This speech was delivered by Gene Luen Yang, the fifth National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, during the inauguration ceremony held on January 7, 2016 at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
I’d like to start my talk by telling you something about myself that you probably don’t know: I am a nerd.
I like the things that nerds typically like, things like computer and superhero comics.
But today, I’m not just a nerd, I’m also an ambassador.
When my editor Mark Siegel called me up in October to tell me that I would be appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, I freaked out. I was really excited, but I also wondered, what exactly is an ambassador?
I knew ambassadors wore fancy suits and fancy medals, but what exactly do they do?
I had a few e-mail exchanges with my predecessor Kate DiCamillo and she was incredibly helpful. I also turned to that source of answers that all nerds turn to in times of need: comic books.
Comic books don’t have the answers to all of life’s questions, but they certainly have most of them. And the comic book answer to the question, “What is an ambassador?” is a lady that we all know and love:
Wonder Woman is one of my favorite superheroes because she and I have a lot in common. We both have black hair. We are both stronger than we look. (Granted, that’s much harder for her to pull off because she actually looks strong.) And we both look great in red boots.
Today, we have even more in common because Wonder Woman is an ambassador.
Wonder Woman comes from an island called Paradise Island, which has only women citizens, no men. (Maybe that’s why it’s called Paradise Island.) The women call themselves Amazons.
One day, a man, a fighter pilot by the name of Steve Trevor, crash-lands on Paradise Island. At first, the Amazons have no idea what to do with Steve.
In the end, they decide they want to promote understanding of their culture in Steve’s word – our world -- so they send Wonder Woman out as their ambassador. Her job is to help the rest of us understand the Amazons.
As an author, I’m from the world of books. My job is similar to Wonder Woman’s. I’m supposed to help people understand the world of books.
But here’s the thing. Books themselves are ambassadors. Let me explain to you what I mean.
As we get older, we figure out who we are. We figure out the pieces of our identities.
For example, I am a Chinese American. I love computers and superhero comics. I love drawing. (My mom tells me that I started drawing when I was two.) And I love books.
Eventually, we put a wall around who we are. We know what is a part of us and what is not.
I am not a sports guy. I was terrible at all sports, but I especially didn’t like basketball. For some reason whenever I played, the ball would always hit me in the head. It was like my head was a magnet for basketballs.
So I made sure I always kept basketball outside of my walls and away from my head.
We keep these walls with us as we get older. Even teachers have these walls. For seventeen years, I taught at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California.
In the faculty lunch room, the P.E. teachers sat at one table, the Drama teachers another, and the nerdy teachers another. I, of course, sat with the nerdy teachers.
Some teachers would move from one table to the other, but most of us stayed where we were most comfortable. We stayed within our walls.
Every now and then, however, something happens to push us outside our walls. And for me, books played a key role.
One of the things that is most important to me is my Chinese American heritage. I love learning about Chinese American history. One day, I came across a book called Outside the Paint by Kathleen Yep. Ms. Yep has many older relatives who grew up in San Francisco Chinatown in the 30’s and 40’s. They were from poor immigrant families who couldn’t afford much, but they could afford basketball. All these kids, both boys and girls, loved playing basketball. In fact, for several years, San Francisco’s city youth leagues were dominated by these Chinatown teams.
Outside the Paint was a great book. I learned about a corner of Chinese American history I’d previously known nothing about. But it was also about something outside my walls: basketball.
I enjoyed the book so much that I wanted more. I found more books about basketball. Here are just a few: Slam Dunk by Takehiko Inoue is one of the most popular manga series in the world, about a group of Japanese high school students obsessed with basketball. Ball Don’t Lie is by superstar young adult author Matt De La Pena. Matt is a friend. (Yes, that’s a name drop.) He isn’t just a great writer, he’s also a great ball player. He draws on his experiences as both a Mexican American and a basketball player to tell this story. Kwame Alexander’s Crossover is a novel in verse, which means it tells its story through poems. It recently won the Newbery, one of the biggest awards for children’s books in America, and for good reason. The author is able to capture the rhythm of the game with the rhythm of his words.
After reading these books, I wanted to talk with someone about basketball, so I started talking with another teacher at O’Dowd, a guy named Lou Richie.
Lou is a P.E. teacher and the varsity men’s basketball coach. He’s a good guy, but to be honest, he’s not the type of guy I’d normally be friends with.
After all, he’s an athlete and I’m a nerd. He and I sat at different tables in the faculty lunch room. But as we talked, we became friends. Lou invited me to his teams’ games. I even got to travel with them. The team played in a big tournament in Missouri and I tagged along.
I slowly learned to watch basketball. I’m still no expert. I don’t know all the rules. But I do know enough to understand why people love basketball, why it’s important.
I also discovered that Lou and I have more in common that I’d originally thought. Like me, Lou loves books. He especially loves reading books about history. Lou also loves numbers. When he was a kid, he memorized so many baseball statistics that the other kids in his neighborhood called him “The Professor.”
So Lou isn’t just an athlete, he’s also a nerd. He’s a nerdlete.
I followed Lou’s team for a season. I sat in on their team meetings. I interviewed Lou, the other coaches, and the players. And during that season, I discovered an amazing, compelling story – the team’s story.
The story is so compelling that I want to tell it in a book, so my next graphic novel will be about their team. It will be about basketball.
So you see? Books were ambassadors to me into a world I didn’t understand.
Reading books about basketball led to a friendship with Lou, which led to me following his team for a season, which led to me writing a book about basketball.
Books can be ambassadors for you, too. Books can help you understand people from other cultures, religions, and ways of living. Books can help you understand topics that you find intimating.
Books can even be ambassadors for other kinds of books. Maybe you’re someone who has never read a graphic novel before. You only read novels with only words.
Or maybe you’re the opposite. You only read graphic novels. There are many great hybrid books out there, books that use both graphics and text to tell their stories. In fact, Ambassador Kate recently put out a book called Flora and Ulysses which is hybrid.
Let me end by encouraging you to read without walls. Find a book with someone on the cover who doesn’t look like you or live like you. Find a book about a topic that you don’t know much about. Find a book that’s in a format you’ve never tried before: a graphic novel, a words-only novel, or a novel in verse.
Read without walls and see what happens.
I bet it’ll be something amazing.