritage. Whether it is through the unique experiences of Jin Wang, a first generation Chinese American student, in American Born Chinese, or embracing the tech world of a group of wiz kid puzzle solvers in Secret Coders, Yang work speaks directly to his mission as ambassador to read without walls. “Exploring the world is an important part of growing up,” Yang tells Education Week regarding his new program “Reading without Walls.” He adds:

There are three prongs to the platform—and the first is for kids to pick books with protagonists that don’t necessarily look or live like them… It’s so important for us to empathize with people who are different from us because our world is getting smaller.

For Yang, it isn’t just a matter of reading about new characters with different backgrounds. For him, the lessons learned by reading materials that take young people out of their proverbial comfort zones extend beyond the pages of a graphic novel or book and help build the foundation for children as successful and empathetic members of a broader global community. “Technology is making us more connected,” Yang continues. “Just to get things done, just to get through everyday life, you’re going to have to interact with all these different people who don’t look or live like you. Reading about these different people will prepare you to interact in an empathetic way.”

Yang is actively fighting to dispel the negative myths that by interacting with different people from ourselves we are, in effect, losing our own sense of self. In juxtaposition to an increasingly alarming mentality that has led to countless books and graphic novels being challenged in schools and libraries across the United States, Yang sees his “Reading Without Walls” program as an opportunity to better define who we are:

Someone much smarter than me said that fiction is both a mirror and a window—it’s a mirror into our own lives and a window into other people’s lives. I think fiction can both reinforce our own sense of self and also help us be empathetic to other people and help us deal with those differences. There is a balance there, and a reading habit—a diet of books that includes both books about who we are and books about who other people are—is a great way of managing that knowledge.

Whether the books be semi-autobiographical, fantastic adventures or even about science, Yang hopes to not only encourage more young people to get out and read, but to also expand their global and cultural knowledge beyond the tangible boundaries of their families and community borders. “It’s a trend happening that I’m excited about, and I’m hoping that that wall will eventually break down.”

To read Gene Yang’s full interview with Education Week, click here for part one and part two. Also, don’t forget to check out CBLDF’s educator resources and series Using Graphic Novels in Education and Adding Graphic Novels to Your Library or Classroom Collection to find out how you can incorporate diverse comics books in your lesion plans.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!