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Find more Creating a Graphic Nonfiction Collection for Kids
When first considering graphic nonfiction for kids (i.e., children’s nonfiction in graphic novel format), you might think of educational books from publishers like Lerner or Capstone, which, according to industry expert Brigid Alverson, have been around since the 1980s and 1990s. Some might already be shelved in your traditional children’s nonfiction collection. The last decade, however, has seen an explosion of graphic nonfiction for youth in various styles, from independent, educational, and trade publishers alike. To meet this ever-growing production and demand, we at the Eugene Public Library have expanded our children’s comics collection to include a graphic-nonfiction subsection (organized by call number). The result? A small but mighty collection that we hope will not only increase findability but legitimize the flourishing format’s place in nonfiction.
As we worked to create our new graphic-nonfiction subsection, the process wasn’t as clear-cut as I had hoped it would be when I proposed the idea. Here are some of the questions and considerations our library debated regarding which titles to add to this collection.
What Exactly Is Nonfiction?
In my work classifying children’s nonfiction, I’ve found Melissa Stewart’s system of five categories—active, browsable, traditional, expository literature, and narrative—immensely helpful in both collection development and readers’ advisory. Due to the graphic novel format’s combination of words and pictures, almost all graphic nonfiction essentially blends Stewart’s categories (she calls it “Blended Nonfiction”).
For example, First Second’s Maker Comics series is both narrative and active: each title instructs on a particular topic using an overarching narrative structure. The category of narrative is also complicated within graphic nonfiction because it often relies on a fictional narrative rather than one with real characters or situations. It’s the classic “Magic School Bus problem,” blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction. Ms. Frizzle, after all, is not a real person, but the class-field-trip conceit allows her to explore a variety of topics in engaging ways.
The same goes for the Maker Comics series. In Grow a Garden! (2020), gnomes at an academy learn alongside readers. For our collection, we decided that the categorization boiled down to focus. If the primary subject of the book is a nonfiction topic and fictional elements are used to help present that topic, then we consider it nonfiction. Yet another example of this is the ever-popular Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, in which a real historical figure fictionally narrates various periods of American history.
Graphic Elements vs. Graphic Structure
The Magic School Bus series offers another crucial point of consideration: the distinction between graphic elements and graphic structure. In the Magic School Bus books, narrative text outweighs the speech bubbles, and panels are rarely used. The books could be read using the narrative text alone and still make sense, as the graphic novel elements are more peripheral. For this reason, the Magic School Bus series is not included in our graphic-nonfiction collection. Neither are Elise Gravel’s Disgusting Critters books or Mike Lowery’s Everything Awesome books. Many of Marcia Williams’ books, however, would be considered graphic nonfiction (e.g., 2005’s Hooray for Inventors!); the difference lies in the structure, as Williams uses comic strips in her art. For our collection, a graphic novel must use graphic elements in a cohesive structure. A cartoony art style does not necessarily mean something is a graphic novel—nor do speech bubbles or the occasional use of panels. Those examples in isolation are techniques, not formats.
What to Do with Graphic Memoir?
Nonfiction organized by call number includes memoir in the 900s, but we ultimately excluded memoir when creating our graphic-nonfiction subsection. One of the main reasons was findability. When browsing, our patrons typically search for comics by author or title/series. Some authors, like Raina Telgemeier, write both memoir and fiction, but because of Telgemeier’s popularity in the field, most of our patrons already know where her books are. Moving her memoirs away from her fiction would leave her work in two locations, a problem we already faced when we moved her Baby-Sitters Club adaptations to be with the others under a series call number. Graphic memoirs also easily masquerade as fiction graphic novels; some readers don’t realize there’s a difference. As this category continues to grow in popularity and more patrons ask for it, we will likely revisit our decision to exclude it from the graphic-nonfiction subsection, but—at least as of now—we’re keeping it out.
Building an Inclusive Collection
With memoir excluded, most of the remaining titles in the graphic-nonfiction subsection cover animals, Greek gods, and white historical figures, but when developing a collection, it’s important to include a broad range of representation—of creators, characters, topics, and publishers alike. Much historical debt is owed to educational publishers, as well as to TOON Books and First Second, but no single imprint should take up too much of the collection real estate. And while many artists take care to include everyday diversity in their illustrations (usually through skin tone), the market as a whole would benefit from more cultural specificity—and BIPOC authors and illustrators. It’s exciting to see new imprints entering the graphic-nonfiction ring, slowly diversifying the space, but in the meantime, here are some noteworthy titles to consider purchasing (or relocating) when building an inclusive core for your graphic-nonfiction collection.
Black Heroes of the Wild West. By James Otis Smith. Illus. by James Otis Smith and Frank Reynoso. 2020. TOON, $16.95 (9781943145515). Gr. 3–6.
Smith shines the spotlight on three Black historical figures, with each chapter introducing the subject with a photograph and then using richly colored, action-packed panels to tell their story. Detailed back matter, including important information about Native Americans, helps contextualize the Old West time period.
The Boy Who Became a Dragon: A Bruce Lee Story. By Jim Di Bartolo. Illus. by the author. 2020. Scholastic/Graphix, $27.99 (9781338134124). Gr. 4–7.
This graphic biography of the Chinese American actor and martial-arts star mostly covers his youth and young adulthood. The dynamic, full-color illustrations are alive with movement, bringing the subject to life for tween readers. Visual allusions to the Chinese zodiac add symbolism to the narrative text.
The Brain: The Ultimate Thinking Machine. By Tory Woollcott. Illus. by Alex Graudins. 2018. First Second, $12.99 (9781626728011). Gr. 4–7.
One of many entries in the Science Comics series, this expository title aims to make neuroscience accessible to young readers. Clear diagrams and illustrations appear alongside a fictional narrative about a mad scientist who is after the brain of the brown-skinned, hijabi main character. See also: History Comics and Maker Comics.
Consent (for Kids!): Boundaries, Respect, and Being in Charge of YOU. By Rachel Brian. Illus. by the author. 2020. Little, Brown, $15.99 (9780316457736). Gr. 2–5.
Based on the author’s educational videos, this kid-friendly comic handbook goes over multiple scenarios in chapters addressing consent and bodily autonomy. The tone is friendly and funny but doesn’t minimize the importance of taking responsibility. The two-color art includes characters with a variety of skin tones.
The Dragon Slayer: Folktales from Latin America. By Jaime Hernandez. Illus. by the author. 2018. TOON Graphics, $16.95 (9781943145287). Gr. 2–5.
This slim, full-color volume is Hernandez’s (Love and Rockets series) first graphic novel for children, collecting three folktales from Latin America, unified by recurring Aztec and Maya design motifs. Back matter gives additional context to the stories and includes a bibliography. Also available in Spanish.
Earth before Us, v.1: Dinosaur Empire! By Abby Howard. Illus. by the author. 2017. Abrams/Amulet, $15.99 (9781419723063). Gr. 4–7.
The first book in the Earth before Us series sends Black fifth-grader Ronnie on a fantastical journey back in time with her white paleontologist neighbor. It’s a fast-paced and information-filled adventure reminiscent of the Magic School Bus series, chock-full of panels and jokes. Back matter includes a phylogenetic tree and a glossary.
Machines That Think! Big Ideas That Changed the World. By Don Brown. Illus. by the author. 2020. Abrams/Amulet, $13.99 (9781419740985). Gr. 3–7.
This entry in the Big Ideas That Changed the World series charts the history of various technologies and their inventors to the present day. The quick-paced, expository structure creatively incorporates imagined asides from Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Mu̅sa̅ al-Khwa̅rizmi̅, among others. Includes significant back matter.
Noisemakers: 25 Women Who Raised Their Voices & Changed the World. By Kazoo Magazine. 2020. Knopf, $25.99 (9780525580171). Gr. 4–7.
This collective biography from Kazoo magazine matches incredible artists with important women from throughout history. Each short section is introduced with a photo (or portrait) of the subject and a list of potential commonalities with readers. The variety of art styles—all of which use color—echoes the diversity of the women included.
Survivors of the Holocaust: True Stories of Six Extraordinary Children. Ed. by Kath Shackleton. Illus. by Zane Whittingham. 2019. Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, $19.99 (9781492688921). Gr. 5–8.
This sobering work of narrative nonfiction reads like an illustrated oral history of six individuals who survived the Holocaust as children. The unique art style uses a different color palette for each story. A “What Happened Next?” section shows real photographs of the children as adults. A glossary, time line, index, and recommended websites are also included.
Tamamo the Fox Maiden and Other Asian Stories. Ed. by C. Spike Trotman and others. 2019. Iron Circus, $15 (9781945820342). Gr. 5–8.
A diverse range of artists contributed to this collection of 21 black-and-white comics interpretations of Asian (mostly Chinese and Japanese) folktales. While there is no supplemental context for the original stories, the book is nevertheless an important addition to 300s collections. Other volumes in the series cover African, European, and Oceanian stories.
Wait, What? A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up. By Heather Corinna. Illus. by Isabella Rotman and Luke Howard. 2019. Limerence, $11.99 (9781620106594). Gr. 5–8.
Though the creators’ primary audience is teens and older (they work with the organization Scarleteen), tweens will also appreciate this book’s frank, inclusive overview of puberty and sexuality. The diverse cast and subjects are realistically rendered in a full-color cartoon style.
Alec Chunn is a youth services librarian at the Eugene Public Library’s Downtown branch in Oregon.
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