Graphic novels have more kids reading, but questions arise

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
09/24/2007

The controversy over a Guilford High School teacher’s resignation last week had many parents and others in the community wondering: What exactly is a graphic novel?

English teacher Nate Fisher resigned Tuesday after a freshman girl’s parents complained about a graphic novel, Daniel Clowes’ “Eightball #22,” that Fisher gave the student as a makeup summer reading assignment.

Graphic novels are stories told in comic-book form, combining text and images in volumes that are often longer than traditional comic books. While including mature themes in a visual context can raise concerns about the propriety of the books for younger students, librarians and other experts say they engage students and get them interested in reading.

“It’s definitely the hottest thing going in high school libraries,” said Stephanie Shteirman, the library media specialist for New Haven’s High School in the Community. “It’s because as librarians, we’re looking for any type of access point into our collection. We want kids to read; that’s the bottom line.”

While teenagers and young adults tend to be familiar with graphic novels, several of those interviewed said it seems many older people often have not heard of the genre.

“I think it depends on how aware the parents are,” said Nancy Haag, a reference librarian at the North Haven Memorial Library.

Graphic novels include both fiction and nonfiction works on topics that move well beyond superheroes. One of the best-known graphic novels, Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” chronicles his father’s survival of the Holocaust, with animals as the characters. “Maus” won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

William Rubin, executive director of The Community Foundation for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago, said he looked to the graphic novel format as a way to help people learn more about Israel. He worked with comic book writers to create “Homeland: The Illustrated History of the State of Israel.”

“We thought that was something that was easily accessible and the power of the graphic novel, using sequential art, says a lot in a relatively tight framework,” Rubin said. “There’s many 500-page histories of Israel that are on the bookshelves and that’s just what they are — on the bookshelves.”

Rubin said that the book is intended for seventh-graders and older.

“I think that for this generation — the Facebook generation, the MTV generation — that they’re much more visual,” he said. “It has to be delivered in sort of bite-sized increments (and) it has to be interesting visually, and we thought that this was sort of a great medium to express many, many ideas.”

At the same time, the visual nature of graphic novels can lead to concerns about who should be reading them. The parents of the Guilford High School student objected to references in “Eightball #22” to sex and murder, as well as some images of a naked woman.

Guilford Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said he found the material “inappropriate” for a ninth-grade student.

The Guilford Police Department has said it is investigating a complaint against Fisher. William F. Dow III, an attorney for Fisher, said his client has not been charged with any criminal violations.

“This is a young man who was regarded as an exceptional teacher with great potential and hopefully that potential will have the chance to be realized in the future,” Dow said.

Dow added that “Eightball #22” is “not pornographic in any sense.” The girl’s father has disagreed, calling the work “borderline pornography.”

Late last year, two graphic novels — “Blankets” by Craig Thompson and “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel — were removed from the shelves of the public library in Marshall, Mo., after a parent said she thought they should not be available to children. The books were returned to the collection when the library adopted a new materials selection policy, according to a local newspaper.

People sometimes define graphic novels as having more mature content than other comic books, but Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in New York City, said the genre does not necessarily include adult material.

“The content of a graphic novel is limited only by the author’s imagination, and so there’s content that skews towards readers of all ages,” Brownstein said. “Just like somebody wouldn’t necessarily write off film because they happened to see a sophomoric comedy the first time they saw a movie, somebody shouldn’t write off graphic novels either because they’re coming in with a preconception.”

Libraries often place graphic novels in teen or young adult sections. They also choose carefully when adding new works to their collections.

“For non-readers, it’s an excellent way to get them into reading — it’s less intimidating, it’s more inviting and the language is no less sophisticated,” said Shteirman of High School in the Community. “I could see that there are inappropriate graphic novels — there’s no question there are graphic novels that I wouldn’t give to a 13-year-old — but you can’t condemn the genre. It definitely has a place in a library.”

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