All library staff who work with comics in collections have been confronted by skeptics: folks from skeptical parents to readers dismissive of anything but prose will subtly (or not so subtly) reject comics as as format worth reading, collecting, or understanding. This is quieter than official challenges or objections to titles, but can be a challgenge for any comics advocate in the library world on a daily basis.

In this discussion, we’ve brought together NFNT contributors who work with public and school collections to tackle how to respond to comics skeptics.

When patrons ask you “why read graphic novels?” or “why let my children read graphic novels”, what are some of your best arguments or points?

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Kris

I always stress that graphic novels ‘trick’ kids into reading more. The same kids who hate to read a long book or an easy chapter will read multiple comic books if given the chance. 4 or 5 comic books can add up to a lot of text on the page and can be a great way to hook reluctant readers into something. Then if that doesn’t work, I normally talk about how the interplay of text and visual images causes the brain to work differently than just reading a book. I always loved the idea that comic readers are creating a movie in their head, and filling in those gaps and gutters in the art to create their own version of how the action flowed in a story.

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James

Reading a graphic novel is almost like the midpoint between reading a book and watching a movie. You read the words and watch the action play out. It does indeed feel like less work and I do read graphic novels faster, but my brain is also working to process the text and the subtle touches like facial expressions and composition that the artist is using to create the story.

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Adam

I would ask “why not?” Truly, why wouldn’t you want them reading period? You will hear teachers say something along the lines of “I don’t care what they read, as long as they are reading.” That is half the battle. It seems silly as the parent/guardian to get in the way of them reading at all because you never know what they will fall in love with and what it will turn them on to from there. Kris mentioned a point I use too: they are great for reluctant readers. A reluctant reader may get a real sense of accomplishment from finishing a book and a graphic novel may be the bridge to help achieve that sense of satisfaction. Both Kris and James illustrated my favorite talking point though, our brains interpret the page differently and actually do more work when reading a comic. You’ll scan the page for the art, to take in the action, read the text, go back and revisit the action and then sort out the details. This can also help deepen our involvement in the story and investment in what we’re reading. 

Reading a graphic novel is almost like the midpoint between reading a book and watching a movie. You read the words and watch the action play out. It does indeed feel like less work and I do read graphic novels faster, but my brain is also working to process the text and the subtle touches like facial expressions and composition that the artist is using to create the story.

James

What do you do when a parent complains, “my kid only reads graphic novels and I want them to read a REAL book!”? What are your responses when someone insists reading comics is not really reading?

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Kris

I always come back with, ‘Well have you ever watched a foreign movie with the subtitles on? Or how about how people watch anime in Japanese with the English subtitles on?’ That’s reading too! There are numerous things you may not think are reading, but in essence, require reading skills to properly interpret and digest. If you are only looking at the art in a graphic novel, you are skipping out on the ‘novel’ part of the story. Then, it’d be like watching a movie with no sound on at all.

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Emily

I agree, Kris. When we read graphic novels we are using the images and the text to understand the story. Graphic novels are not less complex than “real” books. They have a different type of complexity, giving our kids the chance to flex different critical thinking muscles.  

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James

I really like Kris’s example of watching a movie with subtitles and I’m totally stealing it. You are indeed using different parts of your brain to interpret a story. This could be a reminder about how there are graphic novels out there for all sorts of age groups, and you could even, according to the situation, give some examples of ones you’ve enjoyed. 

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Adam

I always take umbrage with the idea of a “real book” because I think it limits what reading can be and makes too broad an assumption about how people interpret information. Not everyone is physically able to sit down and read a novel without issue. Some people aren’t wired for this experience and that’s why it’s important for libraries to offer a variety of reading experiences. When it comes to engaging with reading, why wouldn’t we use every tool we have available to us to help people learn to love it? I’m also not opposed to asking them to defend the idea of a “real book” over a graphic novel to see if there is a root to the prejudice we can talk about.

Have you ever watched a foreign movie with the subtitles on? Or how about how people watch anime in Japanese with the English subtitles on? That’s reading too! There are numerous things you may not think are reading, but in essence, require reading skills to properly interpret and digest.

Kris

What readings or other resources do you recommend for librarians who don’t read graphic novels and want to learn more and better advocate for them?

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Emily

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud breaks down the meaning behind stylistic choices in the comic format. If you are struggling to find the right words to describe the use of images in graphic novels, this is a great resource. Also, many of our favorite youth media awards have past graphic novel winners and honor books. Those might be good titles for librarians who want to find their way into the genre.

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James

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics has some great visual examples of how graphic novels work, and how graphic novels aren’t a genre, but a medium. That in itself is an important distinction.

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Adam

Emily and James both bring up great points and places I would start. I appreciate mentioning the distinction between genre and medium because I think this trips people up. Most people’s favorite genre has graphic novels you can start with to get your feet wet. To Emily’s point, if you start an internet search for “award-winning graphic novels” most browsers will start to autofill things like “for elementary,” “for young adult,” “for middle grades,” or even by year. These books will often have more than just reviews written about them, giving you more insight into the book and author immediately. You can also use this to jump to any number of studies done talking about the power of graphic novels and comics as a reading or teaching tool and how they can help those trying to learn English as well. 

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Kris

I love love love McCloud as well, but honestly one of the best things you can do is to do as Adam says and read what’s out there. Get your hands on the comics that circulate the most in your libraries, and read them to see what people enjoy. Not all comics are humorous, so be prepared to face some very different tones and genres!

What advice do you have for introducing patrons to graphic novels? Do you suggest particular titles? Do you have a process for determining what titles might be a good fit for someone who’s just starting to read graphic novels?

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James

It would depend on the patron and their tastes. To younger readers, I’d mention Dave Pilkey or Jennifer Holm. I’d also try to get a taste of what genre they like, either by what they read, what they watch, or what video games they play.

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Adam

I usually start by asking about their favorite genre or examples of a couple of books they enjoy. From there it is much easier to suggest graphic novels that might appeal to them. Sometimes it’s as easy as asking if they want capes or not. There are tons of non-fiction graphic novels available now for people not interested in superhero stories. For younger readers sometimes asking if there are characters they like can point you towards books/authors they might enjoy.

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Kris

I have a similar process to James, I ask what movies or books they have been enjoying and go from there! I also ask if there is any specific superhero or comic that has always appealed to them because maybe I will know a few that I can recommend. But I cannot recommend Brian K. Vaughan or James Tynion IV enough, no matter if you read the material aimed at kids, teens, or adults. Both writers have such a great storytelling gift, they are ones I would use to grab those reluctant readers.

Most people’s favorite genre has graphic novels you can start with to get your feet wet…You can also use this to jump to any number of studies done talking about the power of graphic novels and comics as a reading or teaching tool and how they can help those trying to learn English as well.

Adam

Are there sub-categories of graphic novels that require different tactics?  For example, do you offer different points on manga, or when discussing series versus stand-alone titles, or superhero tales?  What are your pointers for these types?

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Adam

I think the only modifier I use when talking about manga with patrons is to point out which titles are sprawling series and what’s fairly compact. You can read all of Blue Flag in 8 volumes at roughly 224 pages each, but something like One Piece is over 90 volumes. Manga has its own subcategories to worry about, like shojo versus shonen, but that’s a deeper dive conversation. It is generally easier to ask people what type of story they would like to read and go from there. Not everyone has seen The Avengers movies or The Justice League and may not know character names, but they can always tell you about the type of story they would like to read. I love telling people about books like Usagi Yojimbo or Lone Wolf and Cub for historical fiction books that give you two very different versions of feudal Japan for different audiences.

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Kris

Adam is right, manga has a few differences but not too many. One thing I love to point out is that manga, for the most part, is imported from an entirely different culture. A lot of things that happen in manga make readers uncomfortable (i.e. the over-sexualization of characters, and the exploitation of queer stories). US media has similar issues with overt sexualization and stereotyping, but how these issues manifest in manga is different and often startling for new manga readers. Of course, this talking point is more for the other librarians and the adults as I find the teens are more invested and well aware of the cultural differences between Japan/USA.

Are there other types of resistance you’ve encountered?  How did you work to convince the patron?

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Adam

The only other resistance I’ve run into with Graphic Novels that I can think of are the parents of specifically tweens or teens who feel like they are running out of time to get them to read a novel. The impression is that they haven’t grown out of graphic novels and need to or else. I will usually point out that we have a section in the adult wing for graphic novels aimed at the over 18 crowd, so there is no age limit here. I will also point out that sometimes kids have trouble identifying with a character or story and if they aren’t finding it in the novels they are being presented with, maybe there is a non-hero graphic novel that could help be a bridge. Sometimes this is easier to identify at a distance because we have the advantage of illustrations to quickly give you an idea of what is happening in the story just by flipping several pages. The range in diversity of characters, voices, authors, and styles is wider than it has ever been in graphic novels and comics and that’s really exciting to see.

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Kris

The most resistance I run into are those offhanded comments like, “Ugh, but wouldn’t reading a book be better?” I tend to find that the answers I already come prepared with are enough to convince them otherwise.

What do you do when you fail to convince someone?  (We’ve all been there!)

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Adam

I’m not above subterfuge if it’s a parent or guardian being obstructionist. I just want to get people reading, so I’ll suggest things like one of our eBook apps (Libby, Hoopla, etc.) If the parent is willing to let their kids try “reading on a device” I trust that the kids will look up what they actually want to be reading and wait for them to find the troves of graphic novels and comics making their way to these apps every day.

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Kris

Oh, I don’t give up. I’ll find a way to get them to check out at least one. I’m sure many parents have thought I was going to hound them out the door if they didn’t take one! I kid, mostly, but I find that if you get the parent to make a deal with the kid, then they will leave with a graphic novel. For example, I’ll say “Well, why don’t you check out this I Survive Graphic novel AND an I Survive easy chapter book? You can see which one you like better!”

We don’t create lifelong readers by limiting access to their favorite books. We sometimes imagine graphic novel readers are just trying to avoid a “typical” book.

First, let them. If a student is overwhelmed by a page of words, let them find their love for reading somewhere else.

Second, labeling graphic novels as the “easy” or “quick” option for reluctant readers ignores the real literary quality of many graphic novels.

Emily

Why should teachers consider using graphic novels in their classrooms? What advice do you have for librarians who want to help teachers incorporate graphic novels into their curriculum? 

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Emily

I think graphic novels are fascinating to study at the literary level. They rely on the relationship between image and text to convey meaning. The use of color, the size and shape of panels, how the illustrator zooms in and out during a scene, and the way an image is cropped are all intentional choices to tell the story and worthy of exploration through the curriculum. I put together a lesson to explore these elements with students -to help those teachers who are hesitant or might be uncomfortable with the conventions of the format. And if you are uncomfortable with the format, read and learn more about them, so you too can advocate for comics and graphic novels. There are many awesome resources out there to explore.

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Kris

School should be about exploring topics and subjects from all angles, and sometimes the best medium to present a story is a graphic novel. In the case of the recently re-discovered Maus, the graphic novel medium allows the images to confront the reader with the harsh truth of what is being told without compromising the flow of the story by using traditional Nazi imagery such as Hiter’s face.

There’s been a number of instances lately among library staff working in schools instituting  “graphic novel vacations” during which they keep graphic novel collections back from readers in order to prevent them from checking them out and ostensibly to encourage them to read other (implied prose) books. What would you say to a colleague that proposes that tactic?

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Emily

This actually happened at a school I worked at as a reading teacher. The graphic novel shelf (one shelf) was always a mess, so the librarian, in a moment of frustration, locked up all of the graphic novels for a month. The shelf was destroyed because students loved those books. We don’t create lifelong readers by limiting access to their favorite books. We sometimes imagine graphic novel readers are just trying to avoid a “typical” book. First, let them. If a student is overwhelmed by a page of words, let them find their love for reading somewhere else. Second, labeling graphic novels as the “easy” or “quick” option for reluctant readers ignores the real literary quality of many graphic novels. Honestly, one of my biggest pet peeves in reading education is the expectation that students always read on or near reading level. Teachers and librarians as readers ourselves RARELY read on our actual reading level, yet we still are able to grow in our ability to critically read books. Reading level refers to your ability to understand the words in context and the structure of the sentences, but reading is much more than that. When a student reads a book below their reading level, their mind is free to better see and understand the meaning and themes behind the words. Even if you consider the text of a graphic novel to be “easy,” there is a great deal of complexity in the convergence of image and text that our students are navigating.

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Kris

Wait, you’re punishing kids who want to read? You are taking away the thing they want to read and locking it away? Do you realize how hard it is to keep kids reading in the first place? Sure, tell them they aren’t allowed to read their chosen title for a month, you’ll lose their trust forever.

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  • Kris

    | he/him Librarian

    Reviewer

    Kris is a librarian for the Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries, because being a Power Ranger was not a ‘legitimate life choice.’ A fan of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy Kris was drawn to comic books and manga through 90s Saturday morning cartoons like Spider-man and Batman TAS and shows like the Beetleborgs. Kris uses graphic novels and manga to start conversations with reluctant readers at his library, tricking them into reading almost an entire books’ worth through a multi-volume manga or comic series. A fan of storytelling in any medium, Kris is also an avid gamer and loves tv and film. Some current favorites include: Chucky on NBC, God of War for PC, and yet another playthrough the of Kingdom Hearts franchise. For a complete list of books Kris has read, as well as shorter less eloquent reviews, check Kris’ goodreads out.

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  • James

    | He/Him Circulation Librarian, Clark County Public Library

    Reviewer

    James Gardner is a Circulation Librarian at Clark County Public Library in Kentucky. Along with writing his own stories, he reviews horror for his own blog The Foreboding Home of the Scary Librarian and other places. But graphic novels are another love of his, having grown up loving Spider-Man and the X-Men. Reviewing graphic novels is a dream gig because the graphic novel is a medium that is full of great stories. One of the best things about being a librarian is always having an excuse to read graphic novels among other books, which is because readers’ advisory depends on reading books (while advising is the other half, of course). He also enjoys role-playing games, which is another opportunity for him to immerse himself in a story.

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  • Adam

    | he/him Technology Specialist

    Reviewer

    Adam is a Technology Specialist at the Way Public Library in Perrysburg, Ohio. His duties include helping patrons understand how to use various library related apps, where he is sure to point out which have access to graphic novels and comics. He curates and has presented on the library's "Beyond Books" collection and takes secret joy in ordering video games as an actual job function. His favorite duty is ordering graphic novels for the adult section of the library, which he feels better equipped for than ordering books on say, transportation. A lifelong comic reader, he still remembers buying X-Force #1 and his mom throwing away X-Force #1. You can find him yearly at C2E2's librarians meet-up complaining to no one in particular about Rob Liefeld's inability to draw feet.

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  • Emily

    | She/Her Library Media Specialist, Shrewsbury High School

    Reviewer

    Emily is the library media specialist at Shrewsbury High School in Massachusetts. She has been in libraries for 9 years and education for 15. Before the high school, she worked as a librarian at an elementary school in Texas and before that a reading teacher. She has been advocating for and recommending graphic novels and comics to her students at every stage. Emily is also passionate about civic engagement for students and teens. She has presented about 10 Questions for Young Changemakers at local conferences and is helping as they build professional development opportunities for other librarians. In addition to the library and reading, Emily also has a toddler at home who screams with excitement every time she gets a new book.

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