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December 14, 2012

Beyond the Pages: School Librarian Tameka To Shares Some Valuable Experiences

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At GNR, we’re always asking teachers and librarians to tell us what graphic novels do for them. Tameka To, school librarian at St. Bernard in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, recently wrote in to tell us:
 

Graphic novels have done something for my school library that I never thought was really possible. It has brought my grade 7 and 8 boys running into the library when they hear I have a new graphic novel. I now have to be careful about my new books since I can literally be mobbed if I hold up a new book to a class. Personally, I had never read comics and just remember my brother getting Archie comics when we were kids. When I started working for the school board, I had four libraries to run and decided to try out this new craze in one of them. Taking a deep breath and a huge portion of my budget for the year, I dove into the comics and started buying them. Once I started promoting them, they were extremely popular in the higher grades, especially with the boys. Kids who I had never seen in the library started coming in and would keep coming back! I could tell who they were because they had no idea how to even sign out a book. The older kids only came into the library at the one school where I was developing a graphic novel section so I knew it wasn't just my charming personality that brought them in! To this day, the school in which I started this collection uses the library more than any of my other schools. This is the school where the older kids know who I am, aren't hesitant to ask for suggestions or tell me what they loved or hated about the books. Some people call graphic novels garbage, but as the saying goes, "one person's trash is another's treasure."
 
We thought Tameka’s insights would be helpful to our readers, so we asked her a few more questions. Here’s what she had to say.
 
You mention how more 7th and 8th grade boys have been reading/checking out graphic novels now. Do you have any stats or figures for how many books they checked out before you started introducing graphic novels into your collection, and how much after?
 
As far as stats go, I don’t have any because in my school board we are still in the middle of automating our libraries and are still using the card and pocket system from the caveman days! Besides knowing myself, the easiest way to tell about the change in checkouts was the state of the sign-out binder for the intermediate grades. Since they rarely signed anything out before, their sign-out binder was always in pristine shape, without any rips or tears. After a little while the binders were ripped, dirty and the pockets were all filled with cards when they had been empty. Before developing the graphic novel collection, I would say maybe 10% of the grade 7 and 8 students (boys) would voluntarily sign out a book. After the graphic novel trend started catching on, I would say approximately 75% of the boys were regularly coming in for the comic books. I had a principal once ask me for proof that they boys were reading “these silly comic books” and I told her to go into the grade 8 room during their silent reading time and see how quiet it is. The proof is also in the fact that despite just spending hundreds of dollars on the collection, the shelf always looks empty.
 
What are your most popular books and series right now?
The most popular series for the boys is hands down Amulet. They are always out and I am constantly being asked if I will look in the return bin to see if any were returned. The girls are really going crazy over Smile and Drama by Raina Telgemeier. Some of the boys really enjoy it as well but I have never seen the girls so into the comics before these ones. The kids really like what we have named the “combo” books that are part graphic novel, and part regular, such as the Wimpy Kid, Malice or Twisted Journeys series. They will come into the library asking for a “combo” like they are ordering at a restaurant.
 
You talked about using a portion of the budget to promote graphic works. What percentage, if you don't mind sharing, and how did you go about allocating it?
 
I am given a budge each year by my principal at their discretion and am basically allowed to spend it how I see fit. Depending on the year and how much I receive, usually I spend at least 25% on graphic novels. It varies some years, and this year since my collection is wearing out, so I am planning on spending 40% this year --- that amounts to about $400. When I have a book fair I will also use the credit and purchase however many comics they have available. With students being forced to read so much I like to have my motto as “the school library is for reading because you want to and not because you have to,” and I usually buy according to that guideline.
 
To start up a collection, I have written proposals to he school parent council for additional budget. Sometimes this works and I try to emphasize to the skeptical parents that the most important part of my job is getting books in the hand of the kids. When I start up a collection, I want to have enough new ones to make the kids take notice because building it up five books at a time doesn’t give enough of the “wow” factor. To promote the graphic novels to the kids I will usually make a bulletin board featuring a new series, and the flashier it is the better. I have also put a little blurb on the morning announcements with a short description about the new books we have. Getting the teachers on board is great because they have more contact with the students on a daily basis.
 
Did you face much of a fight at first when you wanted to begin collecting graphic novels?
When I first made the decision to try the graphic novel collection, I was very lucky because I had a principal who fully backed me and was excited because he had heard about these “great new kinds of books that boys like.” He let me go for it full force and gave me the budget to back it up. Other schools were not so enthusiastic, but it is all in the way you show the advantages of them. It isn’t as if principals are against getting kids something they like to read, but if you tell them you want to spend $500 on comics, you will get the “look” your mom always gave you when you were little and doing something wrong. Instead, I presented the literacy factors, especially getting boys to read.
 
Board-wide was much more difficult to deal with because they were so concerned about inappropriate pictures that they insisted if we wanted to purchase them we had to look on every page for unsuitable content. Since I was working at four school libraries at the time, it was simply impossible to do. Luckily I discovered a store in Toronto that evaluates every book and takes care of content concerns. Every time I go to a new school it is always a challenge to start up the collection because of the initial startup cost so when possible I use my Scholastic book fair credits to prove that they will be popular.
 
Do you read graphic novels yourself now? Any particular favorites?
I do not read very many graphic novels myself but will read the occasional ones. Recently I have read Smile and Drama because the girls were going so crazy over them I had to check them out. I like to read the more unknown books in the library, so I am familiar with them and can tell the kids about them. The comic books are so popular that they don’t really need any promotion.
 
How did the teachers at the school react to the graphic novel presence in the library? Have any teachers been using graphic novels in the classroom there?
Intermediate teachers are great about the graphic novels and frequently tell me how much their kids enjoy reading them. When I am asked to pull books on a certain subject, they are always the happiest with any graphic novel version I have found. One particular teacher will let struggling readers have the choice between reading the comic book version or regular novel when the class is doing a novel as a class.
 
Primary teachers are a completely different kettle of fish and I am always trying to prove to them that if they let their kids read a comic book it doesn’t mean they will never ever read anything else. The majority of the time we end up compromising and let them take out two books with one being a graphic novel. They don’t have a problem letting the kids take out pictures books that are too hard for them to read so I don’t see the difference between that and graphic novels. Some teachers still try to convince me that they are not worth reading, but I usually tell them that if the kids are excited about them it is worth reading.
 
Do you have plans to expand the collection?
I am constantly trying to add to my collection but as always it is a constant battle with small budgets. When I hear that something new is coming out I usually order it but what I would really like to do is get the kids interested in manga. I have a few in my current collection but they are basically ignored because the kids like the ones with colored pictures the best. I also think they are intimidated by manga and it takes a lot of time to sit down with the kids and explain how to read them. The internet has a lot of great explanations for kids reading manga and if I converted it to a giant form and put it on a bulletin board I think they would take notice and try it.
 
What kinds of comments do you hear from students about the graphic novels?
 
The students love the graphic novels and are always telling me that they can’t wait until the next one to come out. They often call them the “cool” books and tell me that “it was just SO good.” The funniest comment I have ever gotten was from a student who asked me if they were called graphic novels because the pictures in them were bad. I have asked some if I didn’t have any graphic novels would they still come in and they tell me “no way.”
 
How do you keep up with the kids' reading interests? How do you decide which graphic novels to acquire?
Keeping up with the kids’ interest is pretty easy because they are not shy telling me if they want a new one. I will usually ask them or give them the catalogues, tell them to choose and do my best to get their choices. If I am making a larger order I will use the company in Toronto and they will give me recommendations based on what is new and what my students like. Graphicnovelreporter.com is great for all the new ones and I will go on there and make a wish list from there. It is too difficult to buy them sight unseen without reading reviews, especially to make sure they are appropriate.
 
Is there anything in particular that you have learned that you wish you had known earlier? 
I wish I could have known more about which graphic novels to buy because I went into it pretty blind without knowing very much about it. I would also recommend that any of the really popular ones like Bone and Amulet be purchased from Perma-bound in hardcover since they wear out so quickly and I am always trying to repair them. I also wished I would have taken a survey of the grade 7s and 8s and who likes signing out books before and after I got the collection.

-- John Hogan