Read Across America Day gives me an opportunity to write about my encounter with Gene Luen Yang, an award-winning graphic novelist and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Yang recently won a $625,000 MacArthur Fellowship.
I encountered Yang in the pages of the New York Times Book Review, which included an autobiographical cartoon strip that told how Yang, an American-born Chinese who went to school with mostly white kids, did not like an Asian Indian boy in his class. The feeling, unfortunately, was mutual.
Called Glare of Disdain, the poignant story even includes Yang’s clumsy attempt at insulting his classmate, calling him the N-word, which of course was “racially inaccurate,” as he says.
Windows and Mirrors
Yang quotes Rudine Sims Bishop, a professor of education and author of an acclaimed essay on multicultural literacy, Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors. Sims Bishop writes that “Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”
She also writes that books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds different from our own.
In his strip, Yang laments that he and his Indian classmate had no books that allowed them to “see” into each other’s worlds. However, they were surrounded by books that opened doors into the world of their white classmates. Yang wonders what could have been—perhaps friendship?—if there had been some books that would have been windows or sliding glass doors into the life of his Indian peer.
We Are All Different
Sims Bishop writes, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are valued” in their society.
And such books are for all children, she says. Books about Puerto Ricans are not just for Puerto Rican kids, nor are books about the Chinese-American experience just for kids of Chinese descent.
In fact, in his work as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Yang promotes reading outside one’s comfort zone. He calls it Reading Without Walls.
“I want to encourage kids to read books about people who don’t look or live like them, to get to know people and worlds different from theirs. By reading other people’s stories, we can develop insight and compassion,” Yang says in an interview on the National Education Association Today website.
“I also want to encourage them to read about topics they might find intimidating, like books about STEM. Often, people think of stories and science as completely separate, but they’re not. Stories are a great way to learn science.”
Visit the NEA site to learn more about Read Across America Day.