The Fall 2019 Residency Book in Common Is Actually Two Books: Gene Luen Yang’s Best-selling Boxed Set, Boxers and Saints

By Kathleen Driskell, Chair Spalding’s School of Creative and Professional Writing

It’s a tradition during residencies at the Spalding School of Creative and Professional Writing to regularly rotate and provide common instruction in one of the genres we teach: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, writing for children and young adults, or writing for TV, screen and stage. Though our students dive into deep practice in their chosen writing concentration, each also benefits from exploring other genres, learning what craft elements and techniques are unique but also shared between genres. It’s been gratifying over the years to see how these cross-genre forays have provided important epiphanies for writing students.

The Fall 2019 residency provides an opportunity to explore Writing for Children and Young Adults, and I have selected Gene Luen Yang’s New York Times best-selling boxed set of graphic novels Boxers and Saints as our common read. I’m attracted to all sorts of historical writing, and so it’s not surprising that foremost I’m enticed by Yang’s subject, the Boxer Rebellion. In a time of great political divide in our country, I remain intrigued by Yang’s dual novels—each presenting complex main characters that represent different political sides. I look forward to a discussion with our students and faculty about this novel approach to, well . . . these novels.

Though we’ve never featured graphic writing as a common read before, in some ways Boxers and Saints is a natural fit for our community. Since our founding, it’s been an important part of our pedagogy to think about writing in companionship with other sister arts—in the past as a residency community we’ve created ekphrastic poems inspired by sculpture and paintings viewed on a field trip to Louisville’s noted Speed Art Museum. At another residency, Louisville Orchestra’s distinguished conductor Teddy Abrams presented a private piano concert and talk, which gave our students new insights into literary composition.  

And art and words come together regularly for our Writing for Children and Young Adult students who opt to work on picture book texts. They have exceptional mentors to guide them: our faculty members are among the most renowned authors of picture books—Heather Has Two Mommies by Lesléa Newman shook the literary world when she self-published her picture book in 1989. Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s beautiful picture book Naamah and the Ark at Night has received many honors, including Booklist‘s Top Ten Religious Books for 2011.

Though I have no doubt our students will draw interesting parallels between picture books and graphic novels, our cross-genre assignment will help highlight those connections and begin with a field trip to nearby Bernheim Forest. Faculty member Leah Henderson, author of the celebrated One Shadow on the Wall and of several forthcoming picture books, will provide an important craft lecture on what makes a great picture book. Then we’ll again engage with a sister art as we set out into the woods along the Forest Giants in a Giant Forest trail to find story inspiration among the sculptures created of recycled materials by Danish artist Thomas Dambo, installed to mark the 90th anniversary of Bernheim’s founding.

Bernheim Forest

Students in Spalding’s new MA in Writing Professional Writing track will meet with Bernheim staff to discuss their promotional writing campaign, which has successfully attracted national attention to the Forest Giants installation. 

On Thursday, November 21, MacArthur Fellow Gene Luen Yang visits the School of Creative and Professional Writing’s Fall residency to present a talk about Boxers and Saints, a National Book Award Finalist, and his other work, including American Born Chinese. His talk begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Troutman Lectorium in the Egan Leadership Center at Fourth and Breckinridge and is open to the Louisville community. The next morning, Friday, November 22, Yang will be in conversation with our School of Writing students, alumni, and faculty during a closed Q & A session on campus.

All Fall 2019 School of Writing residency students and faculty read Boxers and Saints before coming to residency. Students should prepare comments for the first night’s Residency Book in Common discussion after our welcome dinner on Friday, November 15.

Gene Luen Yang

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