Entering the World of Graphic Novels

Due to an unforeseen set of circumstances, I have been spending more time in the school library than I have for years.  As the once again, president of the the British Columbia Literacy Council of the ILA (International Literacy Association), and a lover of books, this is a bonus for me.  Talking to kids about books is as much about the kid, as it is about nurturing a love of literature.  This was something my elementary school librarian at The Marpole Public Library understood well with her “Now” section that lured us into the library on a regular basis.

At the ILA Conference 2019 in New Orleans this fall, there was again much conversation about graphic novels.  This was not conversation solely about high interest, low vocabulary sources, but discussion of graphic novels as literary sources.  I have two extremely intelligent friends who are both adult males who have tried to help me understand this concept over the years. One has a long time love of comics that he himself writes.  Some about childhood antics.  Some political cartoons.  The other has a love of graphic novels.  Understanding of this has been elusive.

Two game changers.  The well loved librarian is hired as a Vice-Principal and leaves to assume her new job.  I want to ensure kids keep coming to the library until our new librarian is in place.  The kids want graphic novels and Anna takes the time to explain why graphic novels are appealing.  She starts a list and kids start giving me purchasing ideas.

After professional development day, I venture to Vancouver Kidsbooks, another infinite source of information.  If ever there has been a case for why you hire well trained staff who are readers in a book store, it is Vancouver Kidsbooks.  Immediately I have two very knowledgeable people to guide me in the right direction.  However it is Jesset who has a passion for graphic novels and wants to answer all of my questions and share his learning about what is particularly good for readers at different ages and levels.  He helped me to understand that the beauty of a long series is that the characters and their motivations unfold over the course of the series.  That is why he loves long series because the plot and characterization develops over time.  He also made it clear that the pictures and the text do not function independently but are intertwined to create meaning.

My home work was clear.  I needed to do more reading.  Jesset carried the very heavy box of books to my car.  I carried them into the condo.  A strained back, recent gum surgery, a husband with the flu, and a long weekend created all of the conditions for a weekend of serious reading.   And now I am coming out the other side.  I do believe I understand more.

My mistake was that I was locked into the perceptions of my background experience of the Sunday funnies in the newspaper, the Archies, and superhero comics.  It was social reading that you did with your friends, or at Tatlow Park with my sister and cousins on Sundays.  It was something that I left behind in childhood.

Some graphic novels continue to focus on humour of daily life, relationships, and experiences.  Series like Will Henry’s Wallace the Brave  and Snug Harbour Stories; Aron Nels Steinke’s Mr. Wolf’s Class; and Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate are reminiscent of the Dennis the Menace and Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.  Yet they are much like Ramona and Beezus or Little House on the Prairie series with the ongoing antics and relationship issues.

The Harry Potter series create a fascination with fantasy that plays out in many of the graphic novel series such as Stephanie McCranie’s Space Boy, Tui T. Sutherland and Mike Holmes’ Wings of Fire and Emma Steinkellner’s The Okay Witch.  The characters in these stories wrestle with alienation and the quest to discover of self efficacy.  One series I have yet to explore is Kamome Shirahama’s Witch Hat Atelier series, which Jesset at Vancouver Kidsbooks, assures me is one of the best for upper intermediate students.

One of the big appeals of graphic novels seems to be the willingness of authors to share authentic experiences that matter to young readers, such as homelessness, physical health challenges, anxiety depression, therapy,  and death.  Jen Wang and Raina Telgemeier are both authors who trust their young readers with stories that matter.  As a result their readers adore them.

Kwame Alexander works with Dawud Anyabwile on the graphic novel adaptation of Crossover.  This adaptation is every bit as powerful as the original Newberry medal winning novel and audiobook.  Michael Nicoll Yahgulanagas incorporates Japanese manga with Haida imagery and story to create an entirely new art form.  Jon Scieszka and Steven Weinberg address the environmental crisis on earth with Astro-Nuts.   R.J. Palacio, George Takei and team, and Robert Freynet use comics and text to provide a comprehensive graphic novel on the topics of the Holocaust, Japanese Internment in the United states during World War II, and accurate analysis of Louis Riel and his role in Canada.

My homework has left me with a much better understanding of the graphic novel and an ability to weigh into an important conversation.  As my daughter so aptly portrayed in her stick figure drawing of me sitting on a stack of “fat, sad books” with tears streaming out of my eyes in her Grade 1 family drawing – I do love the fat fiction novel that delves into feelings and the injustices of life.  That will undoubtedly not change.  However what I now understand is that graphic novels are as multi-faceted as fiction or non-fiction books.  Reading enthusiasts may gravitate towards the humour of daily life, intricate fantasy worlds, a quest to explore relationships, self discovery, history, adventure or a new art form, and find it in a graphic novel.