Library Patrons Object To Some Graphic Novels

By David Twiddy
Associated Press
Monday, December 18, 2006

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- When Amy Crump took over as director of the Marshall Public Library in central Missouri two years ago, she decided to build up the library's offerings for young adults by buying the literary world's hot new thing -- graphic novels, which are presented comic book-style but often have mature themes.

"The bulk of our graphic novels are for young adults and they're very popular," Crump said, estimating the library's collection has gone from only a handful to around 75.

Among the new acquisitions was "Blankets" by Craig Thompson and "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel, two semi-autobiographical accounts of the respective authors' turbulent childhoods that include ruminations on strict religious upbringing and homosexuality.

The two novels touched off what Crump said was the first challenge of library materials in Marshall's 16-year history, as parents complained that the books, which include pictures of a naked couple, could be read by children attracted by the comic book-like drawings.

"My concern does not lie with the content of the novels. Rather my concern is with the illustrations and their availability to children and the community," said resident Louise Mills, during a recent public hearing. "Does this community want our public library to continue to use tax dollars to purchase pornography?"

The library board has since removed the two books from circulation while it develops a policy governing how it collects materials in the future.

Libraries across the country are increasingly buying graphic novels as they seek to reconnect with younger patrons and respond to popular trends.

The novels are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the publishing industry, selling $250 million last year, according to market research firm ICV2 Publishing.

Milton Griepp, chief executive of ICV2, which tracks pop culture retail, estimated libraries add another 5 to 10 percent to retail sales of graphic novels, which totaled only $75 million in 2001.

"Maus," a Holocaust memoir by Art Spiegelman, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and this year Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese" became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award.

But the books are also gaining more visibility among parents and other community members who had been unfamiliar with graphic novels and are alarmed to see "cartoon" characters doing and saying very adult things.

"I think there's still a perception in the general public that comics are just for kids, which isn't true and hasn't been true for years," Griepp said.

The Chicago-based American Library Association said it knows of at least 14 challenges to graphic novels in U.S. libraries over the past two to three years. Among the titles were "The Watchmen" by Alan Moore, which was challenged in Florida and Virginia as unsuitable for younger readers; "Akira, Volume 2" by Katsuhiro Otomo, challenged in Texas for offensive language; and "New X-Men Imperial" by Grant Morrison, challenged in Maryland for nudity, offensive language and violence.

"Maus" and its sequel, "Maus II," were challenged last year in Oregon as anti-ethnic and unsuitable for younger readers.

"Some people find graphical depictions of things more offensive than text," said Catholic University professor Carrie Gardner, a spokeswoman for the ALA's Committee for Intellectual Freedom.

The issue has become prevalent enough that the ALA, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund earlier this year put out a set of recommendations for librarians looking to begin their own graphic novel collections but wanting to avoid controversy.

The recommendations largely explain how to deal with challenges but also suggest shelving graphic novels in their own section or keeping graphic novels aimed at adults separate from those for youngsters.

Gardner said discussions around graphic novels are similar to what happened when libraries began carrying videotapes and providing access to the Internet.

"Librarians are trained to conduct reference interviews and guide patrons to the resources most appropriate for them," Gardner says. "They should be making those decisions."

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