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Interview: Gina Gagliano on the 10th Anniversary of ‘American Born Chinese’

abcIt’s First Second’s tenth anniversary and with it we have the tenth anniversary of Gene Luen Yang’s award winning graphic novel American Born Chinese. Coincidentally, it’s also my tenth anniversary of being a comic book librarian, so it seemed the perfect time to get together with Gina Gagliano, marketing and publicity manager for First Second.

Gina, I feel like I’ve known you forever, but I didn’t actually know anyone’s name back in the early days. Were you there from the start at First Second?

Eva, I feel like I’ve known you forever too! I started working at First Second about six months before we started publishing any books — it’s my tenth anniversary this year, too. So I wasn’t here at quite the beginning, when :01 was an as-yet-unnamed company that was basically Mark [Siegel, editorial director at First Second] sitting in an office buying and designing and editing lots of books. But after that, when :01 started getting closer to that initial publication and needed some marketing and publicity, Mark hired me. How about you? When did you first learn about First Second?

It was at ALA Annual in, I think, New Orleans. It was my first ALA Annual as a librarian and I didn’t know anyone, so I was wandering around the exhibit hall trying to figure out what was going on. And that’s when I found Mark at a small corner booth, showing off First Second’s first season of titles and passing out t-shirts. (I still have that t-shirt.) That’s also the year YALSA launched its Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee and graphic novels started getting serious attention from teen librarians. It was a pretty great time to be coming into the profession.

Looking back at that first GGNFT list, First Second had four books recognized, which is quite a few for a brand new imprint. When did you know you had something special going on?

(I still have that shirt too!)

We had a lot of special moments (and met a lot of amazing people) that first year, but I think the moment when we knew we were onto something with our “graphic novels are going to be conquering America any day now” MO was when we first heard that Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel American Born Chinese was named a finalist for the National Book Award — the first-ever graphic novel to be recognized by that award. I don’t know if that’s something you remember too, or if Gene and American Born Chinese got on your radar for the first time in early 2007 with the Printz Award?

Weirdly, I do remember when American Born Chinese was nominated for the National Book Award, probably because I had picked up a signed copy of the book the day before the announcement. I was at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association trade show and Gene was doing a signing at his table. I think I grabbed the last copy he had. (This was my year of being in the right place at the right time.) I remember the next day, waving the book in front of my father’s face, cackling about how it had just been nominated for the award, and telling him to just read it already.

What I remember even more strongly, though, was that early January morning at the Youth Media Awards, when the book won the Printz. The room was packed with librarians and publishers enthusiastically chattering about which books had gotten a lot of buzz, which ones would likely be overlooked, etc. 2007 was a really strong year for YA fiction. John Green, M.T. Anderson, and Marcus Zuzak all had books come out that year, and most of us were pretty sure one of their books would take home the Printz. As far as I remember, no one was talking about American Born Chinese. Back then, no one really considered graphic novels to be contenders for the big awards. Did they even meet the criteria?

When An Abundance of Katherines was announced as an Honor book, then The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing received an Honor, then The Book Thief received an Honor, a LOT of eyebrows raised. If one of these books hadn’t won, which book did? Then Surrender by Sonya Hartnett received the fourth Honor and the murmuring turned into actual chatter. What the heck was going on? And then American Born Chinese was announced as the winner of the Printz Award and the room lost its collective mind. It was easily the most exciting, exhilarating Youth Media Awards Monday I’ll ever attend. I’m just sorry Gene wasn’t there to see it.

Did you find out the day before that the book had won along with Mark? Or were you in the audience with me, finding out along with everyone else?

What I remember about that day is getting a call from First Second’s original marketing director, Lauren Wohl, and having her say, “I’ve never had a book that won this award before — we’ll have to figure out what to do!”

And then we made bookmarks and a special librarian edition and bought stickers and all of that sort of thing.  

Process-wise, what was really interesting about these two awards — the National Book Award and the Printz — is that I was working at a publisher where we had never gotten any of them, so everything was all new to us. And at the same time, we were working with an author who came out of the independent comics industry where everyone knew the Eisner, the Ignatz, and the Harvey Awards and had probably heard of the Pulitzer because a comic won that once. But all the library awards, and the book publishing awards, no one from that world had a lot of experience with.  

(I’m so glad that’s changed for comics today!)

There’s a story that Gene tells about being named a finalist for the National Book Award, where the Executive Director of the foundation called on the phone to tell him. And he was teaching at school, and then he came home and was in the middle of family dinner, but the phone kept ringing. So he finally picked it up and the director, Harold Augenbraum, said hi, and that he was the director of the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards and wanted to talk to him about something very important, ie, that he would reveal that Gene was a finalist for one of the most prestigious awards in the country, and Gene said, “Can you call back after dinner?”

After we went through the whole process of the finalists being announced and the book got a lot of media — and I remember other comics publishers coming to us and asking, “How did you make that happen?” 

The answer was that we had submitted the book to the NBA committee so that they would consider it and the National Book Awards took the book the rest of the way themselves. With both the NBA and the Printz, the idea that these committees should even be sent books to read, much less that the committees would seriously consider the books for awards after receiving them, was a revelation for a lot of people (including us, that first year)!

I know exactly what you mean about the other comics publishers not quite knowing what to do with this whole new market. The Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee had a heck of a time finding the right person to talk to at some of the publishers, let alone convincing them to send out eleven copies of the book being requested for review. For the Eisners, they’re only asked to send out one copy, which then gets mailed back and forth between committee members. But there’s no way a library committee can afford to do that.  And on the library side, we’re conditioned to not take self-published works as seriously as we do books published by mainstream publishers (this isn’t as true today as it was ten years ago). But in the comics world, self publishing and online publishing is a well respected way for creators to get their work known. There’s been a learning curve on both sides.

So you’ve been on the Great Graphic Novel for Teens committee (which has selected Gene’s books) and the Printz committee (which has selected Gene’s books, though not the year you were on it) and the Eisner committee (which has also selected Gene’s books). What were the differences in working with all of those different awards?

Hmm. As far as the two YALSA committees, the biggest difference is that GGNFT is an open committee, meaning anyone can sit in and listen to the discussion the committee members are having and can voice an opinion during calls for comments. The Printz meetings are closed. Only the committee members, the Booklist liaison, and the assistant to the committee chair are allowed in the room when the books are being discussed. While both committees come to the meetings prepared to discuss the books, the Printz committee members are expected to not only have read the books, but to have immersed themselves in the books, sometimes re-reading them several times to be sure every nuance has been considered.

The Printz is an amazing committee to be on as a person who loves not only to read books, but to really think about them and how they’re constructed. GGNFT members also do this, but not necessarily to the same degree. GGNFT isn’t tasked with coming up with a handful of “bests.” Its goal is to create a useful list of excellent books, so the discussion can be a lot looser and, most times, more fun.

Now, the Eisners is a different kettle of fish entirely. It’s not a committee bound by rules, which is why over the years you’ll see categories come and go, different subgenres emphasised, and representation shift, depending on the strengths and interests of the various juries. While the ALA committees have a full year to work on their lists, the Eisner judges only have a few months to read and the decisions are made over the course of a three-day weekend. The biggest difference, though, is that anyone connected to the comics industry, librarians included, can vote for the winners of the Eisner Awards. Knowing who the nominees are before the awards ceremony can make for some fun Monday morning quarterbacking.

The same way all these awards are approached differently, I’d assume marketing strategies differ, too. As marketing manager, do you market the books differently to libraries and schools than you do to bookstores? How do you use the various awards to leverage sales?

In some ways, marketing books to libraries, schools, and bookstores is pretty much the same: the #1 thing that everyone is looking for is a good book. Good art, good storytelling, good character development, good conclusion, good information (if it’s nonfiction) — that’s everyone’s first priority.  

Booksellers sometimes have specific priorities individual to their bookstores — they’re by a beach, so they want beach readers (like my hometown bookstore); they have an audience who loves science fiction or romance or mystery; they do a lot of partnering with a cooking store and so have a big food section.  These priorities can be very different based on where a bookstore is and what audience they draw.

Libraries and schools also have specific priorities — but interestingly, those priorities can be much more universal than booksellers’ priorities. Most librarians and educators, as well as buying good books, are concerned with age categories (getting the right books, and the right amount of books, for different age kids or different grades of kids) or with subject interest (getting books that match the subjects that kids and teens are taught about in schools, or books to pair with school-assigned reading, or books to address social issue topics).  

Awards carry a lot of weight with booksellers, librarians, and educators — but depending on who I’m talking to about a book like American Born Chinese (and why they’re asking about it), I might say, (to the bookseller looking for the right graphic novels to add to her collection) “This is a fantastic award-winning graphic novel” or (to the librarian looking for books to specifically reach a diverse student body) “This is a great coming-of-age story addressing the Asian-American experience for teens.” It all depends on who’s asking and what they’re looking for.

When one of our books gets an award, there are two ways that we look at it in marketing! The first is as a sales opportunity. So we talk to the booksellers and the distributors and the educators and the librarians we work with, and we make them aware that the book has gotten an award, and that they should be including it in their store or their library (if it’s not there already). We might made some additional materials, like a shelf-talker for booksellers, or a teacher’s guide for educators, so that they have another reason to pick up the book.  

The second way we look at awards is as a publicity opportunity. Generally, the more people hear about a book, the more people are interested in buying it. So, when we have a book that wins an award, we talk to media outlets about features and interviews with the author to make sure that as many people hear about it as possible!  

Whether it’s booksellers or librarians and educators, these two strategies are the same — what changes is just that there are different media outlets for each, different materials they would want to help sell or share the books, and different distributors to work with.  

So a book like Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese works in all of these markets because it’s a) a fantastic, A+ book, b) it got a number of awards, and c) it got public attention, recognition, and awareness so lots of people know about it.

Is your experience as a graphic novel reader different as a personally interested reader and as a librarian?  How would you look at a book like American Born Chinese in each circumstance?

Sort of? I’m always looking for a good read, but when I’m wearing my librarian hat I have to take my community into consideration. I can’t buy everything I like and sometimes I have to buy things I don’t like much at all. Fortunately, American Born Chinese doesn’t fall into that latter category.

I love that the book is being used in the classroom, but I’ll admit I’m always surprised when I hear that kids are assigned the book in middle school. To me it’s a book best read when you have some life experience under your belt. It can be hard to relate to something if you haven’t lived through it yet. But the teachers assure me their students are responding to all three of the stories that make up this book. I know that First Second doesn’t suggest age ranges when marketing books — at least it didn’t back in the early days. When you think of the perfect reader for American Born Chinese, who are you thinking of?

I think that teens are the perfect reader for American Born Chinese! It’s wonderful what Gene does with this book — the issues of parents, culture, and identity are both universal and specific at the same time.  

:01 not suggesting age ranges for our books is actually a myth! We’re very clear about what ages our books are for, but we put this information in the book’s metadata — the information that feeds out online to distributors and retailers — rather than putting it on the book as a “rating” like other publishers might do.  We think it’s important to be clear when we’re publishing a book who we think the target audience is.  But of course who we think the target audience is isn’t necessarily important to individual readers! Target audience is a term that I think gets used more restrictively than it’s intended. When we use it, it’s like a bullseye — the target audience is the center, and then the rings around that are all the rest of the people it might appeal to. I think that most books can be read widely outside of the bullseye of that target!

So, back to American Born Chinese, though we think that teens are the ideal target for this book (since it’s mostly about being a teenager), we’ve heard from adults and middle-grade kids who love the book too. It’s fantastic that this book strikes a chord with audiences of so many different ages — whether they like the monkeys fighting or the bubble tea or the transformative story about identity, it’s all good.

A million thanks to Gina for participating in this conversation and congratulations to Gene Luen Yang and First Second on the tenth anniversary of American Born Chinese. We’d love to hear about your memories from the past ten years, your experiences reading and sharing Gene’s book, and how you’ve been using and promoting graphic novels in the library and classroom. The comments section is open!

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Eva Volin About Eva Volin

Eva Volin is the Supervising Children's Librarian for the Alameda Free Library in California. She has written about graphic novels for such publications as Booklist, Library Journal, ICv2, Graphic Novel Reporter, and Children & Libraries. She has served on several awards committees including the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics. She served on YALSA's Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee for three years and is currently serving on ALSC's Notable Books for Children committee.

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