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July 17, 2009

Roundtable: How Graphic Novels and Manga Are Doing in Middle School


Middle school is a time of many changes. With children having outgrown the simpler stories of grade school, but not yet quite ready for the more mature works of high school, middle school librarians have to take extra special care of their book offerings. With manga and graphic novels reaching new levels of popularity, particularly with that age group, here’s what some librarians are facing on the job now.

Our participants:
Ryan Foley; Substitute Teacher; Westhampton Beach School District (Middle and High School): Westhampton Beach, NY (also librarian at the Riverhead Free Library Young Adult Department in Riverhead, NY)
Esther (Lewenstein) Keller, M.L.S.; Librarian; Junior High School 278 Marine Park; Brooklyn, New York
Arlene Lipkewich; Teacher-Librarian; Westmount Junior High School; Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
When did graphic novels first become incorporated into your school library? Was it a difficult process to bring them in at first?
Esther Keller: I first added graphic novels into my collection in my first full year as a school librarian. It was January of 2003, shortly after YALSA’s Teen Read Week theme of “Get Graphic @ Your Library.” I collected a lot of professional literature on the benefits of graphic novels in libraries—chose one or two of the articles and gave it to my principal explaining that I wanted to start a collection. Fortunately, the principal was extremely supportive and onboard. Since then, she has become a great champion of GNs and will even come and borrow some for her own son.
In 2005, I applied for a CCD collection with the office of School Library Services. The CCD collection is funded by the State Education Department and is intended as a cooperative collection for NYC school libraries. My CCD collection is Middle School Graphic Novels. The greatest benefit is that each year I receive a small stipend for GNs, not to mention the generous startup money I received as part of the grant. This money as well as other money has made it very easy to start and sustain the collection. These two factors have helped create a thriving GN collection. It’s probably one of the largest graphic novel collections in the NYC school system.
Ryan Foley: Well, I work at a public library in the Young Adult department. About three years ago, our department was expanded from basically a corner to a much larger section of the library, with room for many more books and our own computer lab. It was at this point we started our graphic novel collection. Since our department was being expanded—probably about three or four times the size—we had the opportunity to order so much new material. It made the process pretty easy.
Arlene Lipkewich: I completed a course titled Comic Books and Graphic Novels with instructor, author, and storyteller Gail de Vos through the Library and Information Science School at the University of Alberta in the fall of 2005. It was while I was taking the course that I began to purchase recommended graphic novels for our school library collection.
When initiating and building your collection, what did you use as a model?
Arlene: Other than selecting highly recommended novels, I don’t know that I followed any model!
Esther: I didn’t use one particular model, but rather I pulled a core collection from many different resources—articles that appeared in professional journals, and websites like Robin Brenner’s It was a huge learning experience, because I was very new to graphic novels and didn’t read many of them at the time. So many of the titles I ordered, I later discovered, were better suited for a high school. There are a lot more professional books you can look at now. For instance, Michelle Gorman’s titles; or Robin Brenner or Michael Pawauk have written excellent books about graphic novels.
Ryan: Since we started from scratch, and only about three years ago, we had a lot of options. We started by getting the most popular titles and building from there. We researched online and asked our patrons and our staff what titles they liked and ordered some of those. Since graphic novels are so important to our department, we always try to stay on top of new releases, what people request, and what upcoming releases are generating a buzz, to continue to build upon our collection.
What has student reaction been?
Ryan: Reaction to our library’s graphic novel collection has been overwhelmingly positive. Graphic novels continue to account for a great percentage (disproportionate in terms of number that we have compared to other items) of our circulation numbers. We have kids who come in and will take out several, even an entire series at a time.
Arlene: Students absolutely love them! They wish there were more.
Esther: The student reaction was amazing from day one. It immediately had the effect I wanted. It drew in many boys and it pulled in students I had never seen before. Six years later, the collection is still having the same effect. There’s one teacher in my school who just hates to leave his classroom. He’s an excellent teacher, but he doesn’t come to the library. I rarely see his students. But this year, a few students discovered the graphic novel collection and brought in a few friends. They would “sneak in” between classes or before they went to the cafeteria for lunch. I’d see them every day and sometimes twice a day, because manga is such a quick read. Now, the teacher is constantly sending me small groups to the library. They became one of my “top circing” homerooms. In the month of May, the group collectively borrowed 179 books!
How did parents, teachers, and administrators react to including them? Is there still a stigma with putting graphic literature in an academic setting?
Esther: Like I said before, the principal is one of my biggest supporters. Some teachers embraced the format right away, just as long as they were reading. It took others more time. I worked slowly, first getting them to understand it was reading. Every so often, I still come upon teachers who look down on the format, but I’ve gotten so many teachers to accept graphic novels that those few don’t even bother me anymore. This year, I had one of my early resisters actually teach Maus I to her eighth-grade class! Most teachers are just willing to accept it as pleasure reading and many even will accept two graphic novels as one book for the 25 book reading standard that New York state has set. The parents haven’t commented. I’m taking their silence as acquiescence!
Arlene: Teachers and administrators were, and continue to be, very supportive of any material that serves to further engage students in reading for pleasure.
Ryan: We have received a positive reaction from our administration in regards to our graphic novel collection. Since our department is fairly new, in terms of our aforementioned expansion, the popularity of graphic novels has done a lot to justify the money put into our department’s expansion by doing wonders for our circulation numbers. More importantly, our primary focus has been to use the popularity of graphic novels to encourage kids to read. From my observations, this has been increasingly successful, as we now see kids who used to come in on a regular basis for graphic novels expanding their horizons to other mediums.
I think some stigma still exists, and some people see graphic novels as childish, “not cool,” or in some cases too violent. However, I believe this stigma is continuing to be broken down. The mainstream success of comic-book and graphic-novel-based movie franchises such as X-Men, Spider-Man, Sin City, Watchmen, plus the popularity of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, as I believe the two are somewhat related in this sense, has made the graphic novel more socially acceptable amongst teenagers. In addition we live in an increasingly visual and interactive world. Now everything is done on a screen; cell phones with touch screens, computers, smart boards, etc. The education business has begun to reflect these changes; and teachers now more than ever have made it a point to incorporate visual learning into their daily lessons and long-term projects. Taking this into account, I can see why graphic novels should continue to gain more acceptance as an education tool, as a means to encourage reading, creativity, and as a way increase visual learning skills.
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?
Arlene: Graphic novels are purchased as part of the fiction and nonfiction budgets.
Ryan: This is difficult for me to say off the top of my head. I can say that since graphic novels are so popular amongst our patrons, we make sure to order new titles all of the time.
Esther: I get money from so many different places that it’s hard to calculate, but I easily spend 25 percent of my budget on graphic novels, but then again, 30 percent of materials that circulate in the library are graphic novels. As for the ’09–’10 budget woes…so far the state did not cut back on library funding. So my base amount is the same. On the other hand, I expect to lose some of my extra monies that really keep the library afloat—and yes, it will affect how I purchase graphic novels. I’m just not sure how. The fact is, if I don’t keep the graphic novel collection vital and vibrant, I will lose customers. So I will make every effort to keep the percentages the same, even if the dollar amount is less.
Which books have been most popular with students?
Ryan: Right now, the Narutoand Deathnote series are by far our most popular.
Esther: Well, I can’t keep Naruto on the shelf. I lost count of how many have been stolen, lost, etc. But this year, Kekkaishi really took off, as did Kitchen Princess. The kids love Jellaby and Runaways. Fruits Basket is coming back into fashion again.
Arlene: Manga geared to both boys (e.g., Full Metal Alchemist) and girls (e.g., Yotsuba). The girls read the male-oriented manga. However, there are few boys who read the manga with female protagonists. Also, comics anthologies such as Calvin and Hobbes [are popular].
Which titles have been your favorites?
Arlene: Perhaps my most favorite graphic novel is Blankets by Craig Thompson.I believe that in order to understand why our students enjoy graphic novels so much, the adults in their life, particularly their teachers, need to have positive reading experiences with graphic novels. Whenever I have the opportunity, I share Blankets with my female colleagues. Not one has ever said that they did not enjoy it.
Ryan: Easy. Watchmen has always been my favorite. Also The Dark Knight Returns, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and From Hell.
Esther: My own favorites: Jellaby, Runaways. Plain Janes. But as with most of my reading, it changes with the “last book I read.”
What guidelines do you follow when choosing which titles to bring in to your school library?
Esther: My first concern is the age rating assigned by the publisher—I only order books that are rated for ages 13 and younger. Next, I consider the reviews. Fortunately, there are many more reviews than there were before. I consider the reviewer’s opinion regarding age appropriateness, quality, and appeal. I also follow lots of blogs and websites., Publisher’s Weekly The Beat, Kids Love Comics, SLJ’s Good Comics for Kids (which I blog for), and many of the publishers’ blogs. Finally, I try to read a lot. When I first added comics to my library, I hated the format and thought I could get away without reading the collection, but I quickly realized that if I wanted to stay on top of the collection, I would have to read parts of the collection just like I read the fiction section and nonfiction section.
Arlene: Reviews, age and maturity of students, whether or not it is developmentally appropriate, budget, will it hold up to library circulation (some of the first GNs that I purchased did not hold up beyond a few circulations, which was very disappointing for both the students as well as myself).
Ryan: We have a lot of ways for determining which titles to bring into our libraries. Because of their value to our department, and popularity amongst our patrons, we have to make it a point to keep our finger on the pulse by looking at catalogs, online reviews, message boards, and forums for suggestions. We look at what titles are currently popular and what new titles are coming out that are generating a lot of buzz. Then we just sort of take all of this information and make an educated decision on what to order. We are always looking for suggestions from patrons and staff members alike. This is definitely our most important tool for deciding on what to order. In our YA department in particular, we have a large, consistent group of patrons that our staff has gotten to know pretty well. We have a pretty good grasp of what our patrons will like and always take that into consideration. We are providing a public service, after all.
How do you determine what is appropriate for readers of different ages and levels at your school?
Esther: I serve students ages 11–14. So the books I consider will be appropriate for that age. It’s a real challenge, because my 14-year-olds can handle a lot more than the 11-year-olds, and it is one collection. It’s too small a library to separate out the collection by a J/YA designation like they do in the public library. So I start with the publishers’ age ratings and then go to reviews. And if I’m still uncertain, I’ll read the title myself. I try to balance prudence with sensibility. And sometimes it’s hard, because if a publisher has rated their book ages 16+, but the content really isn’t objectionable, I will still keep it out of the collection. I tell the kids to go to the public library.
Arlene: I read the majority of the graphic novels. If they are deemed to be too mature, then I add them to our professional library or pass them on to one of my teacher-librarian colleagues at the high-school level. On the flip side, I also keep in mind the needs of struggling or reluctant readers who will enjoy easier graphic novels as long as they are not too elementary. If I don’t have time to read them, then I ask one of the teachers in our language arts department if they would be interested in reading some graphic novels. They provide me with invaluable feedback. If they aren’t sure, then I read it as well and we put our heads together to decide whether it is appropriate for our library.
Ryan: I guess the best way to answer this question would be to say it is a judgment call. When we order graphic novels, the company we order from or somewhere online will usually have an age range or rating attached to the book. However, we do have to have our staff scan any new title for content that is not appropriate. That staff member then has to make a judgment call.
Do you find these books are more closely monitored—or need to be—than other books in your collection?
Ryan: The visual aspect of a graphic novel does add an extra element into the decision-making process of whether or not a title is appropriate. We have occasionally ordered a particular graphic novel and found it to have a perfectly appropriate plot and writing, but illustrations too graphic for our age group. On the occasions that this happens, we simply move it to the adult section. However, I would like to add that most graphic novels do not contain content that is more explicit than can be found in many young-adult books. However, the visual element of the graphic novels does provide an extra element of scrutiny. We try to be as lenient as we can, but there are instances where a line has to be drawn, whether it be a graphic novel or a print book. While we have a lot of 17- and 18-year-old kids (and even some adults who come to check out our collection), we have to remember we have 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old kids too.
Esther: Yes and no. My concerns about age appropriateness are the same for all parts of my collection, but the reality is, a parent skimming through a 200-page fiction book won’t find things to object to as easily as they might in a 200-page manga, simply because images jump out at us faster than words. Personally, the images painted with words affect us just as strongly as images on paper, so if I’m concerned about content, I’m concerned all around. I do pay a lot of attention to my graphic novel collection, but so do the kids. It’s a very heavily used section. Ask my students monitors. They constantly balk at shelving the comics, because every time they clean up the section, it’s messed up by the time they return the next day.
Arlene: I purchased about a hundred graphic novels the first year and had a dedicated shelf for them. By the end of the year, there were maybe a quarter left! The majority grew legs and walked away. One student in particular was stockpiling them at home and went to great lengths to remove any library identification from them. After exams, his mom very sheepishly returned a large shopping bag full! To assist library support staff and volunteers, all graphic novels have an orange circle to the right of the barcode that is located on the top left-hand corner of all graphic novels. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish a graphic novel from other books until you open it. With the orange sticker, we can ensure that they stay in the three drawers of the file horizontal file cabinet behind the circulation desk.
Where do you shelve the graphic novels and manga?
Esther: My comics are front and center. Right when you walk in the door. Right across from the circulation desk. It’s supposed to help cut down on theft, but it hasn’t.
Arlene: Due to the losses the first year, all graphic novels were moved behind the circulation desk. They are located in a three-drawer horizontal file cabinet. The top drawer is dedicated to manga and the other two drawers are dedicated to fiction and nonfiction graphic novels, which are organized alphabetically by title. There is a recipe card box at the checkout desk that contains pictures of all the covers of the books. Students flip through the pictures of the book covers, select the graphic novel they would like, then ask the adult behind the desk to retrieve it for them. This year, with there being a couple of graphic novels on the YRCA list, I chose to place them on the wall display for ease of circulation. They did not disappear, so next year we may start to place more graphic novels on general displays.
Ryan: When you walk up the stairs that lead to our department, they are on the back wall that you see as soon as you walk in. From the left side of the back wall, they are on the second and third shelves (in between sci-fi/fantasy and the beginning of our hardcover fiction). New titles have their own spot on the four top rows of the third shelf.
How have you promoted graphic novels in your library?
Ryan: Since I have already touched on this subject somewhat, I’ll give a specific example. We recently ordered and have promoted the “Graphic Novel Classic” series of books. As most of you are aware, this is a series of classic books adopted as graphic novels. Our goal, of course, is to use the popularity of graphic novels, to expose them to young readers who would not think about picking up a classic title. I certainly believe this has been successful. They do an excellent job of providing the reader with a more relatable, visual interpretation of something like Hamlet.
In addition, we have a rotating display of new titles. We have brochures of new or specific titles we think that people would like to distribute to patrons or make displays of any titles that are not being checked out that we feel people would like. We also have some posters hanging up on the wall that somebody got from Comic-Con. We always try to come up with new and creative ways to promote graphic novels, books, programs, or anything that we offer (although sometimes I think graphic novels need the least promotion out of anything).
Arlene: Bulletin board displays, posters on walls, booktalks, reader advisory, word of mouth.
Esther: I didn’t have to. They promoted themselves. But I did discover by reading more titles, especially the ones the kids wouldn’t pick up on their own, led to less popular titles going out more often. For instance, most of the kids passed over A Bit Haywire by Scott Zirkel, but every kid who picked it up at my suggestion has come in begging for volume two.
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?
Arlene: Teachers are integrating graphic novels into their core classes, particularly in social studies. Specifically, we have found two graphic novels about Louis Riel. Both are at different reading levels, which eases with differentiation. Students respond positively to the text that is supported by images.
Esther: The teachers are responding well to the books. This year, two eighth-grade teachers taught Maus I. The classes had to write their own comics too. They did such wonderful work. And just yesterday, I was showing a teacher interested in starting a book club Satchel Paige…she admitted to never reading a comic before, so I was showing her how to follow the panels. Her students chose a different book for the book club, but she told me she was disappointed because she had been pushing for Satchel Paige. After reading it, she loved it!
Ryan: Not much from my experiences, as limited as it may be thus far, still being a substitute. I already discussed the value of graphic novels as an education tool. As a social studies teacher (someday soon, I hope), I might not be in a position to answer this as well as an English or reading teacher could. Time constraints, and the way the curriculum has become so standardized and specific, poses a challenge to finding an opportunity to include graphic novels in one’s classroom. On the contrary, visual mediums are important educational tools, and graphic novels certainly classify as such. There are many graphic novels, nonfiction and fiction, that could certainly be used to supplement a history lesson. I recently read a graphic novel we just ordered about a Jewish woman and her daughter escaping Nazi Germany that was excellent and would love to show a class one day. However, I can’t think of the title off the top of my head.
Do teachers respond to graphic nonfiction in the same way they respond to graphic novels?
Esther: I think it depends on the title. So much of the graphic nonfiction is mediocre, so I don’t push it myself. The titles that are out there are great, but I’m still looking for nonlanguage arts teachers to bring them into the classroom. Our school just purchased a document reader, so I hope it might encourage teachers to show parts of a graphic novel or graphic nonfiction to the class when it connects and enhances their lesson unit.
Arlene: Graphic novels assist teachers in further differentiating instruction. When offered as one of several alternatives, graphic novels, whether fiction or nonfiction, serve to engage visual learners as well as struggling, reluctant, or nonreaders.
In your experience, have you learned anything that would be valuable to other librarians and media specialists beginning a graphic novel program in their libraries?
Arlene: Don’t hesitate! Jump in and start developing your school library’s graphic novel collection. It is well worth it!
Esther: I think the most important lesson I learned the last six years I’ve been working with graphic novels is that the only real way to keep up with the collection is to read it. Not every single book—I don’t read every single fiction and nonfiction book in the library. But I do read a lot. And now I have to balance YA and graphic novels. It’s a huge balancing act, but it’s only improved my collection. Many of my eighth-graders are sad to graduate because they know their high school won’t have as large a comics collection. It didn’t start out that way. It only became a vibrant collection after I started reading and appreciating the medium.