I try to live every week like it’s Banned Books Week, but it’s the third week of September and that means the time has officially come to celebrate your favorite envelope-pushing classics and scintillating guilty pleasures in literature! This year, the American Library Association is drawing (pun not intended – no, just kidding, it totally was) special attention to the plight of the Graphic Novel as being a frequently misunderstood, challenged, and banned form of even more frequently great literature.
This is my first year as a Children’s Librarian, and the overwhelming perception that I have observed among parents is that graphic novels are the “lazy” way out of reading, and if they see their child is interested in either an original work of literature in this format or a graphic adaptation of another work, they will swipe it away and loudly complain that they want their child to read something “real.” I see this on a regular basis, but it is never any less horrifying and offensive to me on a number of levels, and I therefore try to arm myself with some of the following beliefs and statements to combat parents like this and defend their kid’s Freedom to Read.
In the first place, since I am a librarian and therefore fundamentally opposed to censorship, I am a firm believer that you should be able to read whatever the hell you want, of course. However, I also believe just as firmly that you should be able to read however the hell you want, as I am an incredibly reluctant reader myself even to this day, and my heart in particular goes out to anyone else who struggles to find things worth reading in a medium that is best for them. My preference is audiobooks, but everyone is different, and I try to always to be forthcoming with this information when dealing with anti-graphic-novelists.
In the second place, I strongly believe that the library should be a place for children to freely explore their interests. When a parent reacts this way to a graphic novel, it completely tramples upon the kid’s autonomy and establishes a really negative and patronizing environment that pervades the surrounding area, and who wants to stick around a place like that? No one, and especially not a kid who may already feel frustrated and out of place. By sticking up for their choices and preferences and interests, you can help tip the scales back in favor of the library being perceived as the cool, welcoming place you should want it to be.
Thirdly, this attitude disparages all of the time and effort that the illustrator spent on creating the artwork of the novel. Think of any great piece of art throughout history – most will not include words. Art without words is still art, a book without art is still a book, but mix words and art together for anyone over the age of five and suddenly it’s not “real.” While we’re on the subject, and without getting too philosophical for the sake of brevity, what is “real” anyway, and who gets to decide upon it, and why? The Bone series is no less real to their kid than A Wrinkle in Time was when they were growing up (and by the way, there’s a graphic novel version of A Wrinkle in Time now, too).
Finally, it is incredibly ignorant to belittle the value of visual context clues in terms of more deeply understanding and connecting with a text, particularly when these clues make the practical applications of graphic novels unparalleled. Most of us use visual cues in addition to (or sometimes entirely in place of) textual ones from the moment we get out of bed in the morning. Colorful, dynamic illustrations can bridge reading level gaps and catapult over language barriers for easier and fuller understanding of the characters and plot in precisely the same ways that body language, facial expressions, and street signs impact our understanding of the people and world around us. Whether a graphic novel is read alone as an independent piece of literature or as graphic adaptation to supplement the original work, the appeal and the message of the art is generally broad enough to pull even the most reluctant reader in to a story they may otherwise have never attempted and learn valuable facts and lessons that would have been lost on them otherwise. For more information about how graphic novels promote literacy and other benefits of the format, please check out this Guide for Teachers and Librarians by Graphix.
In closing, I just want to encourage you all to keep fighting the good fight on behalf of your patrons, young or old, who struggle with reading and may be struggling even harder to have their mode of reading be accepted. Just as many (arguably, most) great works of literature are challenged and banned by too-narrow views, many potentially great readers and thinkers may be challenged and forbidden to explore their interests in a medium that makes them comfortable or excited by a too-narrow definition of what counts as “real reading.” Fighting for your patrons’ right to read graphic novels is a highly effective way to combat censorship and ignorance on two fronts with one tactical approach.
Once more into the fray, and happy Banned Books Week, comrades!