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June 5, 2009

Elementary School Librarian Roundtable: What’s Working and What’s Not with Comics and Manga in the Elementary School Library


Schools librarians today face more challenges than ever. At the same time, growing respect and acceptance for graphic novels and manga coupled with high demand from young readers have all increased the need for graphic literature in school libraries. This special series of roundtable discussions will delve into the issues school librarians are facing, how they’re succeeding, and what lessons they’re learning as they establish and run their graphic novel and manga programs. We begin with elementary schools (check back for our upcoming roundtable discussion with middle school and high school librarians).

Our participants:
Penny Kenny, Elementary Library Paraprofessional, Deckerville Elementary School, Deckerville, MI
Diana Maliszewski, Teacher-Librarian, Agnes Macphail Public School, Toronto, Ontario (Canada); as well as editor-in-chief of The Teaching Librarian, the official magazine of the Ontario School Library Association
Gretchen Schroeder, Librarian, Woodlynde School, Strafford, PA
Jill Russell, Library Media Teacher, Paden Elementary School Alameda, CA, a K–5 elementary school
Have you been able to incorporate graphic novels and manga into your school library? If not, what obstacles have prevented you from expanding this part of your collection?

Penny Kenny: When I started volunteering in the elementary library in 1988, graphic novels were looked down on as “junk reading” by just about everyone. I could not convince the librarian that a series like Elfquest was of any value. When I got the parapro job in ’97, it wasn’t much better, but I was able to start “sneaking” a few into the collection. Today, I have approximately 100 graphic novels and 300 single-issue comics in the library. The biggest obstacle to growing the collection has always been budget—or rather lack thereof.
Diana Maliszewski: I have a very large collection of graphic novels/manga in my school library. I have not had any objections since I first began bringing in these kinds of resources in 2004. The enthusiasm that the students have shown for reading graphic novels fuels the need and support for increasing the amount of books we have in this area. One teacher proclaimed in the staffroom that all manga was just Japanese porn, but in spite of that belief (and I can’t be sure if he was kidding or misinformed), he still permitted his students to borrow and read manga during silent reading periods. I have had the occasional parent request that their child refrain from constantly taking out graphic novels, but to compromise, we put percentage limits on the amount of graphic novels each person can take out at one time (no more than 50 percent of your total possible borrowing amount—for instance, intermediate students can borrow seven books at a time and three of those can be graphic novels). My staff and my administration have been very supportive and we even have graphic novel sets purchased for use in guided reading instruction as well as healthy classroom graphic novel collections.

Gretchen Schroeder: I have been able to introduce both graphic novels and manga not only into the school’s library, but also into the curriculum, and onto the school’s summer reading lists. The largest obstacle has been the perception of graphic books as not being “literature” I overcame much of the resistance from both faculty and parents by a lot of one-on-one interaction.

What percentage of your annual budget are you able to allocate to graphic novels and manga? Have 2009 budget cuts altered your purchasing decisions, specifically the acquisition of graphic novels?

Jill Russell: I allocate approximately 10 percent of my annual budget. Budget cuts have not altered my purchasing decisions. I do my own fundraising and write a lot of grants. I recently received one from Wells Fargo specifically targeted for books for reluctant readers. Graphic novels fit perfectly in that category, as they hook, motivate, and challenge readers.

Penny: Normally 0 percent of my budget goes to graphic novels. The majority of the graphic novels/comics on my shelves were purchased with money out of my pocket, are review copies, or were donated by sympathetic friends. This is the first year I’ve used school funds for graphic novel purchases and it came to less than $125. Next year even that amount will have to go back toward updating the sadly out-of-date nonfiction section.

Diana: In my annual budget proposal, I earmark 5 percent specifically for graphic novels; however, since 20 percent of my budget is more nonfiction, and a further 20 percent is for fiction materials, I can spend some of that money on graphic novels. My budget has decreased significantly since I first started at my current school—I’ve been there for five years. Despite the shortfall, we have found many creative ways to maintain and improve our collection. We applied for and received a $15,000 Ontario Ministry of Education boys’ literacy grant to study the effect of graphic novels on attitudes toward reading, and the girls were able to take advantage of the windfall too.

Gretchen: I would say that about 10 percent is in graphic novels. I do not expect that that percentage will change in relation to any reduction in my budget.

How do the students react to them?

Gretchen: My students love them. Our school has a very high population of students with differences especially in regard to reading. I have found that it has helped many students overcome the “I hate reading” syndrome.

Penny: The students love them! I have several students who will reread favorite series two or three times.

Jill: Most students love them because they bring stories to life. They can’t wait to come to the library to check them out.

Diana: Students absolutely adore them. At first, it was very difficult to entice intermediate students to come to the library and borrow books. Now that we have a thriving graphic novel collection, we have actually had to put limits on the times they can come to the library, because it gets too crowded for me to supervise on my own. My circulation statistics may not necessarily demonstrate the fondness my school population has for these types of books, because I find that older students will borrow a book and then pass it to five of their friends to read before returning it. My ELL (English Language Learner) students are delighted to be able to read the same books their peers are reading because the visuals and familiar storylines help them deconstruct the meaning. Comics are for all types of readers, high and low, male and female. I involve my students in the purchasing of library resources, and on one recent shopping venture, when the vendor asked my five helpers what sort of resources they were looking for, all mentioned some graphic novel title. I can never have too many graphic novels.

How did parents, teachers, and administrators react to including them? Is there still a stigma with putting graphic literature in an academic setting?

Penny: The teachers are tolerant of their presence if not overly enthusiastic. Recently a teacher flipped through a Sonic the Hedgehog collection saying, “A few years ago, I wouldn’t have accepted these as reading material, but I suppose if they’re reading something it’s better than nothing.” Not exactly a rousing endorsement. Parents are generally noncommittal, except for those who get tired of reading all the word balloons to their kindergarten-aged students. Then I receive notes saying, “No more comics!”

Diana: Other than the one teacher I mentioned earlier, I have had a positive reaction from the adults I interact with. Maybe part of the acceptance came as a result of the ministry grant (if the government sees it as a viable form of literature, why can’t we?) or maybe it came as a result of the professional development we had. Jason Azzopardi, from The Beguiling (Canada’s premiere comic book store, and organizer of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival) and Maria Martella, from Tinlids (a wholesale vendor with extensive knowledge of graphic novels and host of the Greater Toronto Area Graphic Novel Book Club and Review Team for Educators), came to our school and discussed comics with my staff. Equipping my students with the vocabulary and persuasive tactics to assure worried parents about the value of comics is also a useful strategy. My students have spoken eloquently about the positive impact of comics at workshops for teachers. I can quote the research, and they can refer to their personal experiences; it’s a good team approach.

Gretchen: I occasionally have a parent question their place in the library and the school. I try to respond with any negative reactions personally. I find it helpful to present them with examples of well-put-together graphic novels, graphic nonfiction, and award-winners. If possible, I like to identify a genre that they like in books and show them a comparable in a graphic book format.

Which books have been most popular with students?

Jill: Tintin, Bone, Dragon Ball Z, Sardine, Howl’s Magic Castle, Babymouse, Spirited Away, Hobbit, Whistle, Super Diaper Baby, All That Pikachu!, and the Toon books—Jack and the Box, Benny and Penny in Just Pretend, and Otto’s Orange Day.

Penny: Pokemon, Sonic, Peach Fuzz, and Babymouse are the hands-down, all-age favorites. Yotsuba &! and Mark Crilley’s Miki Falls are the favorites with the preteen 5th- and 6th-grade girls, while Kingdom Hearts is the hot one for 5th- and 6th-grade boys; though I am seeing a surge of interest in Robotech, Capt’n Eli, Lucky Luke, and The Bluecoats among the 5th-grade boys.

Diana: I surveyed my intermediate students two or three years ago and the five most popular series at that time were Naruto, Beet The Vandal Buster, One Piece, Prince of Tennis, and Ultra Maniac. My younger girls love Babymouse, and my middle range girls love The Babysitters Club (Raina Telgemeier, in my opinion, improved on the original stories from Ann Martin considerably!). My younger boys still worship any superhero title (and have to play rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets to borrow that hybrid, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its sequels).

I have a solid manga following in all three divisions (lower, middle, and upper schools). I have a core group of superhero readers. But the majority of my graphic book readers are pretty eclectic. Usagi Yojimbo and Bone are extremely popular at all levels among both boys and girls. The 911 Report graphic novel is very popular among my middle and upper-school students. The Babysitters Club and Babymouse are popular with my lower school girls, and Pokemon and Star Wars: Clone Wars are the most popular series among the boys in the same division.

What guidelines do you follow when choosing which titles to bring in to your school library?

Jill: I use student recommendations and children’s librarians’ ideas to increase my collection. I also use the collection development feature at Follett that lets me select books by the grade level I am interested in along with a number of reviews.

Penny: One of the first considerations—especially when looking for books for the girls—is length. I don’t have a lot of money or space. The other major consideration is: Is it something more than one or two kids will read? There has to be a minimum of swearing (one or two words per volume are usually acceptable), and anything that can be construed as too sexual or violent is an automatic no-buy. Obviously, this knocks out a lot of mainstream comic publisher output and many popular manga series.

Diana: The Toronto District School Board has selection criteria for purchasing school library resources, and I abide by that. I take my students shopping with me as often as I can. All of us review the board’s selection criteria and balance that with our curricular needs along with what the students want to read. Because I myself have read many of the titles they request, and because I purchase from vendors I trust (not those just jumping on the graphic novel bandwagon), I feel confident when I choose graphic novels for my school library collection that they are age-appropriate.

Gretchen: First and foremost is age-appropriateness, followed by the quality of art and writing. Basically I use the same guidelines that I use to select any fiction or nonfiction work, with added attention to the art and the sequencing of the book.

How do you determine what is appropriate for readers of different ages and levels at your school?

Gretchen: I use a combination of publisher ratings, my personal judgment, and input from my student Graphic Books Club.

Jill: I read the books closely and follow recommendations from students and librarians.

Diana: I like to read graphic novels, and I am on the GTA Graphic Novel Book Club and Review Team for Educators. The group reads graphic novels and discusses them, including the approximate age they would be suitable for. I write graphic novel reviews and post these reviews on the Toronto District School Board electronic conference for teacher-librarians. These reviews of mine are becoming very popular, so I’ve begun to share them on my blog, which can be found on the Library Network Group website ( I also consult a couple of comic review bloggers I know—Scott Robins comes to mind, as well as the “Drawn to the Form” column in the magazine I help run, The Teaching Librarian. There’s also the graphic novel listserv, GNLIB, which has a large membership and a helpful archive section. Determining the “right level” is part art, so I have my own student Graphic Novel Book Review Club at school. These students are in grades 6–8, and they have a special permission form signed by their parents that says that I am not liable if by chance they may access any content in the graphic novels we are reviewing that is inappropriate. These students and I examine the grade level limits we have set at our school to ensure that they are reasonable, and we examine any new series that we are bringing into our school collection to decide what grade is allowed to read them.

Penny: I try to get all-ages material, but we all know that’s a very fluid rating. I spend time on blogs that review graphic novels reading those opinions. Then I check out comments on Because I’m buying most of these books out of my pocket and have generally flipped through them at the store, I can usually tell if something’s going to be too violent or sexy for my rather conservative area. A lot depends on my knowing the child and his/her family and what they’ll tolerate.

Do you find these books are more closely monitored—or need to be—than other books in your collection?

Penny: Yes. Because of their visual nature, it’s far easier for someone to find something to object to.

Diana: Yes, partly because they are so popular and partly because the mature content in some is more accessible, due to its visual nature, than in purely prose cousins. Is that fair? Not really, but “keeping it clean” means we can “keep them in.” It’s funny how often it’s the students who will come to me with a specific concern in a title.

Gretchen: I do look more carefully at these perhaps than other books, only because I feel that parents are more likely to react negatively to something they feel is objectionable than the same material in text form only.

Where do you shelve the graphic novels and manga?

Penny: They’re not so much shelved as clustered together on the tops of the lower bookcases by series and general similarity. For example, Peach Fuzz, Babymouse, and Archie Digests are clustered together. Pokemon, Capt’n Eli, and Uncle Scrooge are next to one another.
Diana: Ah, the eternal shelving question. Eventually, I’d like to be able to shelve my graphic novels just like other fiction and nonfiction materials, but there are so many readers that specifically seek out graphic novels to read that I have them in a graphic novel section in my library.

Jill: I have them on a special rolling cart so I can feature them front and center in my library.

Gretchen: I currently have two collections that are color-coded: one juvenile graphic books collection and one young adult collection. If I had more space, I might have a collection for each division, which would allow me to include titles in the young adult collection that are eliminated due to content.

How have you promoted graphic novels in your library?

Jill: I book-talk them and provide the opportunity for students to give both written and oral reviews to classmates.

Penny: Generally I hand the new book to a student who I know will enjoy it and she or he takes it from there. Because we’re a small school (fewer than 500 students in K–6), it’s easy to see what other people are reading and ask for it.

Diana: I do lessons on comics as part of my teaching. I see all the primary students for library and computers and I am responsible for the “media” section of their report card. As early as kindergarten, we read comics that have to do with the topics they are studying in class, and we use the software Comic Life to create comics of all shapes and sizes. Once in a blue moon, I will do a book talk on our new acquisitions, but the students almost have built-in radar and know when I’ve bought new graphic novels, for they will descend like a swarm of locusts on the books the minute they are available to borrow. The students who buy the books with me do just as much promotion as I do, since they were the ones who helped pick the titles. They tell their friends, and isn’t word of mouth one of the best ways to promote books?

Gretchen: I teach a graphic books unit in our Lower School Library classes that includes reading a graphic novel. The unit also includes an opportunity in 4–5th grades to create a simple graphic book as a group project.

Are teachers responding to the books as well? Have any of them begun to look at them or incorporate them into their classrooms in any way?

Penny: I have one teacher who really got into the Capt’n Eli books—sharing them with her class and using the lesson plans provided by the publisher. She, unfortunately, is the exception.

Diana: My teachers already incorporate graphic novels into their teaching. Comics are acceptable for book reports or silent reading. Graphic novels are used in guided reading and as end product options for projects—the grade fives just did a research project on ancient civilizations and were able to choose to do a comic incorporating the information they learned, a la the Linda Bailey and Bill Slavin series. When the kindergarten teacher last year showed me how her four-year-olds were including speech bubbles in their journals, you know it makes an impact. Comics are used in my school to teach inferencing, dialogue, storyboarding, art, and many other things.

Gretchen: We have already incorporated graphic books into the middle and upper school curriculum in a limited way. English teachers in both those divisions are also now accepting book reports on major graphic novels. My lower school teachers are comfortable allowing the books as outside reading but are not yet using them in the curriculum. In addition, we now have graphic books included in our summer reading lists for all three divisions.

Jill: Yes. I have showed teachers how they can provide a traditional story in an alternative format. This works especially well for reluctant readers.

Have you worked with teachers to include graphic novels as a part of classroom reading?

Jill: Some teachers allow them for SSR time. They are very useful for second-language learners, as they often find clues in the pictures that help demystify the text and increase comprehension. They can also assist second-language learners by providing engaging content in sequential, logical order.

Penny: Early on, when I first became the library parapro, I tried, but the teachers have been indifferent to the idea.

Do teachers respond to graphic nonfiction in the same way they respond to graphic novels?

Penny: At the moment, I don’t have a great deal of graphic nonfiction (though I’m hoping to fix that in the 2009–10 school year), but the teachers tend to be more supportive of graphic nonfiction than fiction graphic novels.

Diana: Yes—they like and appreciate it.

Gretchen: Many are intrigued but not yet sure how to use them. We are currently looking at how to use T-Minus as part of our middle school unit on rocket science and space exploration.
Jill: Many teachers appreciate the ways that graphic novels simplify complex topics and make them easier for students to understand.

When initiating and building your collection, what did you use as a model?

Penny: Model? There are models out there? I just bought what I thought the students would read.

Diana: No particular model—just what my school community wanted and needed. I was aided by a couple of courses I took, such as “Comics and Graphic Novels in School and Public Libraries” by Gail de Vos, offered through the University of Alberta, and “Manga, MP3s and MMORPGs,” offered by Beth Galloway and Robin Brenner.

Jill: At a session at the California School Library Association (CSLA) conference in 2004, I attended a session on graphic novels and learned a lot there.

Gretchen: I used lots of online recommendation lists. We did not use any specific library as a model.

What’s the best way for an elementary school to start a graphic novel program? In your experience, have you learned anything that would be valuable to other media specialists beginning a graphic novel program in their libraries?

Penny: Research, research, and more research. Read relevant articles on sites like this one and in other professional journals. Talk to other librarians in your area and talk to the students to get an idea of what types of stories they’d like to see. If you can, get your younger, newer teachers excited about the idea of graphic novels by introducing them to graphic novels that have lesson plans with them.

Jill: The best way to start is to buy a variety of age appropriate graphic novels and showcase them in a special display area in the library. Collaborate with other librarians to share ideas. Book-talk them and ask students for their suggestions. Graphic novels really do make reading fun for great readers as well as reluctant ones.

Diana: Hook up with someone you trust who knows graphic novels and school climate. Tinlids offers “collection-starter bundles” that you can purchase to begin your collection. The Beguiling offers, if anyone complains legitimately about a title, that they will take it back even if you’ve processed the book. Read a couple yourself, or read reviews if you really can’t stand them (I do have a few teacher-librarian friends who dislike reading graphic novels but will still carry them in their collections). Talk with other people about graphic novels, what they carry, where they store them. And don’t be afraid.

Gretchen: I think this depends a lot on the school, the student population, and the budgeting issues. What works for me may not work with other schools. However, I do recommend that the librarian identify members of the school population who are likely to support graphic books in the school and cultivate their interest and support in the collection. I also recommend a lot of education for the faculty and parents ahead of the development of the collection. Having a community that understands the role that graphic books can play in a school is perhaps the best way to have a successful collection.