Author Gene Luen Yang Visits MICDS

MICDS was proud to welcome cartoonist and graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang to campus this week, for two separate presentations. Middle School Librarian Annie Tsai-Gomez arranged for Yang to speak with two student groups. Yang is an American cartoonist and the 2016-17 U.S. Library of Congress Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. He frequently lectures on graphic novels and comics, has worked as a computer engineer, and has taught computer science. Yang is a member of the 2016 class of the MacArthur Fellows Program.

First, he spoke with Upper School students as part of the Harbison Lecture series. Paul Zahller, JK-12 Science Department Chair, gave this warm introduction:

It is my pleasure to introduce the 2022 Harbison Lecturer. The Harbison Lecture is named on behalf of Mr. Earle H. and Mrs. Suzanne Siegel Harbison. Mrs. Harbison graduated from Mary Institute in 1945, beginning a long lineage of Harbisons to attend the School. For as long as the Harbisons have been members of the School community, they have made MICDS a philanthropic priority—remaining deeply committed to ensuring our students have access to outstanding faculty, great learning spaces and excellent programming that supplements the classroom experience.

Mr. and Mrs. Harbison established the Harbison Lecture Fund in 1994 to commemorate Mrs. Harbison’s 50th Class Reunion. Its purpose is “to fund an annual lecture for students at MICDS featuring a prominent local, regional or national figure whose topic will support the mission and educational goals of the School.” Because the Harbison family strongly values the sciences, the School has historically chosen a leading figure in the sciences to speak to Upper School students.

The comprehensive work of today’s speaker, to me, is an extraordinary example of the interconnectivity of creativity, humanity, and systemic thought. There are many MICDS students who have been captivated by our speaker’s work, providing comments like: 

“I feel like it gave a really interesting perspective on being a child of immigrants” – Cass Goldring ’25

“It created an empathetic message about the damage cultural stereotypes can cause.  It wasn’t only applicable to Chinese born Americans, but rather to all groups who encounter cultural stereotyping.” – Aniket Joshi ’25

“This book has a special place for me being an American-born Chinese myself. A lot of the scenes of him in his elementary years have happened to me in my elementary years extremely accurately and I can relate so much to the book because of it.” – Bowen Zhao ’25

“The only thing that I could remember is that I was really intrigued by the book and actually finished the book a couple weeks early. While we read the book, I would read the book all throughout class.” – Tyler Enyard ’25

Today’s lecture is about Secret Coders, a graphic novel series that teaches kids basic coding concepts. Please help me welcome Gene Luen Yang.

Yang launched into his presentation with a delightful and humorous recap of his childhood before speaking specifically to his work and the book he wanted to focus on. He said, “Secret Coders is a graphic novel series that teaches kids basic coding concepts. This is a project I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. Before becoming a full-time cartoonist, I taught high school computer science for seventeen years. The presentation isn’t just about the graphic novel series, it’s about coding in general. I want to get kids excited about coding.”

Yang taught the audience how to read binary, and then showed some coding tricks in Logo, an old-school programming language he learned on Apple IIe computers when he was in school. He encouraged every student to learn at least some rudimentary code. He said, “Regardless of what you want to do in life if you learn how to code, you’re going to be a little bit better about it. It’s about training your brain to work a certain way to think sequentially, to take big, complicated things and break them down into smaller, understandable pieces.”

After the Upper School students returned to class, Middle School and fourth-grade students filled Brauer Auditorium to hear Yang speak about Asian Americans and comics. Nine eighth-graders gave an enthusiastic introduction:

Hello everyone, and thank you for being here! We’re so excited to have you here today to welcome our guest author, Gene Luen Yang! Mr. Yang was born and raised in California. He’s been writing comics since FIFTH GRADE in aspirations of becoming an animator. He graduated from the University of California Berkeley with degrees in both computer science and creative writing. Mr. Yang was a computer science teacher for many years at Bishop O’Dowd High school in Oakland. He wrote his first unpublished comic book, Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, in 1997. He’s loved for his creative style of writing, which has earned him a National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Mr. Yang’s work, which focuses on matters concerning personal identity, continues to empower children across the globe to embrace their culture. MICDS eighth-graders diligently read and analyzed American Born Chinese and spoke together about some heavy themes such as stereotypes, prejudice, and racism. Mr. Yang’s personal background and upbringing has inspired many of the themes present in his books. Please welcome the author of Avatar the Last Airbender, American Born Chinese, Secret Coders, The Shadow Hero, Boxers & Saints, and many more. Winner of the Michael L. Printz Award and Eisner Award, and the first-ever graphic novel finalist for the National Book Award. So please put your hands together for Gene Luen Yang!

Yang thanked the students for their introduction and launched into his second presentation of the day. He spoke about why there are so many Asian Americans working in today’s American comic book industry and covered historical portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans in American comics. He also talked about commonalities between modern comics and traditional Asian art, and prominent Asian American cartoonists.

He shared memories from his childhood with his immigrant parents, experiences that were instrumental in shaping his future as a cartoonist and graphic novelist. He said, “I grew up in a house full of stories. My parents loved to tell stories, mostly from China. It was their way of building a connection between their family and the culture they left. My stories were different than most stories that kids in America read. They were a lot of stories about respecting and caring for your elders.”

Yang wove his parents’ reactions to his career choice throughout his story of becoming a cartoonist and graphic novelist. They experienced a range of emotions but ultimately were very happy. He also talked about the importance of hearing diverse voices throughout literature, saying, “By reading diversely, we are making more space for more different kinds of stories to get out there. Modern American audiences are willing to support diverse voices, characters who don’t normally look like us. If you have a story inside of you, even if you feel like you don’t fit in, or especially if you don’t feel like you fit in, consider getting it out there as a comic book or graphic novel bc we need as many different stories out there as we can get.”

Yang also announced that Disney+ is adapting his graphic novel American Born Chinese into a television show and started filming two weeks ago. Something for his MICDS fans to look forward to!

Thank you, Gene Luen Yang, for both of your wonderful presentations to our students!