“Ka-Thunk!” Gene Luen Yang was a computer science teacher at Bishop O’Dowd Catholic High School in California who became aware that his school’s basketball team, the Dragons, was in contention for the state championship that year. Gene knew nothing about basketball. He was so skinny as a child that his nickname was Stick. He didn’t like to play sports, and he thought watching sports was boring. On the other hand, he was looking for a subject for his next graphic novel, so he found his way to the school gym to interview Coach Lou Richie.
“Step.” Gene was very careful to keep his life in balance: a quarter of his time for teaching, a quarter of his time for making comics, and half his time for his family. Over the course of the basketball season, as he dug into the life story of the coach and several players, he found that there was more to them than just guys throwing a ball around—although there was plenty of that—but that each person had a complex background and obstacles to overcome. Changes came to Gene’s life, too, forcing him to make a difficult decision that threatened to wreck his tidy schedule, but promised to make a dream come true.
“Paa! Paa! Paa!” In 2007, I was privileged to attend the Printz reception, where American Born Chinese was the first graphic novel ever to win the award for outstanding teen literature. It was a stellar group of honorees that year, and Gene Luen Yang’s acceptance speech was quintessential high school teacher: he prepared a PowerPoint. In his kind and affable manner, he taught a room full of librarians about the history of American bigotry against Asian people. It was eye-opening. In Dragon Hoops, he uses a personal story about his school to reveal the systemic racism and misogyny in the history of basketball, as well as the contemporary struggles of teens from many ethnic groups.
“Swish!” Gene Luen Yang is a former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and during his tenure, he encouraged everyone to read something in a format that is outside of their comfort zone. If you are not familiar with graphic novels—or if you absolutely love them— this 2020 autobiography is a great reading experience. Although it is almost 450 pages long, I read it in about 2 hours. The panels are large, the colors are pleasing, and the story flies by. Don’t miss his earlier works, such as American Born Chinese and the two-volume Boxers & Saints, reviewed here. He is also the author and/or illustrator of several series, such as “Superman,” “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” and “Secret Coders,” among many others.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.