Graphic Novels

1 10 2009

All right, since I apparently skipped ahead a week in my last blog, I thought I would go back and talk about graphic novels.  After reading “In a Single Bound: A Short Primer on Comics for Educators“, which basically amounts to a defense of graphic novels, I have to say, I agree with everything the author says.  Mostly, the fact that that reading comics is a “complex cognitive task.”  I couldn’t agree more!  In fact, I often find reading graphic novels so complex and challenging that I don’t read them as often as I read “regular” books.

What’s an aspiring teen/tween/children’s librarian to do?  Graphic novels are everywhere!  I have been fortunate enough to attend several presentations, including Jesse Karp’s, stressing the importance of creating, selecting, organizing and/or increasing graphic novel collections in libraries.  In order to do this, one must be able to evaluate graphic novels.  Personally, at this moment, I don’t feel qualified to do that.  Reading Into the Volcano and Rapunzel’s Revenge only reinforced this.  It’s a visual literacy problem and, from our discussion in class, I know I’m not the only one having trouble.  As a person who was not raised on comic books or anything in a graphic format, I don’t feel like I get as rich a story by looking at the pictures.

It isn’t that I think that pictures don’t hold the same amount of information as a description in words.  On the contrary, I think they often hold more and it should theoretically be easier to get all the information in one glance.  For example, when the earth shakes in Into the Volcano, you see one cel with a picture of something inside the volcano plus the shaking that denotes a quake.  In words, that would take longer.  To denote the quake in words is easy: “The earth shook.”  But in the picture, you see rocks falling or waves coming, details that are not always necessary but certainly enrich the story.  That would take another sentence or two of description, which the author might not want in their action sequence.  But in order to get that rich information, I have to stop, really stop and look at the pictures.  As a fast reader, this seems odd.  It feels almost wrong to pause for that long on a picture.  Often, I don’t bother to stop and then later, when I  realize I have missed vital information in the pictures, I have to go back.  It makes graphic novel reading frustrating.

Apparently, kids don’t have this problem.  Many of them don’t even appear to have this problem with manga, a format I find infuriating, even after getting one of the teens I work with to explain to me exactly how to read it.  I could talk all day about how frustrated graphic novels make me, even though I think they are a valid format.  But that’s not the point.  As librarians, we often try to find books for reluctant readers or low-level readers who struggle to keep up with their peers.  Most of the librarians I’ve talked to don’t really understand what it feels like to struggle to read because it’s not a problem they have had to face.  I have been to a workshop where they ask you to read at the speed of the average reader in the US.  It feels extremely slow but it still doesn’t really translate.  No matter how slowly I try to read, I understand words faster than people who struggle to read.  It’s not bragging, its a fact.  But when I read graphic novels and I miss half the storyline because I’m not absorbing all the information the author/illustrator is putting out there?  Then I know how it feels to be a struggling reader because I am one.

How does this help us, as librarians (or at least the visually illiterate among us)? Mostly,  it allows us to walk a mile in the struggling readers shoes.  Understanding how it feels to be faced with something so cool that just seems over your head is important when working with teens, tweens and children who have a variety of skill levels. Struggling with graphic novels also allows us to learn about graphic novels as beginners.  Sure, it seems like kids and teens have no problem with this graphic novel stuff.  They understand better than we do.  They may not need to start with easy graphic novels and work their way up (unless we’re talking about “regular” reading level).  But I think as information professionals, it would be good to understand which graphic novels are easier, in terms of their layout and design, for beginning graphic novel readers.  Not beginning readers, mind you, but beginning graphic novel readers, whatever their age and reading level.  This is also important in terms of collection development, to ensure that  your collection has graphic novels that vary across reading level but also across visual literacy/graphic novel reading level (I don’t know if there is a better term for that concept).  Because if graphic novels and visual literacy are as important as we are saying, then it is up to librarians to make sure that we are literate in this area as well in order to better serve our patrons.  Which means I had better stop writing this and start reading graphic novels for the visual literacy beginner!




One response

5 10 2009

Great post. You’ve got so many great points:

Love the idea that graphic novel beginners could be very like reading beginners. It is a different format, and if you’re not used to it it can be like learning a new language. Especially manga, which is like reading a new language backwards!

In terms of gaining familiarity with GNs, the only way to really do that is read, read, read. It’s the same formula for getting familiar with age-level specific lit too. I knew nothing really about teen literature until I came to NYPL and had to read it like crazy. Now I can safely say I know it pretty well because it’s basically what I read 24-7 these days 🙂 but seriously, the more read, the more you’ll understand, the more you’ll better evaluate.

That said, don’t wait to find time to read a pile of them at once. Just start incorporating them into your life as you would books: find the ones that appeal to you in terms of topic and them, and build out from there. As Jesse said, the range out there is tremendous, so there’s lots of choose from.

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