Earlier this week, the US Librarian of Congress named Gene Luen Yang (American Born Chinese, Boxers & Saints, Avatar: The Last Airbender) the 2016–2017 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. During this two year post, Yang will “promote reading, including graphic novels, with an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) goals” – a fitting mandate for the former computer science teacher. Yang is the fifth National Ambassador, and the first cartoonist to hold the post.
In chapter 9 of our book, we discuss Yang, Raina Telgemeier, and Jillian and Mariko Tamaki as examples of women and visible-minority creators who have achieved significant critical and commercial success in a field still largely perceived as dominated by white men. Yang’s appointment as National Ambassador, for instance, is only the latest in a long line of honours and achievements – and, as in this case, he has often been the first graphic novelist so acknowledged.
We suggest that the reformist and pedagogical values of librarians and educators have been impressed upon the young-adult sub-field of comics, deliberately rendering it a more diverse and inclusive corner of the comics world. In young adult comics, at least, it seems that the often competing desiderata of merit and diversity have been resolved. However, the young-adult sub-field is also a relatively low-status and unprestigious part of the comics world, especially as the form’s advocates still take pains to distance themselves from its history as a medium for entertaining children.
Much as children’s movies rarely contend for Best Picture and children’s authors are rarely made Nobel laureates, their names do not show up on most lists of great comics. Women and visible-minority cartoonists are the undeniable giants of the young-adult sub-field, but when it comes to symbolic capital they are unjustly relegated to the kids’ table