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March 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Arguably YA
As we compiled our recent list of the 50 Best YA Books of All Time, I couldn’t help but think about how comics and graphic novels fit in. Teens have been stalwart fans of comics from the beginning, and although plenty of serialized comic books have long-lasting resonance for YA readers, they didn’t quite fit our criteria. Book-length graphic novels started to gain traction in the late 1970s, but YA as a category of graphic novels remains a somewhat new phenomenon in the U.S.: YALSA only started publishing its Great Graphic Novels for Teens list a decade ago, and only one book on that list, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006), was originally published as YA.
That doesn’t mean that sequential art narratives telling teen-friendly stories didn’t exist before American Born Chinese; on the contrary, plenty of graphic novels published before 2006 contain coming-of-age stories ideal for a teen audience. Below, I reexamine four graphic novels published for adults that stand out particularly well as YA narratives. For a variety of reasons, labeling these books as YA has been controversial. The biggest reason, by and large, is the visual depiction of nudity and sex, an obstacle for many adults when putting books in teens’ hands. But just as sexuality plays a significant role in YA novels written only in words, it’s key to a few of these narratives, too—the only difference is the medium in which it’s presented. The graphic novels below tell elemental coming-of-age stories with plenty to offer older teen readers, so it’s worth it to reconsider whether they belong exclusively on the adult shelves.
Blankets. By Craig Thompson. Illus. by the author. 2003. Drawn & Quarterly, $39.95 (9781770462205).
In Thompson’s semiautobiographical novel, he recounts the story of his first love alongside his drift away from his Fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Craig spends his childhood being instilled with the belief that sexuality and other bodily concerns are signs of spiritual weakness, but his love of drawing and especially his burgeoning relationship with Raina open his eyes to new ways of thinking.
Craig’s realizations about his own ideas and beliefs and how they differ from his upbringing are quintessentially YA, and his open, airy inked artwork brings the story beautifully to life. One of the reasons Blankets often remains in the adult section is Thompson’s frank depiction of nudity, but his appreciation for the human form is essential to both his growing interest in art and his disillusionment with Evangelical Christianity.
Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures. By Phoebe Gloeckner. Illus. by the author. 2002. North Atlantic, $18.95 (9781623170349).
Although Gloeckner’s fictionalized diary isn’t rendered exclusively in panels, her intermittent fine-lined black-and-white drawings are essential to the gravity of the story, so it seems comfortably at home on this list. The candid diary entries in Minnie’s pitch-perfect teen voice tell of her troubling sexual relationship with her mother’s boyfriend and her subsequent spiral of destructive choices, which comes through in both her sometimes-ugly language and frank depictions of sex in her artwork. At the same time, though, her poetic observations of the world around her and escalating interest in art presage her immense artistic talent and hope for her future.
Yes, her experiences are heartbreaking, even terrifying, but there’s something so profoundly honest about the flighty, vacillating, and yet totally assured tone of Minnie’s diary entries that encapsulate the sometimes-messy experience of coming-of-age. Minnie’s progress is never a straight line; rather, it’s a series of circuitous fits and starts as she muddles her way through and tries anything that sticks to give her a sense of empowerment after facing traumatic dysfunction at home. Not every teen will relate to the events in Minnie’s life, but her constant striving toward something, anything better will ring true to many young readers.
Ghost World. By Daniel Clowes. Illus. by the author. 1997. Fantagraphics, $14.99 (9781560974277).
Enid and Rebecca’s friendship is characterized by acerbic aloofness and the savage mockery of anyone and anything imbued with an ounce of earnest appreciation. At first, they just seem like assholes—the targets of their mockery rarely deserve it, and their casual use of derogatory language is shocking by today’s standards. But as they each reach toward a less judgmental way of viewing the world, they don’t know how to relate to each other anymore. As Clowes zeros in on the claustrophobic nature of their friendship, he depicts the growing fracture in their relationship with such acuity that the pair becomes almost tragic.
As Clowes traces the dissolution of their friendship, iconic markers of coming-of-age float to the foreground: self-consciousness in the face of revealing genuine interest; fear of breaking away from the comforts of childhood; the earnest desire to leave home; and the heartbreak of realizing a friendship is over.
Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. Marjane Satrapi. Illus. by the author. 2004. Knopf, $17.99 (9780375422881).
Satrapi’s complete memoir is captivating and dynamic, but the second volume, which chronicles her experiences at boarding school in Austria, has the most YA appeal. In addition to the usual conflicts with parents, Satrapi’s story has the added stricture of an oppressive theocracy, and her rebellious attitude against the dogmatic rules of state might sound familiar to many young readers.
As Satrapi adjusts to a new culture and living away from her parents, she faces poignant questions about her identity. Does she broadcast her Iranian heritage and firsthand experience with war? Or does she downplay those elements of herself so it will be easier to fit in? Her desire for companionship, solidarity, and direction will resonate with YA readers, and although teens might not be as familiar with the specific details of Satrapi’s memoir, they’ll come away enlightened by her story.
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