Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, March 16, 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017: Dedicated Issue: Reading Without Walls Month

Macmillan Children's: Reading Without Walls Event Kit

Editors' Note

Reading Without Walls Month

Reading Without Walls Month makes its debut this April. This program, an annual celebration of reading and diversity, is inspired by the platform of the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Gene Luen Yang. The National Ambassador program is a partnership between the Children's Book Council, Every Child a Reader, and the Library of Congress. This issue of Shelf Awareness is sponsored by Yang's publisher, First Second and Macmillan Children's Publishing Group.

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Books & Authors

A Challenge to See the World in New Ways

National Ambassador for Young People's Literature Gene Luen Yang, in partnership with the Children's Book Council, the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, Every Child a Reader and Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, has launched Reading Without Walls Month, which makes its debut this April and will be an annual event.

The aim is to encourage young people to explore the world through books, break down barriers and celebrate diversity in children's books. The key ways Reading Without Walls does this is by challenging young people to do one of three things:

  • Read a book about a character who doesn't look like them or live like them.
  • Read a book about a topic they don't know much about.
  • Read a book in a format they don't normally read for fun, such as a chapter book, an audiobook, a graphic novel or a book in verse.

"We want to use Reading Without Walls as a way of getting kids to read outside of their comfort zone," Yang comments, emphasizing that most people have a comfort zone whether they realize it or not. This is a long-lasting problem, not something new--even though it seems very topical. Books are a solution to comfort zones and can lead readers to open up to people they might not have otherwise. "One of the primary functions of books is to build empathy between people," he says. "And empathy is good for you." He emphasizes, too, that his challenge applies to adults as well as young readers.

Yang notes that early on books helped him get out of his comfort zone, and lately he's noticed another comfort zone. "I've been reading the news that's fed to me," Yang explains. "Some algorithm figures out what makes me feel good and makes it so that I have to actively find news outside my comfort zone."

Yang and the sponsors are making a big push "to get communities to adopt Reading Without Walls for the spring," Yang says. A few bookstores, libraries and schools did so last year, particularly for summer reading lists, an "inspiring" start, Yang says, that he wants to expand this April.

The stores, libraries and schools that were part of the pilot program "usually put up a wall and write out the three challenges," he says. "Some put up a picture of me, which is kind of awesome. I can't argue with that." They also display book suggestions, and some of them have an area for "kids to suggest books to each other." One also made flyers that look like little books and have the "check-off criteria." Lastly, there are spots to post certificates of completion.
Yang is taking Reading Without Walls to the next level in April. This year, some 200 bookstores and 1,500 schools and libraries have already pledged to participate in the inaugural Reading Without Walls Month with events, displays, staff picks, reading recommendations and store-school-library partnerships. Those interested in joining can find free promotional materials on Macmillan's Reading Without Walls website (which includes a signup form for updates) and on Edelweiss. The material include posters, a reading list created by Yang and certificates of completion that the sponsors have put together.

Yang will promote his reading challenge across the Northeast United States and Canada during the first week of April, with the following schedule:

April 1: The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Arts Festival, New York City
April 2: Doylestown Bookstore, Doylestown, Pa.
April 3: R.J. Julia's Booksellers, Madison, Conn.
April 4: Books on the Square, Providence, R.I.
April 5: Toronto Public Library, Toronto, Ont.
April 6: Brookline Booksmith, Brookline, Mass.
April 7: Print: A Bookstore, Portland, Me.
April 8: Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, Mass.
April 10: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

At the event that the Brookline Booksmith is cosponsoring with the Brookline Public Library, Yang will make a presentation for an hour at the neighboring Coolidge Corner Theatre, then go to the store for a signing. Earlier in the day, he'll make what Alex Schaffner, the bookstore's events co-director and children's bookseller, calls "a large-scale school visit." Between the store's promotional efforts, the library's excellent interactive programs and his exposure in school, Schaffner expects that Yang will be able to make the Reading Without Walls challenge to many young readers on April 6. Beyond the events, just having Yang in town is "helpful in drawing attention to the challenge," she added.

In promoting the challenge, the store has found the Reading Without Walls kit helpful, particularly the poster, which Schaffner calls "something that will stick around in our department for quite a while.... It's a great way to sort of poke at kids' thinking while they're browsing--my hope will always be that if kids are reading the poster, their reading choices (or at least how they think about the books they choose) will be slightly altered just from that."

In the time leading up to Yang's appearance, both in-store and through its blog, Brookline Booksmith is promoting Reading Without Walls as something "fun and interesting and something we also want to participate in." Schaffner's next blog post, scheduled for March 23, will be about the Reading Without Walls challenges that Brookline Booksmith's children's staff has completed. Schaffner, for instance, has read Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee as her #1 book and One Last Word by Nikki Grimes for challenge #3. For #2, she thinks "a good nonfiction picture book will do the trick."

Readers are invited to share their completed challenges on Twitter with the #ReadingWithoutWalls hashtag. Many participants have already posted pictures of themselves and the book they read to meet the Reading Without Walls challenge.

Gene Luen Yang: Books That Break Walls and Promote Diversity

Yang is an ideal person to promote Reading Without Walls: throughout his career, he's broken walls and promoted diversity.

He began drawing comic books in the fifth grade and began to become prominent as a cartoonist in 1997, when he received the Xeric grant for self-publishing for his Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks. After putting out several issues on his own, it was picked up by comics publisher Slave Labor, who published it and Loyola Chin and the San Pelegran Order (later collected into a single volume as Animal Crackers). While working on these comics, Yang received his Master's degree in education from Cal State Hayward and began teaching at a San Francisco school. He is a founding member of the Bay Area's Art Night Crew, a local group of cartoonists.

In 2006, his graphic novel American Born Chinese (Macmillan Children's Book Group/First Second Books) was the first graphic novel to be a finalist for a National Book Award (creating a firey debate on whether graphic novels were eligible for the award and whether they were "real books"). American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel to win the American Library Association's Printz Award for best YA book of the year and it won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album. The book has sold more than 500,000 copies and is widely taught in high schools and universities.

American Born Chinese follows three seemingly disparate characters. Jin Wang is a Chinese-American elementary school student whose parents are from Taiwan. He is desperate to fit in with his all-white classmates, but finds this difficult thanks to the interference of his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee, who Yang depicts as a painful amalgamation of Chinese stereotypes. The third character is the Monkey King, a popular figure in Chinese folklore, who seeks to become an immortal god despite the lack of space for a monkey in heaven. Yang weaves these characters into a powerful narrative about outsiders crossing boundaries and finding places for themselves in unfamiliar worlds.

In 2013, Boxers & Saints (Macmillan Children's Book Group/First Second Books), his two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion, was a National Book Award finalist and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature.

In Boxers & Saints, Yang brings his deceptively light-hearted aesthetic to a period of immense chaos in modern Chinese history. Near the end of the Qing dynasty, a revolt against Christian missionaries and imperialist expansion led to an invasion by eight foreign nations, including the United States. In part one, Boxers, Yang follows Little Bao, a peasant boy who joins the Boxer movement after his village is abused by Westerners. In Saints, Yang follows Vibiana, a girl who finds a home with Christian missionaries after being rejected by her village. By showing both sides of this complex conflict, Yang illuminates universal attributes of human nature that transcend even the most violent divisions.

Yang also won an Eisner for The Eternal Smile: Three Stories (Macmillan Children's Book Group/First Second Books), a collaboration with artist Derek Kirk Kim. The three stories of Eternal Smile are vastly different. In the first, a brave warrior must slay an evil Frog King to rescue a princess, if he can ignore an inexplicable recurring omen. In the second, a greedy frog wonders about the origin of his obsession--to fill a pool with gold and dive in. In the final story, Janet's dreary life as an office worker takes an intriguing twist when a Nigerian prince promises vast riches if she will share her banking information. These funny, sometimes absurd stories offer insights into subconscious desire, the reality of fantasy, and what it means to dream.

He's also the author, with artist Mike Holmes, of the Secret Coders series (Macmillan Children's Book Group/First Second Books), which takes place at Stately Academy, a mysterious, sometimes creepy school full of robots, overbearing adults and plenty of computers. Twelve-year-old Hopper and Eni become fast friends as they seek to master the wonders of coding. The four volumes of this series introduce kids, in entertaining fashion, to the language of computers, while presenting a diverse cast of characters engaged in STEM education (and fun adventures).

This middle-grade series draws on Yang's background in education and as a teacher of computer science, using the narrative to teach kids about computer programming. He is a strong proponent of using comics in education, and of representing diversity through the comics medium, which he does in all of his comics work. 

A strong believer in collaboration, Yang has published books in partnership with cartoonists Derek Kirk Kim (besides The Eternal Smile, this includes Duncan's Kingdom), Thien Pham (Level Up) and Sonny Liew (The Shadow Hero). Yang's work has also been included in the anthologies Up All NightSecret IdentitiesStrange TalesNursery Rhyme ComicsShattered, Open Mic and Comic Squad: Recess. After speaking out against the lack of diversity in the casting of the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie, Yang was asked to write the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics (Dark Horse Comics). He has also written some of the Superman comics (DC Comics).  

Last fall, Yang was honored with the most valuable prize a creator can receive: a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant of $625,000, which are given to people who "show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future." Appropriately the Foundation said that Yang's work for young adults "demonstrates the potential of comics to broaden our understanding of diverse cultures and people."

Reading Without Walls began when Yang was appointed National Ambassador for Young People's Literature in January 2016, the first graphic novelist to be appointed to the role since it was created in 2008. Each National Ambassador does four speaking events a year during the two-year term and picks out a platform to focus on. Yang's choice was Reading Without Walls, an idea that he said developed in meetings with his publisher, Macmillan, and with the Children's Book Council, shortly before he became National Ambassador.

As part of Reading Without Walls, Yang has done a podcast talking with people "I admire, authors, animators and others, about books they read as a kid and how they influenced them and inspired them to do something beautiful."

In his 2014 Shelf Awareness Book Brahmin, Yang gave a personal example of how going outside established reading habits can have a profound impact on young readers. When asked for a book that changed his life, Yang said "Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. If I hadn't read McCloud's book when I was in my late teens, I probably would not be doing comics today. Every time I have trouble making my mortgage payment, I blame McCloud."

May every young reader have the same experience!

First Second: Secret Coders Series by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

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