Yesterday the Library of Congress named graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang as its fifth National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. Here's why that matters.
Yang joins the handful of notable, and notably prolific, authors of books for children and young adults who have served two-year terms since the Ambassadorship was created in 2008: Jon Scieszka (The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, the Time-Warp Trio series); Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob Have I Loved, The Day of the Pelican); the late Walter Dean Myers (Scorpions, Fallen Angels, Monster) and Kate DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie; Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures; Louise, The Adventures of a Chicken).
At 42, he's the youngest person to have yet received the honor. He's also the first Asian-American to do so. (Paterson was born, and spent much of her childhood, in China. Thus the National Ambassadorship title has now been held by both a Chinese-born American and by Yang, who wrote an autobiographical graphic novel called American Born Chinese. Break into response groups and discuss; we'll meet back here in 15.)
But Yang is, as noted, the first author of comics and graphic novels to have been so honored. On the surface, it may not seem like a big deal. After all, every one of the previous Ambassadors has written children's picture books, in which stories emerge from the interplay of text and image. Which, if you think about it, works as a perfectly serviceable definition of comics. So: what's new here?
Yang's selection signals an important shift in a decades-old war over the role of comics in education in general and literacy in particular.
Every since the 1930s, when they first burst onto the American literary landscape in all their gleefully garish four-color glory, the battle lines over comics were clearly defined.
Kids loved 'em; teachers and parents hated 'em. (See also: television, rock and roll, rap, video games, emojis.)
Comics: The Case(s) Against
The precise reasons educators cited were many, and they tended to shift to catch the cultural trade-winds. The most famous anti-comics scold of all time was Dr. Fredric Wertham. whose crusade in the '40s and '50s drove many comics publishers out of business and inspired the industry to create the self-regulating Comics Code Authority. Wertham focused on their putative moral turpitude (the violence, the racism, the sex). (About all of which he was not entirely wrong – but that is a topic for another day.) And in Joseph McCarthy's America, he tested the air and appeared before Congress to dutifully invoke the twin red and lavender specters of Communism and Homosexuality, respectively.
But Wertham also believed that the way sentences were rendered in comics – broken up to fit inside word-balloons – severely hurt literacy, as did the practice of rendering all text in capital letters for legibility's sake.
For many years, Wertham's campaign left a lasting mark on American educators. Then as now, many considered them disposable, meritless junk – but Wertham's accusation that they harmed literacy soon festered into a widespread concern that underneath their blithely gaudy narrative excess lurked a more pervasive danger. It was thought that comics were the sugary candy that could somehow sate a hungry young reader's mind, such that they would ultimately shun the more nutritious fare of "real" books, and find their literary development arrested. Teachers' groups warned of comics' potential to distract kids from seeking out chapter books and novels that offered more nuanced conflicts, more esoteric pleasures.
Chasing a New, Nerdier Audience
Yet at precisely the same cultural moment, comics readership was shrinking in size and increasing in age. By the 1970s, the comics industry was happily catering to these older, nerdier readers (a process that accelerated in the '80s, and got pumped full of steroids in the '90s). Call it the industry's Great Inward Turn: a sustained effort to make comics that appealed not to kids, but to nerds – to the most obsessive, insular needs of obsessive, insular teenage and adult readers. Now comics offered acerbically grim and gritty takes on the very genre conventions that readers had grown up with – a move that was eagerly embraced as a source of pride, and that soon became the default storytelling mode. The simultaneous rise and unprecedented success of "alt-comics" like Maus, Jimmy Corrigan and Ghost World created an environment where variations on the headline "POW! ZAP! COMICS AREN'T JUST FOR KIDS ANYMORE!" sprouted repeatedly in newspaper Arts sections like an aggressively invasive and indefatigable crabgrass.
But those headlines overlooked something important: the Great Inward Turn had done its work. The truth was, apart from a few tenacious holdouts like Archie, Casper and Uncle Scrooge, comics simply weren't for kids anymore.
Happily, this state of affairs didn't last.
Today, publishers of independent comics and children's book publishers are pumping out a huge and varied number of comics, manga and graphic novels for young readers. Marvel and DC continue to cater to the adult nerd, and have yet to embrace the notion of "all-ages" comics as fully as their smaller competitors, but they do manage to keep their toes in this increasingly warm and inviting water.
Where did it come from, this kids' comics boom? Some of it emerged from children's book publishing (the Scholastic imprint Graphix publishes Jeff Smith, Raina Telgemeier and many other graphic novelists), some from the alt-comics scene (James Kochalka creates both gleefully filthy comics for adults and quirky all-ages comics like American Elf), some from indie comics (Image Comics' G-Man, by Chris Giarrusso, is a personal favorite), and many from the growth of webcomics (Faith Erin Hicks' The Adventures of Superhero Girl, Adrian Ramos' Count Your Sheep, among hundreds of others.)
The rise of heavily-illustrated YA books like Jeff Kinney's Wimpy Kid series and Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books likely prepared the way for full-on kids comics and graphic novels. And certainly if it hadn't been for the Great Inward Turn – an entire industry effectively abandoning the huge children's audience – there'd have been no vacuum that needed filling.
Today the sheer amount of comics for kids is hard to keep up with. Books like A Parent's Guide to the Best Kids' Comics and blogs like the sensibly named Good Comics for Kids offer practical, clear-eyed guidance.
And in fact, the surge in kids' comics that's occurred over the past decade has had as much to do with the creators producing it as it has with the educators now eagerly advocating for it. It took a new generation of teachers – and, especially, school librarians – to dispel the ghost of Wertham and recognize comics' tremendous potential to engage young readers with a host of different kinds of stories and actually boost literacy. (Not for nothing, the aforementioned Good Comics for Kids is a blog on the School Library Journal website.)
Organizations like Reading With Pictures go even further. Their mission, which would make the good Doctor Wertham drop his spectacles, is to help schools integrate comics into their curriculum.
Which brings us back to Yang's selection as National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. The Ambassadorship is tasked with advocating for reading in the nation's schools; he'll be talking to kids, parents and teachers across the US. In this role he won't be shilling for comics exclusively, of course – but his selection means they'll be there in the mix on a national level in a way they've never been before.
It's a turn of events that could not have occurred at the dawn of the comic book, when comics were so ubiquitous they served only as cultural background noise. It couldn't have happened in the Wertham era, when comics were considered a national scourge and corrupter of youth. It couldn't have happened during the Great Inward Turn, when comics left the nations' kids to fend for themselves. It could only have happened today, when a thriving and increasingly diverse kids' comics scene is matched to an informed and enthusiastic community of educators.
Comics: They're For Kids Again!