Last month, NPR shared a report about an “unprecedented” jump in books being banned across the country. Jackson County has not been immune to this trend. The graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s classic tale, The Handmaid’s Tale, was recently removed from the shelves of North Medford High School because of a complaint from one parent. The original version of the novel remains in the collection. So why the discrepancy? They both tell the same story. It seems the difference is that one of them is a graphic novel. According to the Mail Tribune article that shared the news about the removal, the Medford School District is also, “working with a team of stakeholders to review our graphic novel selection and shelving procedures.”  

Children of all ages have enjoyed reading comic-style works from the early 19th century. For just about as long, such works have been looked down upon and stigmatized. They were said to corrupt youth, hurt their ability to read, and even turn them into juvenile delinquents. Widespread censorship of comics occurred in the 1950s, spurred by child psychologist, Dr. Frederic Wertham. You can read more about what happened here. But this is not going to be a post about book challenges and bans. Instead, today I’d like to talk about children and graphic novels, and most importantly, why they should be allowed to read them.  

So, what is a graphic novel? If you are not familiar with them, they can sound a little scary due to that word, “graphic.” Often when we hear it, we think about something that is explicit, and usually not in a good way—think “graphic violence” or “graphic nudity.” There are many definitions of what a graphic novel is, with some debate as to what really qualifies as one, but in general, this definition from Merriam-Webster works: “a story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book.” We’re talking multiple photo panels on a page with speech bubbles and the like. People often think of superhero stories, and while there are a lot of these, there are many more types. In short, a graphic novel is a format, not a genre.  

There are many reasons that kids should be encouraged, not discouraged from reading graphic novels. In the interest of keeping this post to a reasonable length, I’m going to only mention three: 

  1. Graphic Novels Help Reluctant Readers and English Language Learners 
    A page full of words can look overwhelming to a child who is struggling to read or doesn’t like to read. I remember my daughter telling me when she was in elementary school, “Mom, I can’t read that because there are too many words,” even though she was capable of reading all the words individually. With text broken into bite-sized chunks and visual cues to supplement the meaning, graphic novels are more approachable to many kids. There are many well-known authors, who are fans of comics and graphic novels. Some were “reluctant readers” growing up. Comics and graphic novels were the key to changing their minds about reading, and even inspired a love of words.  
  1. Graphic Novels Develop Visual Literacy Skills 
    Traditional novels generally only contain text. But visual literacy is an important part of a child’s learning as well. According to the Resilient Educator website, when a child reads a graphic novel, “many essential literacy skills are required, including the ability to understand a sequence of events, interpret characters’ nonverbal gestures, discern the story’s plot, and make inferences.” Learning such skills will transfer over when reading text-based books. Some people are visual learners, so graphic novels are especially beneficial for them. Dyslexic readers are helped by the visual cues. 
  1. Kids love them! 
    Let me preface this by saying that not all kids love them, which is perfectly fine. But many kids do. There are some kids who, given the choice, will strictly read graphic novels. One of the most common questions I get asked in the Children’s Department is “Where are the graphic novels?” In the Medford Library, they are found behind the Children’s desk. Due to this proximity, I get to overhear kids excitedly discussing their favorites. They’ll sit on the benches behind the shelf and start reading, unable to wait until they get home. Unfortunately, I sometimes hear the adults with them say something to the effect, “You can only get one of those, the rest have to be real books.” I recently asked some kids what it is they like about reading graphic novels. The biggest reason mentioned is that they’re funny, though not all of them are. They were also shocked to learn that there are adults who do not feel they should be reading them and/or that there is something bad about them. One boy said, “Adults should not judge them unless they’ve read the whole thing. They shouldn’t decide they’re bad after just looking at a few pages.” 

The American Library Association (ALA) is a strong proponent of graphic novels for all ages. They have a “Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table” (GNCRT) that is “dedicated to supporting library staff in all aspects of engaging with graphic novels and comics.” In January, they debuted the “Best Graphic Novels for Children Reading List,” to highlight the best children’s graphic novels and to increase awareness of the medium. You can access the list on our catalog. They host reading lists for other interest levels as well.  

The biggest complaint I hear from parents who let their children read graphic novels is that they read them so quickly. I imagine that could be a reason many kids like them, too. I think we all feel a sense of achievement when we finish a book. And then there is the excitement of picking out a new one. This is one reason libraries can be really important in a young reader’s life. We will keep buying more of these titles so our entire community can access these “quicker” reads. 

With the school year ending, and the library’s Summer Reading Program starting soon, I hope that adults will be supportive of their children choosing graphic novels. Summer offers more time for kids to read for pleasure. If reading is to be pleasurable, the reader has to want to read it. The same applies to all ages of readers. The Summer Reading Program offers free books as a completion prize. Rest assured, there will be plenty of graphic novels as prizes! Author James Patterson is a strong advocate for children reading. He is quoted as saying, “There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading, and kids who are reading the wrong books.” If graphic novels are the “right” books for your child, please let them read as many as they want. They will start school ready to learn in the fall.