True Lit Evolving

FPL festival showcases graphic novels


Willow Fitzgibbon, Fayetteville Public Library’s director of library sciences, says the committee tasked with booking authors for its True Lit Festival look for “dynamic” speakers. It’s a quality they found in graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang, who recently served as the U.S. Library of Congress’ Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and was a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant the same year.

When he was in 5th grade, Yang’s mother bought him his first Superman comic book — and it changed the trajectory of his life. Yang, the author of the award-winning graphic novel American Born Chinese, was so transfixed by the medium that he and his friend Jeremy quickly set up a business of writing, drawing and selling comic books at school.

“We started making comics together at lunch — I would do the drawings in pencil and he would ink over them, and we would give them to his mom, who was really supportive,” says Yang, who remembers selling the comic books for 50 cents apiece. “I think we made about $8. It was a ton of fun. One of the things that I appreciate most about comics is that the bar for entry is very low, especially in the 1980s. If you were a kid, and you wanted to cut your own music album or make your own movie, there was no way for you to do it — but anybody could make their own comic book. All you needed was a pencil and some paper. It’s very accessible.”

Yang published his first comic book in 1997 and worked steadily in the business, but he had resigned himself to writing being merely a side gig. His day job was as a teacher and a director of information technology at a high school — until 2006, that is, when he wrote the New York Times bestseller American Born Chinese. The graphic novel was a huge hit and won multiple awards. While not autobiographical, Yang has said that it draws upon some of his own experiences growing up Asian-American.

“That book marked a milestone in my career,” Yang notes. “Before that, every time I put out a comic, even if it was with a publisher, I would lose money. That book was when I started making money. It was a complete shock. I began making comic books in the 1990s, back when the comic book industry, especially here in America, wasn’t doing well. Marvel had filed for bankruptcy, and people were predicting that the American comic book was about to disappear. … But I still wanted [a career in the business.] I made a decision: ‘Some people play golf for fun. I want to write comics for fun.’ So to go from that to where I got a full-color, nationally distributed graphic novel was well beyond anything I had ever imagined — the support was overwhelming and life-changing.”

Yang’s 17 years of classroom experience have made him an outspoken advocate for using graphic novels as teaching tools.

“I think that, when comic books first became popular in the 1940s, there was a lot of anxiousness about it — people were worried that they would replace prose novels. That’s not what those of us who work in the industry are going for, though. The vast majority of us are fans of prose, and what we really want is for this [medium] to take its place alongside prose and poetry and other formats.

“I think there are certain stories and certain information that is best conveyed through graphic novels,” he adds. “You really need the visual element to communicate clearly. The most simple, everyday examples are LEGO instructions — they use a series of images to tell you how to put together a LEGO set. That’s literally impossible to do in prose. In almost every discipline, there is information that is best conveyed by using a series of images.”

Yang is scheduled to speak at the Fayetteville Public Library at 7 p.m. Oct. 23 in a session titled “We Need Diverse Books,” a subject area he says he became an expert in while serving as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

“Every ambassador picks a platform to focus on, and for me, I chose ‘Reading Without Walls’,” he says. “All readers of all ages ought to read books that are outside of their comfort zones. I think it’s great when you go into your library or your bookstore, and you have your favorite corner where you know you’ll find books you like. But every now and then, you should explore other places to find new favorites. I challenged kids to read books about characters that don’t look like or live like them, read about topics that they don’t know anything about and read books in formats they’re not familiar with. Especially with that first part of the challenge — reading has a role in growing the human capacity for empathy, and reading about people who aren’t like us really does that. What ends up happening is, by the end of the story, you see the common humanity between you and the protagonist, and you realize there’s something that binds us all together.”

Yang’s next project, scheduled for release this week, is called Superman Smashes the Klan.

“It’s a re-telling of a very famous Superman story from 1946, the year after World War II ended,” says Yang. “That year, the Superman radio show was the most popular show in all of America. In this story, Superman works with a Chinese-American family in Metropolis, and the story has never been told in comics — so we decided to take this very famous story and present it in comic book format.”

With unrest occurring all over the world, says Yang, the release of this particular story is well-timed.

“I think there’s a reason that storyline originally came out in 1946,” he notes. “I think all the world learned this lesson during World War II — we saw the worst of our human instincts come out and saw the fruits of that. … I think that original storyline was all about crystallizing the lessons of World War II, and I think the artists and I want to represent those lessons again.”

Fayetteville Public Library’s literary festival “True Lit” kicks off Oct. 20, making it the seventh year that the FPL has offered to the public a week of workshops, readings and book signings featuring a host of distinguished authors and industry professionals. In addition to Yang, this year’s authors include Jarrett Krosoczka, author of the “Lunch Lady” series of graphic novels; Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Pena, who wrote Mexican WhiteBoy and We Were Here; and bestselling historical novelist and keynote speaker Melanie Benjamin.

Fitzgibbon says that the first festival was the brainchild of then youth services manager Lolly Greenwood.

“It originated because we became aware that the public school system was bringing in authors, the University of Arkansas was bringing in authors — and if we all pooled our resources, energy and ideas, we could bring in even bigger authors and have a bigger event,” she says. “We work with a committee of school librarians, someone from the Fayetteville Public Education Foundation, the Walton Arts Center, the UA Creative Writing Department, Altrusa, the Ozark Literacy Council — we have lots of partners, and we all meet monthly and work on this event all year round.”

This “pooling of resources” is what has allowed the event to attract such literary luminaries as Krosoczka and Yang, as well as the author that brought in the event’s largest crowd to date. Lois Lowry, author of The Giver — winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year — brought in an audience of 900 people. Like Lowry, Yang and Krosoczka will both make school visits, allowing students in the Fayetteville Public Schools a chance to hear from award-winning authors.

“[The students] love it,” says Fitzgibbon. “Their school librarians are involved in the planning committee, and their suggestions and feedback are heavily influential on who is invited. It’s a really great opportunity for children to hear working authors speak. They’re very inspirational, and the students can really relate to them. They’re also teaching workshops. It’s a really special event.”

Though the events aimed at children and young adults are a highlight of True Lit, there are plenty of opportunities for adults to get involved, too.

“We have publishers and agents that are regional attending, and they’ll be speaking about how to get published,” notes Fitzgibbon. “It’s also a unique opportunity for writers to get 10-minute sessions with publishers and agents and pitch their work. A lot of authors do get invitations to submit a more in-depth proposal after the pitch, but just the opportunity to practice your pitch and get feedback from someone in the industry is just incredible.”

New events this year include the opportunity for illustrators to pitch their work and a songwriting workshop presented by Dan and Claudia Zanes. New innovations like these show that the popular festival continues to evolve and include an even wider spectrum of the public. Fitzgibbon says that, with the expansion of the FPL building, that trend will continue.

“I definitely see [True Lit] growing with the building,” she says.



True Lit Festival

WHEN — Oct. 20-27

WHERE — Fayetteville Public Library, 401 W. Mountain St., Fayetteville

COST — Free

INFO — 856-7000 or



True Lit Fest

Schedule of Events

Some events require registration. See for more information.

Oct. 20

2 p.m. — Melanie Benjamin: Shining a Light on the Past

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

Oct. 21

11:30 a.m. — Pitch Your Book with Ease to Publishers, Agents and Editors with Marilyn Collins

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

4:30 p.m. — Rich Davis: Young Illustrators Workshop, Part 1

Walmart Story Time Room, Fayetteville Public Library

Oct. 22

4:30 p.m. — Rich Davis: Young Illustrators Workshop Part 2

Walmart Story Time Room, Fayetteville Public Library

6 p.m. — Jarrett Krosoczka Illustrators Workshop

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

7 p.m. Jarrett Krosoczka Book Signing

Lobby, Fayetteville Public Library

Oct. 23

7 p.m. — Gene Luen Yang: We Need Diverse Books

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

Oct. 24

10:30 a.m. — Matt de la Peña Story Time

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

4 p.m. — Elementary After-school Workshop: Be an Author/Illustrator!

Walmart Story Time Room, Fayetteville Public Library

7 p.m. — Alison Hawthorne Deming, presented by The Arkansas International

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

Oct. 25

10 a.m. — One-Cup Sunshine, Two-Cups Rain: A Generative Poetry Workshop with Martha Silano

Ann Henry Board Room, Fayetteville Public Library

11:30 a.m. — Gathering of the Groups

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

Oct. 26

10:00 a.m. — Getting Your Book on the Shelf Panel Discussion

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

10:30 a.m. — Bright Star Theatre: Wizard of Oz

Children’s Library, Fayetteville Public Library

1 p.m. — All About Literary Agents with Kate Hart

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

1 p.m. — Publisher and Agent Pitch Sessions

Media and Magazine Wing, Fayetteville Public Library

2 p.m. — Dan and Claudia Zanes Family Music Workshop presented by Walton Arts Center +

Walmart Story Time Room, Fayetteville Public Library

2 p.m. — Comics for Teens with Cole Closser (Grades 5–12) +

Ann Henry Board Room, Fayetteville Public Library

Oct. 27

1 p.m. — Special Collections Presents: The Extra-Illustrated Book

Lobby, Fayetteville Public Library

1 p.m. — Altrusa Writing Contest Award Ceremony

Walmart Story Time Room, Fayetteville Public Library

2 p.m. — “Have You Seen This Man?” Poetry Reading with Bryan Borland

Walker Community Room, Fayetteville Public Library

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