At the 2017 SLJ Leadership Summit in Nashville, TN, Gene Luen Yang participated in a panel entitled "Using Graphic Novels to Develop Racial Literacy in Today's Teens." Driven by the work of Jesuit High School English teacher Megan Mathes and helmed by some incredibly thoughtful and accomplished students, this panel explored the ways in which comics, specifically Yang's American Born Chinese, can serve as a springboard for dynamic growth and discussion regarding race and identity. Yang was intelligent and warm, a strong addition to the panel, but the students were really the stars because they demonstrated so fully the thesis of the panel. They brought to that Tennessee conference room the reality of kids being changed by their engagement with a graphic novel.
Long considered a fringe element of literature for young people, graphic novels have recently begun to assert themselves on the world stage, especially after the Newbery Medal was awarded (so deservedly!) to Jerry Craft's New Kid. It is gratifying to see this form begin to be elevated, but for authors like Yang, it is a case of the rest of world just catching up. Since 2006, when he burst on the scene with American Born Chinese, winning the Printz award and becoming the first graphic novel to be chosen as a finalist for the National Book Award, Yang's books have demonstrated the best of what the graphic novel form could do. They are complex, tightly woven, intricately organized, and utterly accessible. Now that you are convinced of his talent, listen closely: Dragon Hoops is next level: an unparalleled heights, above-the-rim, legendarily good book.
Chosen to provide the Opening Keynote for the Everywhere BookFest, Yang talked some about his forthcoming comic for DC, Superman Smashes the Klan, in which he draws upon the real life1946 radio show that had Superman fighting hate groups and resulted in a significant drop in those groups' activities in the aftermath of the show. He also highlighted how before Pearl Harbor, Chinese-Americans were considered "genetically criminal," but after the attack, they were critical allies against their common enemy "The Japs." Yang makes clear that the stories we tell about each other make a difference in how we see each other. His other main point is that stories will be an essential part of how we rebuild in the days and months (and years!) following this pandemic. It is a time of uncertainty and fear, and we will all be challenged by it. In Dragon Hoops, he weaves together multiple narratives, including his own story, that demonstrate what happens when we take small steps, walking into uncertainty with courage and conviction.
Dragon Hoops is a lot about basketball, its broader history, the racial tensions and conflicts over the years, and specifically the story of the Bishop O'Dowd Dragons and their quest to win a State Championship in 2015. BUT it is also about lies and the truth and the ways stories do their work; it's about the trust granted a storyteller and the responsibility that trust demands; and it's about all the ways people have to take small steps to achieve change. In fact, the book opens with a small step: Yang decides to go talk to a fellow teacher at his school, the basketball coach Lou Richie. It ends with a much larger step, as Yang decides to leave his teaching job at Bishop O'Dowd to focus on his work in comics. In between, Yang provides insights, humor, instruction, and perhaps the most impressive set of panels: a meta-moment where Yang (the character) argues with his wife about whether to include a controversial element of the story.
She says, "Even me, Gene. I'm not really your wife, am I? I'm not really Theresa," and he replies, "Well, you're a cartoon of Theresa. But everyone in this book is a cartoon," just before she transforms (with a turn of the page) into Yang - or his conscience. He finishes the debate as his conscience-self argues, "When you chose to tell this story as a comic, you chose to lie!" and his real self concludes,
"You might be right. But in this book, at least, I need the lie to serve the truth."
He's right, of course. All books are a form of a lie. In a different Everywhere BookFest panel, Jewell Parker Rhodes distinguished between the bad kind of lies and the ones she came to as a writer of stories. But he's also right that the work of a story (a lie) can, and perhaps should, be to serve a greater truth. It takes a sort of faith, doesn't it? A willingness to step out there into the uncertainty with a conviction that there is a greater good, a higher truth to apply yourself toward.
Multiple times in Dragon Hoops, Yang refers to the timeframe of the actual events and his place within them, specifically commenting on the years it took to bring this book into the world. Looking back, I realize that he was working on this story during that 2017 panel. He was working on this story as the National Ambassador to Young People's Literature in 2016. He some ways, he has been working on this story in every moment of his career, even as he completed his Master's project on the power of comics in education. His devotion to truth, to the rightness of stepping out in faith, to children and the infinite capacity of their minds is present here in Dragon Hoops, just as it is in everything he has done. He stepped away from the classroom, but he is still teaching.
The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.
OST: This book will and should be discussed, but the question of its audience will likely play a part - there is profanity (though it is ed*&ted) and deals with high school students, so it may fall into the category of "too old" though it will undoubtedly be admired and lauded widely.
Previous titles under consideration:
The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead
A Many Feathered Thing by Lisa Gerlits
Mañanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Snapdragon by Kat Leyh
Chirp by Kate Messner