Gene Luen Yang Challenges Kids to Read Without Walls

Books Entertainment Evergreen Geek Culture

Gene Luen Yang is something of a superstar in the graphic novel community. His book American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award (an honor shared by another of his books, the two-volume Boxers & Saints). He’s won an Eisner. He’s the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He was recently awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. Impressive and groundbreaking don’t even begin to cover it.

And he’s certainly not resting on his laurels. Despite the hectic travel and speaking schedule associated with his ambassadorship, he’s still putting out new (and fantastic!) books. The third volume in his Secret Coders series with Mike Holmes and First Second Books came out last month (and the fourth is scheduled for this fall).

Yang has made his Reading Without Walls initiative the hallmark of his two-year stint as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. What is the initiative? It’s a three-pronged reading challenge meant to encourage kids to break out of their comfort zones and read something they might not normally try.

  1. Read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.
  2. Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about.
  3. Read a book in a format that you don’t normally read for fun (a chapter book, a graphic novel, a book in verse, or an audiobooks).

Even though he’s targeting young readers with this challenge, I think it’s safe to say this is perfectly appropriate for readers of all ages. Some might even say it’s necessary.

I recently had the opportunity to see Yang in conversation with Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, about his Reading Without Walls challenge. (We spoke afterward for this week’s episode of the Great Big Beautiful Podcast.) Yang spoke about how, as a child, he was a slow reader and wasn’t really an avid reader. He simply didn’t see himself in most of his books he read or the TV shows or movies he watched.

It wasn’t until the 5th grade – when he discovered superhero comics – that he fell in love with reading. As the son of immigrants, it was in those comics that he was finally able to see some fragment of his own life and experiences. Most superheroes were created by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

On a surface level, superheroes’ dual identities obviously protected them against a vast array of supervillains. But their two identifies also speak to the immigrant experience in America, and it was precisely how Yang felt at the time. He also felt like he had two identities: a “Chinese identity” at home with his family and an “American identity” at school and in the world. It was this dichotomy that he didn’t see reflected in most other stories.

And that’s where Reading Without Walls comes in. If you think about it, kids’ primary job is to explore the world and figure out how it works. Therefore, it’s important for them to read outside of their comfort zone or lived experiences. If we want our kids to become engaged and empathetic members of society, it’s critical for them to broaden their horizons and open their eyes to how other people live. None of us lives in a silo.

When my daughter was 5, she was drawn to my copy of American Born Chinese because it incorporates the popular Chinese legend of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. It was something familiar. Growing up half-Chinese in a dual-language household has influenced much of the way my daughter sees the world. Chinese books sit alongside English books in her bookcase, she sings songs and watches TV in both languages with ease, and she is very aware of many aspects of Chinese and Chinese-American culture.

It’s for this reason that she also gloms on to stories that straddle two different cultures or that feature characters of mixed heritage. She sees herself and her experiences in them. She is the product of two cultures – two very different cultures. I’m sure she’ll eventually face some sort of self-identity dilemma, but thankfully there are authors like Gene Yang and popular movements such as Reading Without Walls and #WeNeedDiverseBooks to help smooth over any obstacles she (and others) might face.

Take the challenge. Read without walls. Stretch your comfort zone. Pick up a book about someone who doesn’t look like you, has different beliefs, or comes from someplace totally unfamiliar.

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