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October 6, 2009

Op-Ed: Venturing Into Foreign Territory with YA Librarian Lisa Elliott


Lisa Elliott is a young-adult librarian at the Tigard Public Library in Tigard, Oregon, who has the distinction of once having been mere inches away from Art Speigelman. She didn’t speak to him.

When I learned 18 months ago that my collection-development responsibilities as a new young-adult librarian included graphic novels, I was ecstatic. Though I’d always been an admirer of graphic novels, I was only a dabbler, and I sensed an opportunity to graduate from novice to fan-girl status. Progress on that front has been slow, as it turns out that librarians rarely have time to read. I was also delighted to learn that, in spite of my monolingual limitations, I would be selecting for our young-adult Spanish collection. From my first review of the circulation stats, it was obvious that the most popular books in that collection included translations of manga and graphic novels. So I set out on a quest to find more Spanish-language comics, and this mission, I soon discovered, is nearly impossible.

I am far from alone in this challenge. Many of my colleagues struggle to build excellent Spanish collections for teens. I don’t read Spanish, and there are precious few resources that provide English-language reviews of Spanish-language materials. I scour the Internet, searching for websites, newsletters, and books, anything that will help me select materials. My colleagues and I discover resources and forward them to each other enthusiastically, only to open links that, though live seconds before, have sadly perished. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to streamline Spanish-collection development, and, after more than a year and half, still cling stubbornly to the belief that the perfect resource is out there somewhere, just waiting for me to illuminate it in heavenly light. Sometimes it occurs to me that actually learning Spanish would certainly be a better use of my time. How silly that I can’t communicate with so many of the people in my neighborhood. Didn’t I learn anything from Sesame Street?

Imagine you are traveling in a foreign country. You don’t speak the language, but you have always wanted to go there. It’s exciting to wander the streets, letting serendipity guide you. You’ve met some good people. You’ve even run into old friends. You find you can recognize some street signs, but you are getting tired, hungry, and you have to go to the bathroom. You begin to long for a place of rest and belonging, until—Eureka!—you stumble across a comics shop. You enter, and you know you have found your tribe. You don’t have to struggle to read the signs because the signs are pictures! Communication with your fellow human beings is easy, because you all speak fluent Geek. The walls around you feature the friendly faces of Astro Boy, Spider-Man, and Fone Bone. You are home and your family is holding you in their familiar embrace. This is what Spanish-collection development is like for me, except I can’t find the comics shop. Or rather, I keep thinking I’ve found the shop, but I get there and the doors are boarded up, the windows covered in newspaper that I can’t read. In spite of many obstacles and dead ends, I’ve learned a lot throughout my journey, and I’m happy to offer my experience as a guide for other travelers. Though I know more now than I did before, there is infinite room for knowledge expansion. Please, dear readers, jump in if you have a resource or experience to share. We can all benefit from what you’ve learned. Hopefully, we can start a conversation that will help smooth the road that lies before us.

I’ll discuss here my successes and my misses, the particular resources that have worked well for me and those that have not. However, I am no expert (novice, remember), or, if I am an expert, the field of Spanish-language graphic novel collection development is sadly undernourished. In fact, if libraries in my area are any indication, collections like mine are rare, though perhaps more desirable than more traditional Spanish-language materials for young adults.

My collection is exclusively Spanish translations of Japanese and American comics. I have barely begun to explore the rich and dynamic world of Latin American comics, such as fotonovelas and historietas. These publications are usually printed in small, flimsy booklets, often in runs of hundreds of thousands. They are hugely popular among citizens of Latin countries, as well as Latinos living in the United States. Organizations and political campaigns often take advantage of this popularity, creating historietas that will help disseminate their messages. While it might sound ominous to use comics as political tools and propaganda machines, we all know that doing so is traditional in sequential art, and, in the words of writer Sergio Ulloa on the Mexconnect website, from its “beginning, the historieta has maintained a close relationship with politics, thanks to its enormous effectiveness as a means of communication.” Historietas in the United States serve to entertain, educate, and help Latinos maintain a connection to their communities, in the States as well as in Mexico and Central and South America. Some public libraries (such as the Houston Public Library) have embraced the format as an important part of their collections that brings new patrons into the library while pumping up the circulation numbers, all for a relatively small investment. Robert Logan wrote an article for Crìticas Magazine (one of those rare and blessed English-language resources with reviews of Spanish-language materials) about his library’s use of fotonovelas, and his recommendations for other libraries.

While there are many compelling arguments for public-library historieta collections, the practical obstacles are all too familiar. Most libraries deal directly with certain vendors that provide substantial discounts on large orders. While selectors may seek out different suppliers for special collections or hard-to-find items, the added expense and workload can be prohibitive. I started out ordering Spanish-language graphic novels through Ingram, our regular supplier. However, these orders would languish in limbo for months until they were finally canceled. I started searching for other sources. Public Square Books distributes a lot of Spanish-language graphic translations by a variety of publishers, including desirable titles like Persepolis and Bone, but our library’s patient and resourceful acquisitions coordinator learned that she was not able to order directly from this distributor. We were happy to see that some Public Square Book titles as well as other Spanish-language graphics were available through Baker and Taylor, another supplier that offers the library a discount, but again, many B&T orders went unfulfilled.
We library types are very earnest about meeting our patrons’ needs. My collection’s circulation stats told me that manga series and comics were among the most desirable items, so I wanted to expand and diversify that part of the collection. My ability to do so was severely undermined by this Tantalus-like dangling before my nose of potential new items, only to have them snatched away after months of anxious waiting. OK, maybe I exaggerate, but only a little.
As our suppliers were failing, I decided to try going directly to publishers, but to do that I needed to find out who the publishers were. Internet searches were getting me nowhere, nor could I find any significantly helpful print resources. Graphic novel recommendations in standard tomes, such as Isabel Schon’s Recommended Books in English and Spanish for Children and Young Adults, are very minimal. So I went to my friendly neighborhood ginormous bookstore (I heart Powell’s) and spied on their Spanish-language graphic-novel selection. Oh, the bounty! I pulled out my tiny pencil and little slip of paper (which I have since lost. Little slips of paper are not efficient record-keeping systems, but I work in a library, so I always seem to have them on my person en masse) and wrote down the names of the publishers and the series they translate. Glénatpublishes translations of manga (Naruto, Inuyasha). Marvel and Dark Horse both put out Spanish editions of some of their series (Spider-Man, Star Wars). Norma Editorial publishes translations of a little bit of everything (Emily the Strange, AIDP, Rave).There are also a few smaller presses that have less variety, such as Empresa Activa (Johnny Bunko) and Vibora Comix (Ghost World). Some of these publishers were familiar and others not. I had hit the motherload. However, web explorations of the publishers’ websites revealed that English-language interfaces are rare, and Google Translator, while often quite useful, is amusingly literal in its translations, missing the subtlety of the romance languages. Algorithms are like that. In addition, I wasn’t seeing a lot of evidence of print catalogs. I contacted the Spanish graphic novels buyer at Powell’s to see if she’d share the resources she uses for ordering and I learned that most if not all of their Spanish-language graphics are used, sold to them by bookstore patrons. How interesting that there are enough local readers of Spanish-language comics in Portland, Oregon, to supply a mega, multilocation and online business that bills itself as the City of Books.
However, hope was not lost. I logged on to BWI, another supplier I hadn’t yet utilized, and discovered that by searching for items by these publishers, I was finding dozens of titles. I had learned from previous experience with other suppliers not to hold my breath after making my first order, but I was delighted to find that BWI has an excellent fill rate for Spanish-language graphics, and my shelf finally began to get more colorful. While working on subsequent orders, and with the help of a BWI rep, I discovered that there is a list of Spanish-language graphics in the Bibliographies section of the website, and that I can find items by searching for the titles and limiting the results to Spanish-language only. The collection continues to grow, though I worry that I will exhaust all that BWI has to offer.
I tailor my collection to emphasize the formats and genres that are most popular. Though some of the American comics, particularly Star Wars, circulate well, manga series such as Tokyo Mew Mew and Fruits Basket have proved to be the most popular. What is it about these comics that make them so universal, though they must be appealing to readers with very particular taste? They are translated from Japanese into so many other languages, but maintain such a signature Japanese feel. Speaking from the perspective of someone who sometimes enjoys but is more often baffled by manga, I love to watch teens devouring Japanese comics and discussing their appeal. Manga fans can be truly ravenous. I remember one enlightening conversation when a teen emphatically expressed her opinion that, compared to manga, the art in American comics is so terrible, she couldn’t see how anyone would want to read them. So what is it about manga that draws in hordes of readers from such diverse cultural backgrounds? What is the unifying thread? Though these questions are intriguing and worthy of examination, the answers are immaterial. Rather it is important for us to take proactive steps once we recognize the appeal of these comics and make them available to ALL of our library patrons. I can think of no better way to engage the people in my neighborhood than to provide them with hard-to-find books they love and then start a conversation in our common language of comics.
Available Resources Mentioned in This Article:
Baker & Taylor, book distributor
BWI (Book Wholesalers, Inc.) 
Crìticas online newsletter 
Glénat, publisher of manga, books, and press 
How to Bring Fotonovelas into Your Library by Robert Logan, updated by Carmen Ospina
Ingram Book Company
Norma Editorial, publisher of comics and manga 
Powell’s City of Books 
Public Square Books 
Pulp Fiction by Sergio Ulloa 
Recommended Books in English and Spanish for Children and Young Adults 2004-2008 by Isabel Schon (The Scarecrow Press Inc., 2008)