When it comes to reading choices, too often we hand down judgments about what others choose to spend their time consuming. We use phrases like guilty pleasure, trash (usually reserved for romance novels of the Harlequin variety), and light, which of course implies the opposite of Literary, with Literary being the highest level of reading one can do, or at least fiction reading. Why can’t we stop with the judgement and instead start to get better acquainted with all those genres we bad mouth?
For many years, and even still to this day, graphic novels and comic books have been talked down by academics and critics who see them as lesser quality books. Well-meaning parents have tried to turn their children away from comics, believing they’re not “real books.” In fact, educators and researchers have proven that comic books come with plenty of benefits for young readers. The storylines and character development in graphic novels and comics can be just as layered and rich as those in chapter books. While many consider comics purely a visual medium, they do contain text; a lot of text, in many cases! And let’s also not forget that knowing how to read pictures, including understanding facial emotions and sequencing, is a form of literacy. This is especially helpful for children with autism, who often have difficulty identifying emotions. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, children enjoy graphic novels! They love the visuals, they love the fast-paced action, and they feel a sense of accomplishment when they finish one (usually far more quickly than when they read a “traditional” chapter book), which will hopefully encourage them to keep reading.
I wasn’t always such a fan of graphic novels. I equated them with comic books, which I associated with superheros…not a topic I cared to read about. I had been blown away by Maus when I read it in college for a course on literature of the Holocaust. I also enjoyed American Born Chinese, a young adult graphic novel by recent Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Luen Yang. Finally, I read my first non-syllabus mandated graphic novel in 2015 while attempting to participate in a reading challenge. My selection for this momentous occasion? Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. This “family tragicomic” was adapted into a Tony-award winning musical. I use Pinterest to keep track of my reading, and here’s what I wrote about Fun Home:
Graphic Novel: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. My first graphic novel read for pleasure and not because it’s on a syllabus. Fun Home is fantastic! I think I had a preconceived idea that graphic novels are less “literary” but Bechdel proves me wrong. Her language is elevated and sophisticated (she even uses the term simulacrum) and her autobiography is poetic and honest.
As you can see, I had some outdated ways of viewing graphic novels. I would also like to apologize for insinuating that all good books must be “literary” in order to be worthwhile. Bechdel’s happens to be sophisticated and really, really good, but a book–comic or otherwise–can be considered worthwhile by a reader for a whole host of reasons, and no one should decide for you what makes a book deserving of your time and attention.
That first taste encouraged me to devour more and more graphic novels, and since 2015 I have read 17 (!!) graphic novels. I can’t even believe it’s been that many! They’re addicting. I love that I can read a graphic novel in a single sitting and I marvel over the incredible talent of the illustrators, who use both words and images to convey so much emotion. I remember being told by a high school English teacher (I had some truly amazing English teachers at MacArthur High School) that great writing shows rather than tells. In my experience, graphic novels are all about showing, through the incredible combination of words and images, a profound range of the human experience.
As a graduate student studying Library Science, I was introduced to a whole new world of comics thanks to my professor and adviser, Dr. Lucia Cedeira Serantes. I read the fantastic first volume in Paper Girls and became aware of so many other graphic novels that I’ve added to my TBR pile, like Monstress and Tomboy. I would be remiss–and a terrible former student of Dr. Serantes’–if I did not state, for the record, that all graphic novels should be multiple times, because each reading will allow you to dig deeper and deeper into the story.
So, what are some of the best graphic novels I’ve read? Blankets is certainly the longest at 582 pages, and one of the most gorgeous. As a side note, I would recommend reading it during the winter for the ambience. All of Raina Telgemeier’s books are excellent, though I have a special affinity for Drama. I also happen to be the biggest advocate for Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, a Newbery Honor book that speaks so honestly about the evolving nature of middle grade female friendship. I had been counting down the days to the publication of Laurie Halse Anderson’s graphic novel adaptation of her wildly popular and important 1999 YA book Speak. I’m thrilled to report that I thought it held up to the original, using the graphic format to great advantage.
The LPL fully supports your right to read comics! We have a graphic novel section in the Reference Department, near the end of the magazines. Our Young Adult Department also has a special section for graphic novels in the teen lounge, and our children’s librarians are always happy to show you where we keep our graphic novels in the juvenile nonfiction section. Stop by your local comic book store on Saturday, May 5th, 2018 to celebrate Free Comic Book Day! If you’re a teen, swing by the library between 2:00 and 4:00 to get another free comic book, do a craft, or watch some anime.
Comics are about more than superheros and space invaders–though they can be about those things, too, if that’s what you’re looking for! It’s a rich and diverse genre, and my brief discussion here barely scratches a millimeter of the surface; I didn’t even mention manga, which many of you are probably shaking your heads about. Speaking of manga, that’s an area I have yet to explore. If you have any great manga or other comics to recommend, please drop me a line.
Do yourself a favor and give graphic novels a try. They just might remind you why you fell in love with reading in the first place.