How Graphic Novels Thrive in High-School Libraries: A Discussion
Our tour through the library programs of schools (in relation to graphic novels) finishes here, with a discussion involving some high-school librarians talking about the problems they face, the solutions they’ve uncovered, and the issues they’ve successfully dealt with. Here’s a look at what goes on in some typical schools and how they handle the reading needs of a very diverse audience that is growing up rapidly—but is not quite made up of adults yet.
Melissa Neace; Librarian, Larkin High School, Elgin, IL
Heidi Hammond, Ph.D.; I.M.C. Coordinator, Henry Sibley High School, Mendota Heights, MN
Kimberly A. Brosan, Teacher-Librarian; Williamsport Area High School, Williamsport, PA
Have you been able to incorporate graphic novels and manga into your school library?
Melissa: Yes, for the last decade.
Kimberly: I currently have a small collection of about 60 titles. We are adding new titles by student request this year. What I have has been extremely well received. Our most popular series so far is Fullmetal Alchemist.
Heidi: Six years ago, I became the media specialist of the high school in my school district. At that time, the library had three graphic novels: Maus, Pedro and Me,and The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom. I knew nothing about graphic novels, but because they were gaining so much attention in the library literature, I thought I’d better learn. I read articles about graphic novels and looked at lists and began purchasing some. I learned through a newspaper article about a local graphic novelist, Sam Hiti, and invited him to come visit the students at my high school and the students in the children’s literature course I taught at a nearby college. He shared his favorite titles and helped us all learn more about graphic novels. Gradually, the high-school collection grew from three to over 400 graphic novels.
What percentage of your annual budget are you able to allocate to graphic novels and manga?
Kimberly: I honestly haven’t looked at them as a percentage. I order based on interest and need. I’m currently preparing a book order, and I would say that graphic novels are probably at least 20 percent of the order. We are adding additional series, including Bleach, Naruto, and Rosario Vampire.
Melissa: Depending on my funding levels and school needs for any given year, between 3 and 10 percent of the budget. About 5 percent of my total titles are graphic novels.
Heidi: Approximately 30 percent of my budget is allocated for media resources, which includes books. I can spend as much of that as I deem necessary on graphic novels, which includes manga. While building the collection, I may have spent more than I would now. I estimate that close to half the dollars I spend on books are spent on graphic novels, as they are very popular. I am spending less money on nonfiction books due to purchasing online databases. I’ve also had students donate manga when they finish reading it. If I’m not familiar with it, I read the reviews before I accept it. This has helped to stretch the budget.
How do the students react to them?
Heidi: This is an interesting question! I purchased all kinds of graphic novels: superhero, manga, and art (both fiction and nonfiction). The superhero and manga graphic novels were circulating, but it was rare any students checked out art graphic novels, which have been defined as fiction or nonfiction in multiple genres, often written and drawn by one individual. I wondered why these weren’t circulating, so much so that I decided I wanted to do a reader response study to an art graphic novel for my Ph.D. thesis. I was casting about for a suitable title when American Born Chinese by Gene Yang won the Printz Award. I had the book for my study! I asked a senior political science class to read and respond to the book and they loved it. Most of them were unfamiliar with graphic novels, at least of this kind, or even the term graphic novels. Some were aware of Maus, but they hadn’t read it and didn’t know it was called a graphic novel. Students were surprised how much they enjoyed reading a graphic novel. Initially, some balked at reading a “comic book.” It didn’t seem like serious literature to them. However, they found a graphic novel could include serious issues such as immigration, culture, racial identity, and stereotyping. While they had no trouble reading and understanding the book, they appreciated it even more after lessons about comics conventions. Asked to read and respond to the book a second time, they felt they noticed more in the images and grasped more of what the author was attempting to communicate. They indicated that they would be interested in reading more graphic novels similar to American Born Chinese.
Melissa: Students love them! Graphic novels are 10–15 percent of my circulation each month; with an infusion of new titles, last month they were 29 percent. Their in-house use is also quite high. They help me build relationships with students. When I can have a conversation with a student about a graphic novel he/she is reading, I am more likely to engage that student in other readers’ advisory as well.
Kimberly: Students seem to be excited about them—so far this year, they account for 10 percent of our circulation and reserves are comparable to other popular books, like the Twilight series.
How did parents, teachers, and administrators react to including them? Is there still a stigma with putting graphic literature in an academic setting?
Kimberly: I haven’t found a negative reaction at the high school, but when I applied for a district grant to fund graphic novels at the middle school, I sent a copy of Auschwitz as a sample. One of the administrators on the grant board complained that there were guns depicted in the story when we’re trying to keep guns out of the schools. Even so, I was awarded partial funding for that grant. This year, we received a federal Improving Literacy Through School Libraries grant and will be running student book groups each month. For November, to connect with American Education week, students invite an adult to read and attend the weekly book club with them. One of the two titles we’ll be using then is Ghost World because we wanted to encourage adults to stretch outside of their comfort zone and read a graphic novel that they might not otherwise pick up and explore. It will be interesting to hear how they respond to the format.
Melissa: I have never had a negative comment about the inclusion of format. Visitors and new staff usually comment positively on the collection. Fellow educators usually have heard about the “trend” in their use. Everyone else is used to them, since the collection is well established. And most people in my building know I’m a comic geek anyway!
Heidi: I’ve had a graphic novel display in the hallway display case outside the library and I’ve not had any negative comments from parents, teachers, or administrators. Many people express interest in the books. I only encountered one instance of stigma attached to graphic novels. I offered a set of American Born Chinese to a summer-school English teacher. He declined my offer based on his belief that parents, students, administrators, and other teachers might consider using them an instance of “dummying down” the summer-school curriculum. He didn’t believe that himself, but he chose not to risk any challenges.
Which books have been most popular with students?
Melissa: Superhero titles are most popular for in-house casual reading. Manga titles have the highest circ numbers. Most popular superheroes: Batman, Superman, Flash, Spider-Man, X-Men, but Spider-Girl and Runaways are very strong, even without a mass market tie-in. Most popular manga: Fruits Basket, Death Note, Bleach, Naruto. Most popular independents: Bone, Invincible.
Heidi: Initially, the superhero graphic novels were most popular. But as I purchased more manga, their circulation has surpassed the superhero variety, which appears to be on the decline. However, when movies such as The Dark Knight or The Watchmen came out, those books were in demand. The art graphic novels are less popular. Based on my study, I believe the lack of popularity for art graphic novels is largely due to a lack of awareness by the general study body that they exist.
Kimberly: Fullmetal Alchemist has been the most popular series, but I’ve found that the few titles I have that are supposed to develop SAT vocabulary are also going out regularly.
What guidelines do you follow when choosing which titles to bring in to your school library?
Kimberly: I try to look at reviews, get input from students, and also listen to what others tell me about various series. I’m a member of YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association) and LM_NET (school librarian) listservs, where books are discussed, and I try to order things I see recommended there. I’ve avoided ordering titles and series that I’m unfamiliar with and labeled adult to prevent an uproar.
Melissa: The same guidelines are followed as for other materials. Does it fit my collection development policy? Has the title been reviewed? This used to be a big issue, but now every major review journal reviews tons of GN. Does it fit my curriculum, or, if it isn’t curricular, does it have literary merit, teen appeal, or broad popularity?
Heidi: I look for age-appropriate graphic novels in books about graphic novels, read book reviews and articles in Booklist, School Library Journal, The Horn Book, VOYA,and Library Media Connection, and consult websites such as Robin Brenner’s No Flying, No Tights and your own GraphicNovelReporter. Because a school library should support the curriculum, some of my selections are books I think might integrate well into our courses. I try to let teachers know about graphic novels that fit into their disciplines.
How do you determine what is appropriate for readers of different ages and levels at your school?
Heidi: I rely heavily on reviews and recommendations from the professional literature for age-appropriateness. While I’ve not had a challenge to a graphic novel yet, I would feel confident responding to one having a stockpile of positive reviews. If a teen book is suggested for mature audiences, I try to preview it before purchasing it. I often page through new graphic novels before I have them shelved, just to make sure images are not too “mature.” Still, Blankets has faced challenges and I have it in our school library. Sexual images tend to evoke more of a reaction than sexual prose, but I find Blankets most appropriate for high school students.
Melissa: I think the standards librarians use for other books can be applied to this format as well. I do acknowledge that violence and nudity in a prose book is only as graphic as the reader can visualize it, and it is not the same as violence and nudity completely illustrated for the reader in the GN. I try to judge a story in its entirety, but, as with any materials, I am selecting based on what I know about my patrons and community.
Do you find these books are more closely monitored—or need to be—than other books in your collection?
Kimberly: No, I haven’t really had adults look at them at all. Yesterday, I did have an adult return a book to me that she felt was explicit and didn’t want to finish but it was not a graphic novel. In instances where I do have complaints, I try to address them by explaining that everyone has different interests and different experiences and while something might not be a good fit for one person, it is for others.
Melissa: I think the collection gets a great deal of scrutiny, so a proactive librarian would do careful selection and examine materials that arrive. I think that no graphic novels should hit the shelves of a school library before the librarian has at least skimmed a book or begun a series. In my experience, more questions arise about these materials than any others in the library. Knowing the content is key to, well, appearing knowledgeable about the content. Other staff, administrators, and visitors often ask me about the collection, and sometimes have questions or issues with the content of a particular volume. The ability to speak about the work with some authority has, on two occasions here, forestalled a formal challenge.
Where do you shelve the graphic novels and manga?
Heidi: Our graphic novels are shelved in a separate section near our circulation desk. The location isn’t for monitoring purposes but because it was a convenient set of shelves in a pleasant section of the library next to our magazine collection and our comfortable seating. Rather than being shelved in their Dewey location, all of our graphic novels are in one location, which has advantages and disadvantages. Though students won’t happen upon a nonfiction graphic novel (perhaps I should be using the term “graphic literature”) while browsing or searching the nonfiction, which is a disadvantage, it is convenient for them to find all the graphic novels in one place, especially if they just happen to like reading in that format. All of our graphic novels have a GN prefix followed by FIC for fiction works and the Dewey number for nonfiction works.
Melissa: I shelve all the graphic novels together in a graphic novel collection. The curricular titles sometimes get a circ bump by being near the cool titles, and the presence of the “serious” work helps validate the collection as a whole. I know some people interfile them with other content and have success with this method; I personally believe it dilutes the dollars spent. In terms of library location, the graphic novel collection is on spinners and shelving very near the circ desk in a highly visible and trafficked area. I hardly ever have any theft inthis collection.
Kimberly: Because I want to highlight their availability in my collection, they are currently in a separate display area right near the circulation desk and new fiction. This way, they’re easy to point out, find, and promote. We have an anime club that meets in a teacher’s classroom. I promoted them to this group last year and word of mouth is a big help. The books do have regular call numbers and bold “graphic novel” stickers so that if they are ever placed on the shelves, they’re still easy to locate and identify.
Are teachers responding to the books as well? Have any of them begun to look at them or incorporate them into their classrooms in any way?
Melissa: English and reading teachers accept GN reading as reading: students may use them for sustained silent reading, book reports, etc. I have GN adaptations of several works of literature and have teachers who use them in class to visualize an author’s mood or setting. When I do professional development for teachers to help them select materials for classroom libraries, GN titles are always included, and many teachers have GNs in their classroom libraries. I have never done the professional development piece for all teachers that I consider necessary to get them all using the works as fully as they can—I just haven’t had the time!
Kimberly: I have had a few teachers look at them. I believe that Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography and Watchmen are taught as classroom novels. Beyond that, I am not aware of any classroom use. I do have some classics that I’ve promoted to the English teachers to pair with classroom novels, but I don’t know that they’ve really been used or promoted as well as they should be among the students or faculty.
Heidi: I conducted a pilot study as part of my thesis research and asked five students to read American Born Chinese. One student requested more art graphic novels like American Born Chinese, and I gave him Blankets by Craig Thompson. He was so impressed with this book that he asked his senior English teacher to read it. She did, and liked it as well. However, the English Department didn’t think Blankets would be appropriate for their curriculum. They are not opposed to graphic novels, though, and are considering adding Persepolis to their World Literature course. The social studies teacher in whose class I conducted my study has purchased Maus to use with one of his classes. A special education teacher borrowed copies of American Born Chinese to use with her students. Our ELL teachers have had several discussions with me about graphic novels, and one of them obtained a grant to add graphic novels to the ELL classroom library.
When initiating and building your collection, what did you use as a model?
Heidi: I’m not sure I used a model. I just plunged in and made some purchases based on reviews and recommended lists. I think some of my earlier purchases did not reflect the best in terms of quality graphic novels. However, over the past few years, more and more quality graphic novels have been published for children and young adults. I continue to purchase art graphic novels, even though they don’t circulate as much as manga, because there are just so many great ones being published.
Kimberly: I started by purchasing titles that I knew were popular at one of our middle schools (my previous position). I looked for titles that would appeal to teens, were well-reviewed, and recommended in lists like Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) and Quick-Picks for Reluctant Readers, lists put out by YALSA each year.
Melissa: If you mean, did I use a recommended core list or anything, no. There wasn’t much of that when I began. I started the collection with the philosophy that I was creating a physical location for a material format, and so all genres needed to be represented in it. My model was to have a broad and diverse collection.
What’s the best way for an elementary school to start a graphic novel program?
Kimberly: If you don’t already have students asking for graphic novels in your school, I would start by asking at a local bookstore about what titles are popular among teens. Displaying the books where students can see them is the best way to promote them. They seem to sell themselves!
Heidi: I think school libraries have a responsibility to include graphic novels in their collections. Not only are there graphic novels to support just about any curriculum, graphic novels also support literacy. Our concept of literacy must expand beyond reading and writing print on a page. Texts come in a variety of combinations of modes, and print alone does not dominate. These multimodal texts require multimodal literacy. Graphic novels, combining print literacy and visual literacy, help our students develop the multiliteracy skills necessary to be literate in these times of ever-new information and communication technologies.
Melissa: The best way to start a graphic novel program at any level is to begin with a broad and diverse collection. No matter how small your initial funding, purchase curricular nonfiction, biography, superhero, mainstream, and independent American comics, and manga of various types, from sports to comedy to romance. Purchase all ages and more mature works. You justify having materials appropriate for fifth grade by having other materials that are also appropriate for first grade. You operate with the “each book its reader” philosophy. After the collection is begun with a balance, the following year you can sink your money into the most popular stuff. My first year, I think I started with $400 and bought five all-ages titles, five nonfiction titles, etc. Collections do grow.
In your experience, have you learned anything that would be valuable to other media specialists beginning a graphic novel program in their libraries?
Heidi: If there is any hesitancy to start a graphic novel collection for whatever reason (a print bias, a need to overcome the stigma that books in comic format are inferior literature, a fear of being challenged), reading about graphic novels will help. The literature enumerates many educational benefits of graphic novels. It will provide all kinds of justifications for including them in a school library collection.
I would also encourage media specialists to read graphic novels. While they may not be one’s preferred kind of literature, becoming familiar with some of the well-respected titles will help to develop an appreciation for the format. I have to admit that, six years ago, when I had only three graphic novels in my collection, I was a bit reluctant to have to learn about this “new” format. (I say “new” because graphic novels evolved from comics, and comics have been around for a long, long time.) But I’m glad I did decide to learn about them and include them in the library’s collection. And I know my students are glad, too.
Melissa: I have learned that, if I have limited money, my students would rather have me buy six volumes of three manga series a year than they would have me buy 18 volumes of one series. I know this is not the case everywhere.
I have learned to be mindful of student requests. One year at an onsite book fair at a bookstore, I had a GN roundtable. Students brought me books from the store they wanted to see in the library. I bought most of my manga that year from their requests.
I have learned that having a solid group of all-ages titles helps me when dealing with someone who is appalled at the level of violence or other objectionable content in something else.
I have learned that however you decide to set up your GN collection, make sure it is in such a way that the circ numbers for the GN collection as a whole can be easily pulled, which helps in justifying the funding requests.
I have learned that tracking in-house use is important if circ numbers help guide purchasing decisions.
I have learned to not apologize for carefully selected GNs, but to stand by the idea that the library should have something for its more mature patrons as well as the freshmen.