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Find more Notes from the Field
Popular attitudes about comics and graphic novels contain a bit of a contradiction: it’s not uncommon to hear that “comics are just for kids,” but it’s equally likely you’ll hear a parent claim that comics “aren’t real books.” Luckily, the vast majority of librarians, particularly youth services librarians, know that comics make great reading for kids (and adults!) and offer engaging, enriching, and sometimes sophisticated reading opportunities that stretch plenty of literacy muscles. Stalwart Booklist contributor Jesse Karp, a school librarian in Manhattan and author, with Rush Kress, of Graphic Novels in Your School Library (ALA Editions, 2013), spoke with us via email about collecting and recommending comics and graphic novels as a school librarian and how to defends against the claim that comics don’t count as books.
Hunter: What’s your personal approach to graphic novels collection development at your library?
Karp: Primarily enjoyment; that is, what I know the kids will finding edifying and engaging and whether it looks like it will appeal to them or not. Within that, I put a premium on education and then take into consideration curricular connections. There isn’t a huge demand from teachers for graphic novels to support their curricula (though that’s slowly changing), but the students benefit from expanding their understanding of classroom discussions and homework with something more personal and, perhaps, inviting to supplement it.
I like to bring in graphic novels that experiment with subject and form in small but strategic ways, things that I know will challenge the students’ perspectives. There’s definitely room for superheroes within all this. Without superheroes, we’d be ignoring both a powerful demand from students and a genre that exemplifies the strengths of the form. There’s lots of educational possibilities within this realm. Even by purchasing Silver Age collections of Marvel comics (that is, the original Stan Lee–written material), you open up a whole realm of cultural history for conversation.
Hunter: How supportive has your school been about the graphic novels collection at your library?
Karp: I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in this regard. My fellow librarians (including Director of Library Services Jennifer Hubert) and the school director Phil Kassen had a great deal of faith in the format and allowed me to take the lead in terms of integration and collection development. This means everything from making space in the stacks so the graphic novels could have their own section to encouraging bringing comics (both as a format and as an art form) into classrooms. Teachers have been welcoming, too, though they are somewhat constrained by what they have time for. Nevertheless, I’ve cooperated on many units in classrooms, some of which have now become standards for certain grades. In fourth grade, for instance, they apply the form of comics to create their own immigrant narratives (Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, 2007, comes in handy here). In eighth grade, I join in for a unit on Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2007). This year I’m even talking with our Pre-K teacher about how to use the class’s investment in superheroes to good pedagogical effect.
Hunter: What are the most important things you consider when choosing a comic or graphic novel for your library or recommending one to a young patron?
Karp: Beyond a story that will be relevant to the readers, I’m looking for something that uses the form of comics effectively and, when possible, beautifully. That means a visual narrative that flows well but might also offer a more intricate experience on a second reading (very common with graphic novels). That means an essential unity of words and pictures, with each doing their own job. They shouldn’t slow down the reading experience, either by duplicating narrative information or by sucking up too much attention from the other. They should support each other well, each carrying its own information but priming the reader’s attention for the other.
If the story’s engaging and the visuals aren’t, then you lose, since the visuals tend to be the primary vehicle of enjoyment, especially for young readers. There’s not as much at stake the other way around (great visuals, poor story), because your soul can still be nourished by satisfying images. But it’s not ideal. It’s a crucial balance; if a picture is worth a thousand words, there are a thousand times more ways to ruin a graphic novel than to ruin prose.
Hunter: Have you ever had to deal with a parent who doesn’t think comics count as “real” reading? How do you approach an interaction like that?
Karp: It doesn’t happen frequently, I’m happy to say, but it does happen with some consistency (once or twice a year). It helps to have facts on hand about the ways that the visual elements and the structure of the format do, in fact, promote literacy. It also helps to have the teachers and administration already on board with the efficacy of graphic novels.
But I find that the most important thing to remember is that the parent is just worried about the child’s best interest. Assuaging that anxiety is a matter of showing that you, also, are working for the child’s best interest. You can talk about how children’s investment in what they’re reading is a key element in learning to love all forms of reading as they get older, and the format engenders a huge level of investment. You can offer to help the child find another book of interest once a week, or once every two weeks, along with the graphic novel he or she wants.
Hunter: What have been the most successful books at your library? Have any truly surprised you?
Karp: Series tend to own the graphic novel market, and certain series have amazing moments of popularity that give way to another series—Babymouse into Lunch Lady, for example. Anything Star Wars is always big, the Clone Wars digests in particular. Superheroes keep bringing them in (particularly Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen and Wonder Woman at the moment). Be Prepared (2018), by Vera Brosgol, is having a moment right now. For younger readers, the Bird and Squirrel books by James Burks and Dog Man by Dav Pilkey are a hit. The industry re-defining Smile (2010), along with Raina Telgemeier’s other work, remain undying top reads.
But the books that have remained huge from their inception through the present, the ones we never seem to have enough of on the shelves no matter how many we order, the ones that must be replaced from wear over and over, are those in George O’Connor’s Olympians series. Across gender and race, the Greek myths still resonate, and O’Connor’s contemporary approach hits exactly the right tenor and accessibility level. Any surprise I experience over what books become beloved is really about the massive change the industry has undergone over the last year.
Hunter: Tell me more about those changes. Are there any that you’re hoping to see in the future?
Karp: They’ve gone from being almost exclusively a boy’s format to a gender-equal pursuit (actually, in our library, girls represent a slightly larger graphic novel readership now). This is thanks to a vast widening of subjects and perspectives, which can only be good for the format and, incidentally, for humanity. This is thanks mainly to contributions by female cartoonists like Raina Telgemeier becoming a much larger part of the industry landscape. The graphic novel–reading girls were always out there, waiting, they just needed a voice that spoke to them.
What I would most hope for is that the same should begin to happen for racial diversity, too. We’re seeing the beginnings, I think, with generally more diverse character ensembles, but we need more culturally and racially diverse creators to be given an outlet. I think Jerry Craft’s New Kid (2019) will prove to be a linchpin book for this, just as Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese was a few years ago.
Hunter: What advice would you give to librarians hoping to improve their readers’ advisory or collection development skills when it comes to kids’ comics and graphic novels?
Karp: Got to a comic book store. Take a good long time to browse. Flip through a bunch of things. Don’t ignore the superheroes. You can find good recommendations from many online sources, but nobody knows your specific readers like you do. Honing and fine-tuning your collection is a matter of having choices that are well off the beaten path. That one graphic novel that no one else has ever heard of can quietly change the life of that one perfect reader. There is no place that has as wide, as deep, or as obscure a range of choices as the right comic store (if you have none in your area, you can often browse the inventory of a comic store online). It’s also a great—and often surprising—education in how the format continues to evolve.
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