Gene Yang: Building Bridges with Comics

Gene Yang, acclaimed graphic novelist, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and MacArthur Fellowship award winner, sat down with PBS Newshour at Stonewall Middle School in Manassas, Virginia, to discuss how comics can help young readers embrace diversity and what coding and writing have in common.

From critically acclaimed works like American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, Yang has built a comics career on sharing aspects of his how cultural heritage. Moreover, his series Secret Coders has helped bridge the gap between the arts and sciences by combining two of his professional loves, comics and computer coding. For Yang, comics represent an ideal medium not only for helping young readers embrace aspects of themselves, but also help build awareness, empathy, and acceptance for other people.

As National Ambassador, Yang has made it his mission to teach young readers to read without walls regardless of those walls be cultural or educational. “I think there is a tendency in modern American culture to separate the sciences from the arts,” said Yang about the relationship between coding and comics—two things Yang sees as similar—adding, “To me it feels like such a false dichotomy. There are so many people who are interested in both. There are so many people who are pursuing both and people who want to be good at both.”

Yang sees that as a positive. For Yang the relationship between the arts and sciences is a critical one and that isn’t that hard to see when you breakdown how both fields work. When asked about the relationship, Yang noted:

When you’re making a comic, what you do is take a complex storyline and have to break it up into individual panels. And coding is very much the same way. You take a complex concept and you break it up into individual lines. So it’s all about taking the complex and breaking it up into simple understandable pieces.

This concept of finding the commonality in what appears to be two dissimilar things, also applies to how Yang approaches cultural diversity and his own experiences accepting his Chinese American identity. “I did go through a period when I really struggled with my own ethnic heritage,” recalls Yang, adding:

I remember being in late elementary school and junior high and realizing that who I was, the culture that I came from, made me different from most of the kids around me… It took me a really long time to come to a place where I accepted myself as a Chinese American. A lot of my work is about how you can build an identity out of two pieces that don’t always easily fit together.

Based on his own experiences, Yang hopes as Ambassador to inspire children to embrace diversity by challenging them to explore books, subjects, and reading formats that get them out of their comfort zone. “Reading is a great way of exploring the world,” concludes Yang. “One of the best things about books is that it gives you a window into somebody else’s mind and into somebody else’s soul.”

Check out the full PBS Newshour interview below as well as CBLDF’s resources on incorporating graphic novels into your classrooms and libraries!

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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!