At an ILA panel on Saturday, graphic novelist Gene Yang shared how much superheroes and comics meant to him and for his reading life when he was growing up. The panel, titled “Disrupting a Destructive Cycle,” focused on how we can work to disrupt the systemic inequalities in our schools. I didn’t get a chance to go to ILA this year, so I’m thankful that this important conversation was livestreamed (you can view the archived video here).
During the panel, the moderator, journalist Nikole Hanna-Jones, asked each of the panelists to talk a little bit about the value of seeing themselves (or not) in the books they read. Yang’s response (emphasis added):
“When I was kid it was hard to find stories with characters who looked like me or lived like me in the books that I was reading, in the shows that I was watching, in the movies I was watching. And I think you just gravitate . . . grab what you can.
I am a lifelong superhero fan. I think one of the reasons I love superheroes so much is because every superhero has that dual identity. They are negotiating between two different ways of being. And as an Asian American, that was my reality. I had two different names: I had a Chinese name I used at home and an American name I used at school. I spoke two different languages, lived under two different cultural expectations. So when I watched Clark Kent change into Superman in my comic, somehow that felt familiar. I tried to find what I could.”
There is so much in Yang’s response that resonates with my own experience—and I’m going to guess likely resonates with the experiences of many POC. I could write a whole post and then some on this (and I will). But that’s not what this post is about—not entirely.
On the same day that the panel livestreamed, I was at the pool with the boys. In fact, I livestreamed most of the panel, poolside from my beach chair. At the end of the day, my 10-year-old gathered his towel around his shoulders and walked over to me.
If you’re a parent, you know nothing good ever follows those words. Through watery eyes, he began to tell me about an incident that happened earlier that afternoon. Apparently, a boy they’d been playing with was making fun of another, smaller child. I couldn’t get all the details, but from what I gathered, the boy was making a few jokes at another child’s expense.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“I told him to stop.”
“And did he?”
“No,” then through more tears, “He just ignored me.”
“Is he still here?”
I put my arm around him and leaned in a little closer. I told him how proud I was that he said something. After all, I told him, maybe the “kid being bullied” (as my son described him) heard, and it made him feel better to know someone was on his side. From what he described, I couldn’t tell how much bullying was going on. I suspect that there was some teasing and that it felt wrong to him, no matter how brief the encounter might have been.
It felt wrong to him. Something in his gut told him what was happening wasn’t right. How many times have any of us had that feeling? How many of us watched something happen that we knew was wrong? How many of us did something about it?
This could be the part of the story where I pat myself on the back for being a good parent, for teaching my son to listen and know that something was wrong, that someone was being hurt and to do something about it. But that’s also not what this post is about.
My oldest son, who is twelve, was also at the playground where the incident happened. I only found out later when we were talking about it over dinner. When I asked him what he did, his answer didn’t surprise me.
“Oh, I just walked away.”
My oldest, like me, avoids confrontation whenever he can. He’s a good kid, but he’s also incredibly shy. I can understand why he walked away. After all, I’m pretty sure we’ve told him, and his brothers, that sometimes walking away is the best thing to do when others are getting into trouble. And I’m sure, like most kids in his situation, he might have worried what would happen if he did intervene, if he considered it at all. He knew something was wrong, so he removed himself from the situation. But in doing so, he stepped away from an opportunity to help someone else.
So we talked about what to do the next time something like this happened. And what I told them was this—next time, focus on the person who needs your help. “Walk up to him,” I said, “and just say, ‘Hey, don’t worry about that kid,'” and ask him to play with you instead. Focus on who needs help. Then help.
I’m proud that my 10-year-old spoke up, but he’s always been that type of kid. Empathetic, kind. Teachers tell us how he’s often the first one to help even when not asked, like the times he sits with kids during recess who aren’t playing with anyone else. That’s just who he is. I can’t take credit for that, but I can build on it. And I can help his brothers figure out what to do in similar situations. I don’t know if my advice was right, but I hope next time—and there’s always a next time—they’ll have a plan, a plan to act.
After we talked things through, I mentioned to my 10-year-old that this was like having his own ‘Wonder’ moment.
He looked up, confused. “What do you mean?”
“Like from your book, Wonder,” I reminded him.
My son is more than halfway through the book, and every day, he’s been giving me updates on everything that’s happened. We’ve talked through it, and I know he’s been deeply affected. Anyone who’s read Wonder knows how much that book has to teach us about empathy and courage and kindness. About standing up for others. I have little doubt that his reaction to what happened at the pool–his tears, his wanting to do more and his guilt for not having done so—was connected to the time he’s been spending this summer getting to know August.
So what is this post really about? I think it’s about what we all know about the power of books—the mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. It’s about Gene Yang, who saw himself in superhero comics, and my son, who sees August Pullman in others.
Coincidentally—or not—my son also loves superheroes. I wonder how he too has had to negotiate dual identities out there in the world, in school, among friends. I know how much it meant to him to have his class read a Filipino folktale, but I also know that stories like that are exceptions, not the rule. So I brace myself for the day that he and his brothers may be at the receiving end of something hurtful. The day that they discover that no superhero power can shield them from prejudice and ignorance. I don’t know a single POC who hasn’t had that day, so I know it’s not a matter of if but when.
And so I hope on that day, they might find some solace and strength from the books they read. Books that can save us.