2014-05-30 / Community

Library Links

Are graphic novels real books?
By Rachel Davis

I often overhear parents steering their children away from graphic novels, wanting them to read a so-called real book instead. Graphic novels and comics have a kind of stigma associated with them among many adults. Reading comics is not seen as real reading, just something frivolous and a waste of time, like watching TV or playing a video game. Some parents relent reluctantly, telling themselves, “Well, at least she’s reading SOMETHING.”

The genre of graphic novels has grown and developed in recent years. Once seen as written for a teen audience, graphic novels today are available for adults, as well as children – even beginning readers. Candlewick Press, for example, has an imprint called “Toon Books,” that consists of books written by well-known children’s authors and illustrators, using controlled vocabulary intended for children just learning to read. The series was created by Fran├žoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker magazine, and her husband, award-winning comics artist Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel about the Holocaust, “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” was arguably the first in a now flourishing genre of sophisticated graphic novels for adults. In an interview last year, Mouly observed, “In the 21st century there’s something magical about an artist who can actually create content with a pen. There’s something so pure about a drawing that captures the imagination and enters into the cultural dialogue. For kids to be good citizens in the 20th century, they have to be visually literate.” The comic form itself can help children learn to read. Mouly explains the foundation for Toon Books by saying, “Comics have always had a unique ability to draw young readers into a story through the drawings. Visual narrative helps kids crack the code that allows literacy to flourish, teaching them how to read from left to right, from top to bottom. Speech balloons facilitate a child’s understanding of written dialogue as a transcription of spoken language. Many of the issues that emerging readers have traditionally struggled with are instantly clarified by comics’ simple and inviting format.”

For children who are already reading chapter books, there are a vast number of graphic novels that provide rich, layered reading experiences. For example, the autobiographical graphic novel “Smile,” by Raina Telgemeier is not only popular with young readers, but has won numerous literary awards. Large publishing houses like Scholastic, as well as smaller independent ones, such as Boom Studios, publish graphic novels for children. Graphic novels for children span all genres – mystery, fantasy, historical fiction, even nonfiction. One of the most popular series at my library among third- and fourthgraders is the “Amulet” series by Kazu Kibiushi. The series follows the adventures of a brother and sister who must venture into a strange and magical world in order to avert disaster. Another popular graphic novel series, “Bone” by Jeff Smith, is popular not only with kids, but many teens and adults as well—a testimony to its layered storytelling and sophisticated narrative. With graphic novels such as these, as with the most successful picture books for young children, the art and words work seamlessly together, each informing the other.

A number of classic books for young readers have recently been adapted into graphic novel form, with fantastic results. One of my favorite books as a child, “The Last Unicorn,” by Peter S. Beagle, is now one of the most stunning graphic novels I’ve seen, beautifully illustrated by graphic artist Renae De Liz (who happens to also be a Cape Elizabeth resident,) and adapted by Peter B. Gillis. An adaption of Madeline L’Engle’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time,” another of my favorite books, by Hope Larson was published in 2012. Many Mainers are familiar with Donn Fendler’s “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.” A few years ago, this book was adapted into a graphic novel called, “Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness,” co-authored by Donn Fendler and Maine children’s author Lynn Plourde, and illustrated by Ben Bishop. The graphic novel format has the potential to bring these works to a new generation of kids who might not otherwise pick up the books on their own.

With reluctant readers, especially, the graphic novel format has the ability to hook children on reading, and the fact that they are usually quicker reads than straight narrative fiction can give kids with a poor image a sense of accomplishment at having finished an entire book – for some kids this boost can be quite powerful. I mentioned in a previous column the powerful inspiration that meeting an author can provide for children. One of the most highdemand graphic novel series at my library in the past few months has been the “Lunch Lady” series by Jarrett Krosoczka, who visited Pond Cove School back at the beginning of April. The series is about a school lunch lady who also happens to be a secret crime fighter. Krosoczka gave an inspiring TED Talk back in October 2012 about his difficult childhood, the power of imagination and creativity, and the value of art. The talk had a tremendous response, receiving attention from The Atlantic and Huffington Post. It’s well worth looking up online, and it must just inspire you seek out Krosoczka’s books, just as the children who were inspired by his school visit do at my library on a daily basis.

Thomas Memorial Library has had a thriving collection of graphic novels for teens for some time, located in their own section in our young adult room. When I first started buying graphic novels for children a number of years ago, we didn’t have very many, so we shelved them in amongst other works of fiction according to their overall genre: graphic novels that were mysteries were shelved with mysteries; fantasy with fantasy and so forth. In recent years, as more and more highly regarded graphic novels for children have been published, our collection has grown. We’ve had so many kids asking, “Where are your graphic novels?” that we decided to relocate them to a section all their own. We made this change a couple months ago and we now have kids who go immediately to that section to look for the next book in a series, or to discover something new. I see some kids now on a regular basis who were only occasional library users excitedly running to that section, and passing the books among their friends. It’s a terrific thing to see kids who I know sometimes struggle with reading so excited about books, and so eager to share them.

There is no denying that graphic novels are a great way to hook reluctant readers, but I would encourage parents to view them not just as a stepping stone to “better” books, but as a valuable reading experience in and of themselves. In a guide for teachers and librarians, Scholastic, publisher of many, many wonderful graphic novels under the “Graphix” imprint, offers this observation in defense of the genre: “The notion that graphic novels are too simplistic to be regarded as serious reading is outdated. The excellent graphic novels available today are linguistically appropriate reading material demanding many of the same skills that are needed to understand traditional works of prose fiction. Often they actually contain more advanced vocabulary than traditional books at the same age/grade/interest level. They require readers to be actively engaged in the process of decoding and comprehending a range of literary devices, including narrative structures, metaphor and symbolism, point of view, and the use of puns and alliteration, intertextuality and inference.”

My daughter is not at all a reluctant reader (with both parents as librarians, that’s hardly a surprise!) but she absolutely loves to read graphic novels. She loves seeing how the artist is able to tell a story with images as well as words. “Graphic novels are fun,” she says. “You can see what the characters look like, what they’re wearing. I wish I could write a graphic novel of my own some day, but I don’t think I’m a ‘level three’ artist yet.” She’s actually a pretty good artist, and I think it won’t be long before she experiments with this genre on her own. I’m glad that there is such a wealth of terrific graphic novels for kids, and fantastically talented artists, out there to inspire her.

Rachel Davis is assistant director/children’s librarian at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth.

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