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YA graphic novels have boomed over the past decade, and Jillian Tamaki and Gene Luen Yang helped light the fuse. Yang released American Born Chinese in 2006, his ambitious metafictional account of growing up Asian-American in white-bread Anytown USA, while Tamaki illustrated Skim in 2008, a rhapsodically beautiful treatment of teen suicide and budding queer love.
In the years since those now-canonical classics, the pair have received an impressive number of laurels between them, including two Governor-General’s Awards for Tamaki and a MacArthur Genius Grant for Yang. Though they’ve frequently worked with collaborators – Jillian teams with cousin Mariko, who wrote Skim and their follow-up This One Summer, while Yang scripts high-concept superhero sagas for other artists to tackle – they’ve both released signature solo work during the pandemic. Tamaki’s captivating children’s book Our Little Kitchen landed in last year’s Globe 100 for its frothy portrayal of a community coming together over food, while Yang’s Dragon Hoops embeds the cartoonist, a former teacher, with his school’s elite basketball team over the course of an electrifying season.
Sean Rogers talked with them about how comics connect with readers young and old.
What is your relationship to young readers like?
Jillian Tamaki: Nonexistent, right now! [laughs]
I guess that’s a strange question to lead off with, in the pandemic!
JT: In the last few years, I’ve written for picture books, and that’s very clear that you’re making a book for children. The other books that I’ve done, though, have been classified as YA – it’s a marketing umbrella that’s put on my work after the fact. I don’t actually write to any audience or demographic. I write for myself. I think I would get too psyched out if I tried to guess what’s appropriate for kids of whatever age.
Gene Luen Yang: I think I’m very similar. When I started working on comics, like Jillian said, I didn’t really think about age demographics until I signed up with First Second books, which is an imprint of Macmillan, which is sort of more quote-unquote “traditional” books. That’s when I was designated a young-adult author. Now that I’ve gotten that designation, though, I do feel like it fits. I feel like the concerns that I gravitate toward are the concerns of young people. I have this friend, Marsha Qualey, who is a young-adult novelist, and she says at the heart of young-adult books is this equation: power plus belonging is equal to identity. I think that really describes a lot of the stories that I tell.
Read more in this series
- Why is YA so popular? We ask authors Leigh Bardugo, behind the new Netflix series Shadow and Bone, and Marie Lu
- Authors Deborah Ellis and Wab Kinew talk about writing tough true stories for young readers
- How Canadian kidlit stars Jon Klassen and Matt James come up with smart stories for young readers
- Finding comfort in fear: Authors Kelley Armstrong and Kenneth Oppel talk about writing scary stories in a scary time
Jillian, you talked about getting in trouble with some of your books. Both of you have some experience with that reception of your work. What kind of trouble do you get into, and why?
JT: This One Summer was the most challenged book in America a couple years back. I obviously disagree. I think that you’re entitled to read what you want, but you can’t remove material from libraries, period. Honestly, I do think that if a kid is not ready for a book, they will stop reading it. I think kids can intuit when they are not quite ready for something. I’ve actually heard that from parents.
GY: Compared to what Jillian and Mariko have gone through, I think I’m pretty much an amateur! [laughs] My book has been challenged in certain communities, but I don’t think I’ve ever made a top-10 list the way This One Summer has. If you look at the subject matter that gets tackled, it’s not that much different than a lot of other YA books. I think the difference comes in the graphic-novel medium. You could flip through This One Summer, and you could see something that might catch your attention. I think that’s the worst way of interacting with a book, just flipping through it and looking for things without context. I would argue that that same thing happens with my books. The book that gets most challenged for me is American Born Chinese, largely because I’m dealing directly with stereotypes. The images I use actually are offensive; I’m actually glad that people are mad about them! But at the same time, I’m hoping that they will read the whole book for the sake of the context.
JT: I think we’re still at the place, too, where comics are seen as for children, or all ages. And so it sort of jams [up against] an expectation as well. Maybe over time, that will change.
GY: I do think it is changing, but at least in America, I don’t think there are nearly enough graphic novels for adults yet.
Gene, in your role as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, you introduced a program called “Reading Without Walls” that encourages readers to diversify who and what they read about. How do comics diversify what people are exposed to?
GY: The obvious way is in publishing format, right? A book can express a story in multiple ways. It can express a story through prose, through narrative poetry or through graphic novels. I think traditionally, at least in America, graphic novels have kind of been sidelined. So I was trying to get folks to broaden what they think of as a book – that comic books and graphic novels are books. Beyond that, I did want folks to read books about people who didn’t look like them or people who didn’t live like them. I don’t know, like, look at the world right now! [laughs] Don’t you think we’ve got to read a little bit more about people who aren’t like us? It just seems like we’re in such a mess, because we can’t get out of our own heads. And I think reading is a great way of getting out of our own heads.
JT: Gene, maybe you can speak to the immense attractiveness of comics. It’s quite magical, actually, how appealing they are to young readers. There is just something about drawings and that format that is magnetic.
GY: I think “magnetic” is a great way of putting it. One of the first ways that a school brings comics into the building is in “reluctant-readers” settings. As a first step, I think that’s a great way to go, exactly because it’s so magnetic.
Both of you have used superheroes almost allegorically, with the superhero standing in for the immigrant experience in America, in Gene’s Superman Smashes the Klan, or mapping on to the experience of queerness, in Jillian’s Super Mutant Magic Academy. Do you find the superhero genre is magnetic in that same way?
GY: I think that’s it. In my personal interpretation, superheroes are really born out of the immigrant experience. Almost all the major superheroes were created by these children of Jewish immigrants who were living in America in the 1930s, this really fraught time, who spoke one language at home and another one at school. At the core of superheroes is, like, you’re living in between two worlds. You’re kind of afraid, and you find strength in hiding a part of who you are. That must have been what it was like for Siegel and Shuster [the creators of Superman], Bob Kane, Bill Finger [the creators of Batman] – all of them. That’s what draws me to superheroes; at least, that’s what I find magnetic, as a child of immigrants.
JT: In my case, I know nothing about superheroes. [laughs] I started that [book] as a web comic, and at the time Harry Potter was really huge, and X-Men. Even as somebody who does not read superheroes, I cannot deny that superheroes are pervasive within the culture – clearly, they’re extremely powerful. So it was incredibly cheeky to name my comic Super Mutant Magic Academy. In reality, it’s like Degrassi Junior High – that’s my reference point, and that’s the kind of thing I wanted to make. It’s taking tropes but then humanizing them as much as possible. Even with the ability to do your superhero things, you’re still super-worried about pimples. That was just funny to me; it’s not deep, at all. I appreciate your reading of it, but it’s not that smart!
Gene, you write licensed properties like Superman and Shang-chi [Marvel’s martial arts hero and soon-to-be blockbuster star], but a book like Dragon Hoops is very personal and journalistic. Jillian, you’ve recently been working on more “literary” comics short stories in addition to picture books. How difficult do you find it to change gears from one approach to another?
JT: Our Little Kitchen was a very explicit combination, bringing comic language into that [picture-book format]. They’re very different formats, but they’re also sort of different worlds within illustration and drawing and writing [and] book publishing. But I always want to feel that there’s a through-line between all my work. I want to make sure that there’s soul and connection and humanity and empathy and different bodies. Every piece of work that I do, whether it’s for adults or for children, is in dialogue with one another.
GY: For me, the big shift that I have to do is moving from stories where everything’s [created] out of me – like, the characters are out of me, and the settings are out of me – [to] these other stories that are set in other people’s universes, like DC or Marvel. One really big difference is when I get notes from my editor on the books that are just mine, they’re suggestions – but when I get notes from my editor at DC or Marvel, they’re not suggestions. [laughter] But ultimately, I think I end up gravitating toward the same kind of story. It’s kind of like what Jillian said. I don’t do it consciously, it just kind of happens. I feel like all my stories are about being in between worlds – trying to figure out what it means to exist in between worlds.
JT: When you start going out on the book tour and visiting the audience, you notice the big difference right away. When I show up to a book launch or comics festival, teenagers or adults – they chose to be there, they probably know who I am, maybe they’ve been following my work. It’s already a built-in relationship. When you just show up at a school, four-year-olds have no clue who you are. They don’t know why you’re there. They are not impressed by you. It’s really about if what is there [in the book] is interesting or funny. And if it’s boring, they will get up and walk away. It’s been a very humbling experience to read to actual children, because it really makes you think about, “What have I put down here on the page? Is this interesting?” It’s immediate, that feedback.
What’s it like, in the pandemic, putting something out there and not having any immediate, in-person response to your work? Gene, I know that you were supposed to launch Dragon Hoops last March.
GY: Yeah, I’m supposed to go on this fancy book tour for two weeks, and then the world shut down! [laughter] Three days before I was [supposed to be] getting on an airplane, we decided to cancel, and at the time, I remember feeling like, “Is this the right decision?” And then the NBA shut down their whole season. I feel like I’ve been really, really fortunate. I really admired the creativity of book people – a lot of the festivals that I was supposed to visit, they immediately pivoted to virtual. I was very grateful to be able to do that.
JT: I had two books come out last year, one of them in March, and it was just like a black hole opened and it all went inside. It was very, very weird. I find finishing books very anticlimactic. It’s like postpartum depression or something; you think it’s going to be euphoric, you think that this is the pinnacle. I actually find it a little bit deflating because [the book] is not alive any more. When you’re working on it, it can be changed, it’s still evolving and then, when it’s finished, it’s just static. What brings it to life for me again is to talk about it with readers, and [I] just didn’t get that for the two books that I had come out last year. That endpoint was missing, and it was very odd.
This interview has been condensed and edited.