Published on November 20th, 2017 | by Meg Lemke2
Break it Down: Gene Luen Yang on READING WITHOUT WALLS
I often describe MUTHA as a site for folks who parent (and like to read) outside the mainstream—a place where we feature and celebrate different perspectives on the motherhood (and other-hood) experience. So, it was a distinct pleasure (and honor) to sit down and talk to Gene Luen Yang about his campaign to foster greater diversity in the reading habits of both kids and adults. Yang is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (were you aware of this)? Kind of amazing: he travels the country speaking to kids, families, and educators about why books matter. He’s also a (National Book Award-winning) graphic novel creator, AKA a guy who makes comics for a living. Plus a teacher and a father.
Yang has made it his Ambassadorial mission to inspire young readers (and their parents!) to READ WITHOUT WALLS, “exploring books about characters who look or live differently than you, topics you haven’t discovered, or formats that you haven’t tried.” I’ll let him fill you in…
We know how important it is to read to children, from infancy onwards (even in the womb, babies hear the rhythm of a read-aloud). And MUTHAs look out for inclusive literature, while we build a library to support what’s unique about our children. But we all need a reminder and resources for getting beyond what we know (especially problematic classics). As school starts, it often seems like kids start gravitating again and again to the familiar… or classrooms might not have the funds to purchase the newest progressive titles. Where can we take the opportunity to break down walls? – Meg Lemke
P.S. We’re putting this up right as the holidays start; I love Gene’s tips for buying diverse books for teacher gifts! (Better than another handprint mug).
MUTHA: What have you learned in your first years as a literary ambassador—any surprises?
GENE LUEN YANG: Kids are reading more comics than they ever have before. They’re just not reading the same comics that I read when I was a kid. Nowadays, almost every kid, boy or girl, has read Smile, almost every kid, boy or girl, is a fan of Raina Telgemeier, Amulet, Zita the Space Girl, and Cece Bell’s book, El Deafo.
Not only are kids interested in comics, but teachers have gotten on board. Graphic novels are allowed in free-choice reading, some teachers are even using them for class assignments. It’s a wonderful thing to see.
MUTHA: How have teachers, parents and students responded to the principles of Reading Without Walls?
GENE LUEN YANG: I announced it during my “inauguration” at the Library of Congress, and there were certain schools and bookstores that just ran with it. It was awesome. Wild Rumpus in Minnesota made it their summer reading program and created a whole display. They had their customers come in and fill out these little certificates of completion that were then put on display.
Live Oak School in San Francisco set up an entire wall where kids would fill out these little book cutouts, whenever they’d finish a recommended title.
The one area I got online pushback was criticism that Reading Without Walls was targeted at kids of privilege. And I see it, I see where they’re coming from, right? Because there is an assumption that when you’re pushing kids outside of their comfort zones with reading, it assumes there is a comfort zone for them within reading.
MUTHA: Starting with the privilege of already being a reader—you weren’t reaching out to reluctant readers, students who aren’t being met by teachers at that level.
GENE LUEN YANG: I understand that pushback. I’m hoping that might be the focus for whoever comes after me in this role. But, for me, the focus has been on responding to the talk about how diverse books don’t sell as well. I feel like the numbers underneath those statements are not solid, but my feeling in designing Reading Without Walls is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the sales numbers hold up or not.
What matters is that consumers open their mind to diverse content. I want people to consider reading books that are not their default books.
MUTHA: You’re using it to get at something deeper, which is about citizenship and race consciousness and building empathy. That it’s not just a matter of habits, but how reading is going to affect young people as citizens and students.
GENE LUEN YANG: My mission is ultimately about stories, and about whose stories get heard.
I think when you’re a part of the majority you’re like a fish in water. You just don’t notice what’s going around you. I really believe that every kid ought to have both experiences, the experience of being a minority and experience of being in the majority.
MUTHA: You mean by reading about both experiences?
GENE LUEN YANG: No, no. I mean, yes, read—definitely read both experiences, but also live both experiences. I’ll tell you in my life the minority experience was basically elementary school, junior high, and high school. And the majority experience was college for me. I went to UC Berkeley. During my four years there —
MUTHA: You were in computer programming…
GENE LUEN YANG: I was in computer programming. During my four years there, Asian Americans didn’t become the majority, but we became the largest group on campus. And I began to realize how that affected me and the way I interacted with others. You just stop thinking about certain things. You lose a certain sensitivity when you’re in a majority setting, right? You’re not as careful about the way you talk. And you make assumptions about what other people know. Like at the engineering building they had a soda machine that had grass jelly in it. I remember one of my African American classmates drinking a can and going, whoa, what is that trying to sneak into my mouth? Those were his exact words. You don’t think about how weird that is to somebody outside of that culture, right?
MUTHA: What’s your take on this: As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a real focus in young adult publishing community right now on responding to the criticism from the Own Voices Movement, essentially the idea that there needs to be more space for people of color and people of different sexualities to write their own stories. Resulting in pushback against, say, white writers writing as another character of color, but also characters of color writing other characters of color. This has caused writers to become cautious about writing across cultures.
GENE LUEN YANG: Here’s how I approach it. In my own writing life and in my work teaching writing, I believe that writing is an act of bravery. You have to get over so much fear just to put your story on the page. Facing that blank page is terrifying. When I sit down to write, I’ll want to do anything else. I’ll want to go wash dishes, I’ll want to go reorganize my label collection, anything, right? I am very reluctant, especially when I think about my students, of introducing more fear in their heads.
So, I would never tell a writer that they cannot write outside of their experience. I almost think that it’s the defining job of a writer to be able to go outside of their own experience.
But I would say: don’t let that fear that you feel allow you to stop writing the story you want to write. You should let that fear drive you to do homework. You should let that fear drive you to humility. Approaching experiences that aren’t your own with a certain humility.
Including people who are insiders into your support group, either as editors or as beta readers. There is a greater responsibility.
However, you’ll see like 80 percent of the stories told about minority demographics are told by outsiders. That is a problem. That is a problem.
MUTHA: Right, it’s a lazy approach to the idea of diverse books.
GENE LUEN YANG: Yes.
MUTHA: To just ask the existing [white] writers in your stable to color in their characters, essentially.
GENE LUEN YANG: Yes, that is a problem. But, and maybe it’s just because I’m a writer and I’m biased towards writers, I would not put that on the writer.
MUTHA: You put that on the industry?
GENE LUEN YANG: I would put that on the gatekeepers. I would put that on the publishers.
MUTHA: So, we’re both parents. How do you feel that your parenting has influenced your approach to the Reading Without Walls campaign?
GENE LUEN YANG: I want my kids to have both a majority experience and a minority experience. I want them to have it both in real life and in the stories that they’re developing. But I’ve got to be honest, it is a challenge. As the parent who is the national ambassador, who is supposed to be advocating for Reading Without Walls, I admit it is hard to get your kid to go outside of walls.
I’ll leave books by their beds, and hope. I know that if I tell them to read it, they’re not going to read it. But if I just leave it for them and they find it, they might.
MUTHA: You create the opportunity for discovery. How would you advise a parent, if you find you also need to talk to teachers who might be doing it “wrong?” What happens walking into a class, when you feel like there’s no diverse books in the library or the diverse books they have shelved are what we were just talking about, outsiders writing the only characters of color?
GENE LUEN YANG: The school that my kids go to have this awesome program where they say that on your birthday, you should give the school a present and it should be a book for their library.
MUTHA: Of course, you get a lot of books (that you can gift), because all the publishers are sending you review copies to try and get you to advocate for them…
GENE LUEN YANG: Yeah, which is helpful. But, asking helps. I hear from many librarians who tell me that they love getting book requests, you know? They want to stock diverse titles, and if they get even one of their patrons documented telling them that they want a title, it’ll be so much easier for them to actually purchase it.
MUTHA: Just speak up.
GENE YANG: Speak up. And, I also think lending books out is advocacy. If you, as a friend, have a book that you love, especially if it’s a diverse book, lend it out to a family. Just get the word out.
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