Gene Luen Yang, DRAGON HOOPS

Gene Luen Yang, DRAGON HOOPS

Zibby Owens: I’m so excited to be Skyping with Gene Luen Yang today on the day after his pub day which is really exciting. He’s the author, illustrator, cartoonist of American Born Chinese which was the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the National Book Award and the American Library Association’s Printz Award, which he won. He also won an Eisner Award for best graphic album, new, and many other awards. His two-volume graphic novel, Boxers & Saints, was nominated for a National Book Award also and won the LA Times Book Prize. He’s written and illustrated many other graphic novels like Secret Coders and the Avatar series. His latest graphic novel which just came out is Dragon Hoops. He also received the MacArthur Fellowship. A graduate of UC Berkeley with master’s degree from California State University, East Bay, Gene is a teacher currently through Hamline University’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. He currently lives in California with his four children and his wife.

Welcome, Gene. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Gene Luen Yang: Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what your latest book, Dragon Hoops, is about?

Gene: Dragon Hoops just came out this week. I’ve been working on this book since 2014. It took me about five years to finish it. It’s my first nonfiction graphic novel. Up until this point, all the stories that I’ve told, I’ve made up. I followed a high school basketball team. I used to be a high school teacher. I followed the varsity men’s team of that school for a season, and the book is about that.

Owen: I thought it was really good.

Zibby: I’m here with my son. My son is here.

Gene: Thank you. Are you a basketball fan?

Owen: Kind of. Not really. I like to watch it more than play. I’m not that good at basketball.

Zibby: But he’s a you fan because he’s read your books.

Gene: Awesome.

Zibby: So it took you five years. What inspired you to write it?

Gene: You know, I was in this weird spot. I’m kind of in the same spot right now where I just finished a big project. Before that, I did a book called Boxers & Saints.

Owen: They’re really good.

Gene: Which is about the Boxer Rebellion. That took me, I don’t know, five, six years to finish. I was kind of fishing for another idea. I was reading books to see if I can get some ideas. Then people on the campus where I was teaching started talking about basketball because supposedly the varsity men’s team of that year was really good. I’m not a basketball fan. I don’t even like watching it, not like you Owen. I don’t even like watching it. I don’t like anything about it because I was really terrible at it. When I was a kid, it wasn’t even like I didn’t have talent at basketball; I had anti-talent. When I walked on the court, anything that could go wrong, it would actually go wrong. I would jam my fingers. A ball would hit me in the head. I’d shoot in the wrong basket. It was terrible. I never liked anything about it. Then the more I found out about this team, the more I realized there was a story there. I love stories. It was really scary because I didn’t know anything about basketball. I decided to chase after that story.

Zibby: It sounds like in the story, and I have to say Owen read this book on my behalf since he’s such a big fan, that the members of the team really ended up bonding together despite their years losing to ultimately triumph through teamwork and all the rest. Tell me about some of the messages behind that. What made it such a great story for you?

Gene: Have you guys ever been on a team of any kind? Do you play anything else?

Owen: I play hockey and football for the most part.

Gene: So you’ve been on teams. I don’t know if I’ve ever been on — I ran cross country when I was in high school when I did track. I was not good at , but those are more like individual sports. I’d never been on a team. I’m sure you’ve felt this. It seems like when you have a group of people and they’re all chasing after the same goal, that it kind of automatically bonds them even if they’re from really different places, even if they’re from really different backgrounds. It really bonds them. I saw that. I saw that with this particular team. Some of those players had played on varsity for a couple years already, so they were really good friends. Then there were other players. There’s a kid named Alex Zhou who was an exchange student from China. He came here specifically because he was good at basketball. He wanted to experience what American basketball was like. This was his first year on varsity. I watched as the season went on. He slowly bonded with the other guys on the team. I think it’s kind of neat to see that you can find common ground with people who might, at least on the surface, seem very different from you as long as you’re all pursuing the same goal.

Zibby: What about the role of the coach? How did he just not give up despite all the setbacks?

Gene: Dude, that coach, we’re pretty good friends now. We’ve been texting in the last two weeks a lot because of the book launch and because of what’s going on in the world. His name is Lou Richie. He and I had actually been on the same campus for over a decade, but we were not really friends before this season. I would say hi to him in the halls and stuff, but we’d never really had a sustained conversation. Then I went into his office under the gym and we had this long conversation about his life. He’s just lived a really crazy life. I think the amount of stuff about him that I put into the book is maybe just ten percent of what he told me. He told me all these really crazy stories. They were so crazy that I didn’t really believe them until he gave me proof. For instance, chapter one is all about him. He’s an alum of that same school, Bishop O’Dowd High School. He graduated in the late eighties. He actually went to the California State Championship when he was a junior. That was played at the, it used to be called the Oakland Arena. Now it’s the Oracle Arena. Up until recently, it’s where the Golden State Warriors played. It’s a big deal. He was a seventeen-year-old kid in this giant stadium playing in front of thousands of fans. He’s on the court with seven seconds left. He gets the ball in his hand. He puts it up at the buzzer. It goes through the hoop. His team wins. They’re freaking out. Then that shot gets invalidated because supposedly the center of his team had a hand on the hoop. When he told me this, I was like, that sounds like something out of a movie. Is that real? Then he gave me the tape, and it was totally real. A big part of that book is built on him, on his stories, on the fact that he lived such an interesting life.

Zibby: Is he now super excited to have this book out?

Gene: Yeah, he is. He was until all this crazy stuff happened. He’s still excited. He’s still super supportive. That’s part of why we’ve been talking a lot. We’ve been talking a lot just to check up on each other but also just to talk about how crazy things are. Maybe the reason why things are so crazy now is because his life was kind of crazy. This is part of his life now. We’re launching a book about Lou Richie’s life. It’s so fitting for it to be so nutty right now.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. How did you get into writing graphic novels? I know you started from a really young age. How did you know that this was your calling?

Gene: I always liked drawing. I started drawing when I was two years old. I think most kids do, but some of us just don’t stop. We just keep going. I kept going. Then I knew from a pretty early age that I wanted to tell stories through drawing. At first, I thought I was going to do that by becoming a Disney animator. That was actually my big goal. Then in fifth grade, my mom bought me my first comic book. It was a Superman comic. That kind of set me off. I realized I could actually — I don’t have to wait to get hired by some animation studio to start telling stories by drawing. I could just do it immediately. That’s one of my favorite things about comics. Anybody can make a comic. That’s what I started doing in fifth grade. Eventually, it became a career.

Zibby: When did you realize that you could actually sell it, that it wasn’t just a fun pastime for you, but that it could actually be a job for you?

Gene: Fifth grade.

Zibby: Fifth grade?

Gene: I had a friend named Jeremy Kudiyoshi . We made comics together. Then his mom was super excited about it. My parents weren’t as excited. My parents wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. His mom was super excited. She would take the pages that we drew, and she would take them to work and then photocopy them for us. Then we’d take these photocopies and we’d staple them by hand. We sold them to our friends for fifty cents apiece. We made like eight dollars. That’s not a lot now, but in the eighties it was a big deal. You make eight dollars as a fifth grader, it was amazing.

Zibby: I was coloring in my own bookmarks and trying to sell them door to door for twenty-five cents.

Gene: That’s awesome. How did that go? How much did you sell them for?

Zibby: I was selling each bookmark for twenty-five cents. It was out here on Long Island. I was going around to everybody’s house. This one house, I’ll never forget it. It tried to dampen my entrepreneurial spirit. I went to the door. I said I was selling bookmarks. They said, “What’s it for?” I was saving up to buy a record, just to date myself even further. Anyway, I was like, “I’m saving up to buy a record.” They said, “Just go home and have your parents buy you a record.” They didn’t buy it.

Gene: That’s so lame.

Zibby: Is that the worst?

Gene: That’s terrible.

Zibby: The worst part is that they lived right across the street from us for like the next twenty years. I was like, how can you do that?

Gene: That’s terrible.

Zibby: I know. So now I have a rule that anytime a child tries to sell me anything, I always pull over on the side of the road and buy lemonade and all of that.

Gene: That’s great. It was people across the street from you. It’s like villains from a children’s book. That’s what they sound like.

Zibby: Totally. You can write a comic about that.

Owen: Mom, do I count as a child?

Zibby: Do you count as a child?

Owen: Can I sell you stuff?

Zibby: Can you sell me stuff? Maybe. I don’t know.

Gene: That’s great.

Owen: my living.

Zibby: You can’t sell me stuff that I bought you. Anyway, it just goes to show that what you do when you’re young, it really has such staying power. You got such positive reinforcement from your work that now look at you. It’s amazing. You’re the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature appointed by the Library of Congress. That sounds very important.

Gene: I was. I was the fifth one. Jason Reynolds is the current one. He’s the seventh. Then Jackie Woodson was in between us. That was the fanciest job title I’ve ever had, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. It was super fun. It basically just said I would fly around the country, back when we used to be able to fly. I’d fly around the country and I’d give these presentations to different communities about reading, about how we can really get to know the world through reading.

Zibby: You had a whole TED talk about why you believe graphic novels belong in the classroom. What’s your two-minute takeaway from that?

Gene: In some corners of the country right now, people are super excited that graphic novels are starting to come into classrooms. In other corners, people are kind of freaked out. I think the reason why they’re freaked out is because they’re worried that graphic novels are going to replace prose novels; they’re going to replace novels with no pictures in them.

Owen: What’s wrong with that?

Gene: I have to tell you just from a comic book guy’s perspective, I don’t think that’s the case. Pretty much all the comic book creators that I know are also fans of prose novels. What we really want is we want comics to take their proper place alongside the other forms of storytelling in America. There are some stories that are best told through prose, through just words. There are some stories that are best told through comics. I think the current popularity of graphic novels is that. Smile for instance, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, you would not be able to tell that story as effectively through prose, in my opinion.

Zibby: Good to know.

Gene: Do you read a lot of graphic novels?

Owen: Yes. That’s like the only kind of books I read.

Gene: Awesome. You should try other kinds of books too. Do you have any current favorites right now?

Owen: Actually, the Boxers & Saints have been my favorites for a while. I really love those.

Gene: Thank you. That’s awesome. That’s great.

Zibby: I did not pay him to say that.

Gene: Have you tried Nathan Hill’s stuff? If you like history, Nathan Hill’s stuff is great.

Owen: I haven’t tried that, but I’ll try it.

Gene: You should check it out.

Zibby: It’s funny. I interviewed Mark Siegel, which is how I got to you, from First Second. I talked to him at length about the graphic novel form because my son at that time was really only reading graphic novels. I was always encouraging him to read other types feeling like it was in some way cheating. He convinced me. Now of course, I’ve come to the other side and realize that, no, graphic novels are this amazing way of consuming literature. It’s such a gift. I feel like I was one of those early — it took me a minute to understand. Especially if you don’t read it yourself at first, then you don’t understand the magic of it. Now it’s ubiquitous.

Gene: I think that’s all true. In the same way when you’re supposed to eat lots of different kinds of food, I think that’s true for reading too. I think we should all read lots of different kinds of books. For instance, if you like Dragon Hoops, Kwame Alexander’s Crossover won the Newbery Award.

Owen: I love those.

Gene: It’s a big deal. It’s awesome, right? It’s a great book. Actually, there are lots of great sports stories. In comics, there’s one called Slam Dunk. Have you tried that?

Owen: Slam Dunk?

Gene: It’s a series. It’s a Japanese comic. He does action super well. He does on-court action super well. I had read that book over and over again to figure out how to do Dragon Hoops.

Owen: I’ll try it out.

Gene: Yeah, you should check it out. Then Matt de la Peña has a book called Ball Don’t Lie. I think it’s told in first person. It’s been a while since I read it. It’s a prose novel about basketball.

Zibby: Are you sure you should be recommending all your comps here?

Gene: I think reading diversely is awesome. It’s a great way of developing the brain, diversity in every sense of the word, in terms of format, in terms of subject matter, in terms of the kind of characters that are being represented.

Zibby: You’re also now, I believe, turning some of these into TV shows. Is that right?

Gene: Well, we’re working slowly. We’ll see. I am definitely a comic book guy. The comic, the graphic novel, that is what I am truly passionate about. I kind of think any possible adaptation that may or may not happen, that would just be icing on the cake. But we are. I have a media agent. We’re talking to some folks. We’ll see if anything comes of it.

Zibby: Can you tell us a little more about the process of writing a book and illustrating and the graphics? How do you even approach it? Do you have the story structure in mind and then — take us through a sample book of yours and where and when you do everything, if you have a sketching office, and just the whole process thing.

Gene: I usually start with the idea. Once I can see a beginning, middle, and end in my head, then I’ll write a synopsis of the story, an outline. This will be a real short summary of everything that’ll happen in the book. Then from that, if I’m writing for a big company like DC Comics or Nickelodeon, I’ll do a script. It kind of looks like a movie script. If I’m just doing it for me or for one of my friends to illustrate, I’ll usually do thumbnail sketches which are these small sketches of what every page looks like. From there, I’ll do the final art. Lately, Dragon Hoops is the first book that I did all on computer. I have a Wacom tablet, which is a screen that you can draw on. I draw on that. Before that, I used to draw using just the pencil and a Japanese brush pen.

Owen: I remember once in another country, I got a really bad suntan. I had to stay indoors all the time. It was terrible because it was on a beach. I just remember every day I’d read American Born Chinese. It was so good.

Gene: Oh, sorry for your suntan, but thank you for reading my book.

Zibby: I didn’t know where that was going. I didn’t know what he was saying there.

Gene: How long did it take you to heal?

Owen: About a week. By then, the vacation was over, but it was fun.

Gene: I sunburn super easy too. Maybe I should do a comic about that.

Zibby: What projects are you working on now?

Gene: I do have another book coming out in May. This is not the best time to debut books. I have this book right here coming out from DC Comics. It’s called Superman Smashes the Klan. The art is not by me. The art is by these Japanese artists. They call themselves Gurihiru. They’re freaking amazing. Let me show you. See, that’s their rendition of Superman.

Owen: Oh, wow.

Gene: This is actually a retelling of a story from the old 1940s Superman radio show where Superman actually takes on the Ku Klux Klan. That story’s considered one of the most important in Superman’s history, but it’s never been told in comics form. Gurihiru and I are putting it in comics for the first time.

Zibby: Wow, very cool.

Gene: It’s been super fun.

Zibby: Do you have any questions?

Owen: Nope, I have no questions.

Zibby: No more questions?

Owen: Nope.

Zibby: Do you have any advice to aspiring authors, or particularly authors who are trying to be graphic novelists like you?

Gene: Just don’t wait. Start now. You start making comics as soon as you can. Like I said, comics are one of these things where you don’t really need permission to make them. You can just make them. All you really need to distribute them is a Xerox machine. You can even do it on the web now, which was not available to me when I was fifth grade. You can scan it in, put it on a website. Start making comics now. That’s my biggest advice.

Zibby: That will definitely give us something to do during this home confinement situation in the country, so thank you for that.

Gene: Now’s a great time to make comics, for sure.

Zibby: Exactly. Gene, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate it.

Gene: Thanks to you both.

Owen: Thank you.

Zibby: Awesome. Have a great day.

Gene: Thank you for taking the time.

Zibby: Thanks, Gene. Buh-bye.

Gene: Buh-bye.

Owen: Bye.

Gene Luen Yang, DRAGON HOOPS