Before we go any further, though, here’s another question at the heart of the matter: Should we call these books “comics” or “graphic novels”? Over the years, “comics” has become something of a pejorative, meaning a less-than-literary book played for laughs. “Graphic novel” sounds more highbrow, but it’s not always correct, given that many of these books now are memoirs and other kinds of nonfiction. In addition, some people still get tripped up by the multiple meanings of the word “graphic.” Françoise Mouly, the publisher of TOON books suggests using the word “comics” as a broader term to describe books with sequential art and words, which need not be funny (but can be).
So, comics it is.
As librarians, we see how so many kids readily connect to comics and how this connection to books is helping to create lifelong readers. Dave Burbank, my library’s comics expert, likes to reassure worried parents that many young readers are drawn to the genre because comics bear a resemblance to the screens so ubiquitous in our kids’ lives, yet they are reading a book — not staring at a phone or tablet.
We know that comics are especially beneficial to struggling or reluctant readers, as well as English-language learners. These books also offer all readers a way to practice important reading skills such as building vocabulary, understanding a sequence of events, discerning the plot of a story and making inferences. And comics give young readers training in visual literacy — helping them read and interpret images — an essential skill in our highly visual world.
So why do some parents and teachers continue to regard comics in such a negative light? Part of it may have to do with the history of comics in the United States, Mouly said. In the 1950s, Mouly notes, congressional hearings were held on what lawmakers saw as a possible connection between juvenile delinquency and comics. Worried that the federal government would try to regulate their industry, comics publishers established the Comics Code Authority as an alternative to government regulation. The Comics Code required that comic books show respect for established authority and banned nudity and explicit violence. While voluntary, the code was followed by many publishers, resulting in an industry focused largely on producing simple, laugh-inducing kids’ comics like “Archie.”
In the 1980s, there was a backlash as more publishers decided to create comics for adults, such as the classic “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns,” published in 1986. The market became dominated by glossy, expensive superhero comics mostly aimed at an adult male audience. Suddenly, comics were really not for kids anymore.
Then, in 1992, “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” a graphic novel by author/artist Art Spiegelman (Mouly’s husband), became the first comic to win a Pulitzer Prize, giving the format a new standing in American literature.
From there, comics have been on a slow, but mostly steady, march to acceptance as more literary graphic novels and comics were published, first for adults and now for children and teens. In the past decade, the increase in female comics creators, such as Raina Telgemeier, has expanded the range of books published for both adults and kids. Superhero stories have been joined on the comics shelves by realistic fiction and by memoirs and other nonfiction.
Mouly credits librarians with helping to shift the public’s thinking about comics, as libraries, rather than comic book shops, have become the go-to place to find the genre. Yet, an implicit — and strong — bias remains in U.S. education against books with pictures. While picture books are seen as wonderful and important for young pre-readers, once kids learn to read, the prevailing wisdom is that it’s time to take away the pictures. Even parents and teachers who condone comics often see them as a steppingstone toward the goal of reading text-only books.
Kids have fought back. Over a decade and a half, they have embraced comics and highly illustrated “hybrid” series such as Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries. At the same time, comics for kids have begun winning literary awards. In 2007, “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang became the first graphic novel to win the Michael Printz Award, given annually to the best book for teens. It was also a National Book Award finalist. In 2015, “El Deafo” was the first comic to win a Newbery Honor, an award for text, not pictures.
This year, the literary community went a step further, awarding “New Kid,” a graphic novel written and illustrated by Jerry Craft, the 2020 Newbery Medal, considered the most prestigious U.S. children’s book award. Although two previous graphic novels won Newbery Honors, this was the first time that a comic captured the top award.
Comics won an unprecedented eight awards this year when the American Library Association announced its selection of the best new books for kids and teens. Among the winners was “Hey, Kiddo,” a graphic memoir written and illustrated by Jarrett Krosoczka, which received the 2020 Odyssey Award for the best-produced audiobook for kids and teens, breaking another boundary for comics.
With such achievements and the soaring popularity of comics and hybrid books among young people, publishers have rushed to establish new imprints and sign new comics creators to fill the demand.
Among the new imprints are Random House Graphics; among its first books, to be published this spring, is “Stepping Stones,” the first for kids ages 8-12 by best-selling comics writer and illustrator Lucy Knisley. And Houghton Mifflin recently announced its new imprint, Etch, which this fall will publish its first books, including “Oh My Gods!,” by Stephanie Cooke and Insha Fitzpatrick, and “Dinomighty!,” by Greg Trine.
The kids are on board with comics, and so are many publishers, librarians, teachers and literary award givers. I’m hopeful that still-reluctant parents and educators are coming around. Whenever I encounter resistance, I think of what Robin Brenner, teens librarian at the Public Library of Brookline, Mass., and founder of the “No Flying No Tights” website, said: “Comics are not intended to replace prose. They are just one way to tell a story. But they can be as demanding, creative, intelligent, compelling, and full of story as any book.”
Karen MacPherson is the children’s and teen services coordinator for the Takoma Park, Md., library.
ESSAY ON GRAPHIC NOVELS