You might be tempted to call Gene Luen Yang’s rise to prominent graphic novelist something of a fairytale. But superhero story would be more apt.
Until last year, the Bay Area native worked by day for 17 years as a mild-mannered computer science teacher and tech guy at Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School.
Meanwhile, his alter ego was secretly (okay, maybe not so secretly) publishing graphic novels. His breakout book, American Born Chinese, became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award and the first to win the American Library Association’s Printz Award in 2006. It was also his first, Yang says, to not lose money.
Yang, 42, a San Jose father of four, continued to teach while turning out other critically acclaimed and bestselling graphic novels including the two-volume Boxers & Saints, about China’s historic Boxer Rebellion, and The Shadow Hero, featuring a Chinese American superhero. More recently, he has written 10 issues of Superman for DC Comics, which recently announced that Yang will create a new Chinese Superman character. He also writes for the Avatar: The Last Airbender series.
While he finally gave up his teaching post, Yang now has a new role in which to inspire students. In January, he was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress, Every Child a Reader and the Children’s Book Council, taking over the two-year post from Newbery Award winner Kate DiCamillo.
“She’s actually a very tiny person, but those are some very big shoes to fill,” Yang says of DiCamillo, whom he met at his inauguration for the role.
To encourage young readers, Yang chose as his platform Reading Without Walls.
“I want to encourage kids to read outside their comfort zones,” he says.
His platform has three facets: “I want to challenge them to read books with characters who don’t look like them or live like them. I want to challenge them to read books on topics that they find intimidating, particularly books about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) topics. And I want them to read books in formats they may not find familiar.”
“I had science fiction nerd friends who would never touch a comic,” says Yang. “Nowadays, I meet kids who only read graphic novels. I want them to try books without pictures, just prose or verse.” (See sidebar for Yang’s picks in all three areas.)
Story of an Superhero
Yang got his start in comics in fifth-grade, when he and a friend would draw superhero stories and give them to his mom to photocopy. They sold them for 50 cents apiece. He went on to major in computer science at UC Berkeley, but continued to draw and self-publish his work.
“I worked as a programmer for two years before I became a teacher at O’Dowd. Every few months, my dad would send an envelope with want ads from Apple or Google, or articles comparing teacher salaries to programming salaries,” he says. It was only after the publication of American Born Chinese that his dad stopped.
Yang calls the explosion of his chosen genre, graphic novels, hard to believe.
“It’s kind of crazy. It was unimaginable when I started in comics in my early 20s, that the New York Times would review graphic novels or have a graphic novel bestseller list,” he says. “In a lot of ways, I’m jealous of kids now. There are so many kinds of graphic novels available to them – memoir, science fiction, anything you want.”
Yang has drawn from his own background, including growing up Asian in a predominantly white South Bay neighborhood, in some of his best-known works. His most recent book, Secret Coders, incorporates his longtime love of computer programming.
“I started coding when I was in fifth-grade. My mom made me take a summer class,” he says. “From very early on, I connected coding with art. … When I taught at O’Dowd, I taught in a very visual way.”
The book, the first in series for middle readers Yang is writing with illustrator Mike Holmes, tells the story of a group of kids who find a secret computer coding school – and teaches readers some basic coding along the way.
“It’s kind of like Harry Potter, but instead of teaching magic, it teachers coding,” Yang says. “It fixes the problem that Harry Potter has. At the end of the books, you don’t get to be a wizard. With our book, you get to be a coder.”
And for kids who might have their sights set instead on becoming the next Gene Yang, Raina Telgemeier or other celebrated graphic novelist, Yang advises: “I always tell people interested in creating stories for a living that you have to set aside time to read and write. If you want to be a graphic novelist, you also have to set aside time to draw.”
“Making comics, in particular, is so time-consuming,” he adds. “I tell people if you want to do comics, you have to give up half your friends and all of your television.”
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Some of Gene Luen Yang’s Books:
American Born Chinese, First Second Books, 2006.
Boxers & Saints, First Second Books, 2013.
Secret Coders, First Second Books, 2015.
The Shadow Hero, First Second Books, 2014.
For more, visit
Summer Reading List
As part of his Reading Without Walls platform, Gene Luen Yang recommends the following books to push young readers out of their comfort zones.
: Stupendous Stem Books
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by April Chu, Creston Book, 2015.
Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone, Candlewick, 2009.
Alvin’s Secret Code by Clifford B. Hicks, illustrated by Bill Sokol, Purple House Press, 2015.
Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman, Henry Holt and Company, 2009.
Howtoons: Make Anything by Saul Griffith, Ingrid Dagotta and Nick Dagotta, Image Comics, 2014.
Laika by Nick Abadzis, First Second Books, 2014.
Last of the Sandwalkers by Jay Hosler, First Second Books, 2015.
Meanwhile: Pick Any Path. 3,856 Story Possibilities by Jason Shiga, Harry N. Abrams, 2010.
The Boy Who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos by Deborah Heiligman, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, Roaring Brook Press, 2013.
The Day Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tony Persiani, Charlesbridge, 2009.
 Distinguished Diverse Books
Better Nate Than Never by Tim Federle, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013.
El Deafo by Cece Bell, Amulet Books, 2014.
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Scholastic, 2012.
Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson, Speak, 2009.
Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers, G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2014.
Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña, Delacorte Press, 2008.
Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona, Marvel, 2014.
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, Roaring Brook Press, 2014.
The Arrival by Shuan Tan, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, Hachette Book Group, 2009.
Great Graphic Novels
Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka, Dark Horse Manga, 2002.
Blankets by Craig Thompson, Drawn & Quarterly, 2015.
Flora & Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated y K.G. Campbell, Candlewick, 2013.
Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword by Barry Deutsch, Amulet Books, 2010.
Lumberjanes: Beware the Kitten Holy, by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis, illustrated by Brooke Allen,
Smile by Raina Telgemeier, Graphix, 2014.
Stinky by Eleanor Davis, Toon Books, 2008.
The Shark King by R. Kikuo Johnson, Toon Books, 2013.
This One Summer, by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, First Second Books, 2014.
Tuesday by David Wiesner, Clarion Books, 2011.


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