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February 2, 2010

Roundtable: Creating the GNNFT List

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Every year, the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list comes out through YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association). More than just a fantastic resource, it's also a comprehensive look at the highest-quality graphic books to come out over the past year and a half. Because of its intrinsic value to parents, teachers, librarians, and general readers, we wanted to spotlight a few of the wonderful people who make the list happen and showcase how they do it. Meet three of the women responsible for creating this list in the first place.

 
Robin Brenner: Robin Brenner is the teen librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. She has served as the chair of the YALSA GGNFT Selection List Committee and served on the task force that helped create the GGNFT list.

Michele Gorman: The coauthor of Connecting Young Adults and Libraries and the author of Getting Graphic, Michele is the teen services coordinator for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in Charlotte, NC. She served on the task force that helped create the GGNFT list.
Kat Kan: A teen librarian and consultant, Kat started the "Graphically Speaking" column for VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates) in the '90s and has served as chair of the Graphic Novel Task Force for YALSA and was involved in the list's creation.

How did the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list come about?

Kat: I was approached by then YALSA President Pam Spencer-Holley. I believe it was at the 2003 ALA Annual Conference, and she asked me to chair a Graphic Novels Task Force. This was the year after the 2002 YALSA Pre-Conference on graphic novels, which was hugely popular and led to more libraries carrying graphic novels. Michele Gorman, Robin Brenner, Jody Sharp, and Mike Pawuk were my GN Task Force members, and we worked for about two years, going back and forth with the YALSA board of directors until the list was finally approved. Most of the time, we were tweaking our original proposal, sometimes putting in something at the request of certain board members, only to have to remove it when those members left and new board members complained. It was rather frustrating at times, but Michele, Robin, Jody, and Mike kept helping me plug away at the proposal until we finally got it approved.
 
After YALSA decided to create the GGNFT, for family reasons I was no longer able to participate actively and attend ALA conferences. I haven’t been able to serve on the GGNFT Committee, which is something I’d like to do. Maybe someday…

Robin: I’m sure Kat, Mike, and the other organizers of the Task Force (and original Graphic Novel Preconference) can answer best where the
impetus came from. I myself got involved when Kat Kan asked me to be on the Graphic Novel Task Force, which set up the first list—by
then, they had already gotten permission to create the list from YALSA.
 
Michelle: The YALSA pre-con about GNs in 2002 generated a lot of buzz about the role of comics and GNs in libraries within the teen services library world. In the following years, Kat continued writing her column for VOYA, I published my first book about GNs for preteens and teens, and Robin introduced her No Flying No Tights website. We were all very much involved in spreading the word about graphic novels within various library circles and creating personal reputations as experts. I believe this is why YALSA invited us to be a part of the Graphic Novels Task Force to take our experience and devise a plan for some type of YALSA-sanctioned annual list of GNs
 

How long have you been involved with YALSA?
Robin: I’ve been a YALSA member for 10 years now, as I became a member as a library school student.
 
Michelle: Nine years, the last three on the YALSA board of directors.
 
Kat: For more than 25 years now, ever since I started working in libraries.

How do YALSA and the GGNFT committee work together?
Robin: Well, it’s not so much that we work together as the committee is one of many awards and selection list committees that YALSA has created over its lifetime as an organization. They are our governing body, as YALSA members, and they are the ones who oversee all of the lists: the organization, making sure the rules of the committee are enforced, helping us out if a committee member has to step down for some reason. When I was chair of the committee, my main contact was with the president of YALSA and with Nichole Gilbert, program officer for events and conferences, who coordinates all of our meetings during conferences.
 
Michelle: The GGNFT is one of YALSA’s many selection committees. The YALSA president-elect appoints members to the committee from a pool of members who have submitted an application to be a member of this particular selection committee. Then each committee (including GGNFT) is assigned a YALSA board member as a liaison, who is the go-between for any communication between the committee chair, committee members, and the board of directors. 

What role did you play in the beginning of the list?
Michelle: I served on the five-member task force that helped develop the list in 2005–2006.
 
Robin: In 2007, I was a member of the first Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee, under the leadership of Dawn Rutherford. I had been on
selection committees before (Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults), but we did a lot that first year working out the kinks of procedure.

Has the list (and the way it’s compiled) evolved greatly since its inception?
Robin: I don’t believe it has changed all that much over the years. I do think that certain ideas have slowly solidified about what the list is and how selections should be made. For the first year, there was a lot of debate about what made a graphic novel “great”—literary quality? Popularity? What elements of both need to be considered? By the time I finished my three-year term (the last one as chair), there was much more of a mantra in the committee meetings: “But is it great?  And is it great for teens?”

The one eternal issue that we struggled with every year was the tension between compiling an annual list and the fact that many graphic novel and manga series are serial by nature. It’s tough to judge how great a series is with only a few volumes available to consider, and often volumes that are in the middle of story arcs. This is particularly difficult with manga. I think of many U.S. graphic novels as being more self-contained—even if they’re a series, they usually collect together a story arc into one bound volume. Manga, on the other hand, rarely does that—the first volume is a prologue, and the rest are like television episodes in a continuing series (a la Lost). They can be harder to judge on one or two volumes, but as it’s an annual list, that is the only way we can consider them.
 

What makes the list important at this point in time?
Michelle: It’s the only YALSA-sanctioned list of graphic novels for teens, specifically created for librarians serving teens, in existence today. As such, it’s a list that teen librarians around the country know they can trust since it’s been created and vetted by a select group of librarians who work with young people who have read hundreds of GNs each year to select the best of the best for their peers.
 
Kat: Even though it seems more and more librarians are selecting graphic novels for their libraries, they don’t always know a lot about graphic novels. And with the great numbers of books being published every year, it’s incredibly difficult for anyone to keep up. I should know; it’s my main job, and I STILL can’t keep up with all the books! The annual GGNFT lists provide librarians with a selected list of recommended titles from which they can choose for their libraries, even if they don’t know much about the format. 

Robin: To me, it is still the only list that is about being for teens in this format. It’s not about what fanboys think, or parents, or creators, or industry insiders. It’s about what is great for teens. As the list is filtered through librarians who work with teens in many environments—schools, public libraries—it will certainly have a librarian bent, but I know for a fact how much the committee considers teen input and how hard they work to get it.

I also think it’s important that we as librarians, and the teens we serve, are generally in between the book industry and the comics industry. There is still a lot of distance between comics publishers and book publishers, in terms of why they publish what they do, who their fans are, and who they market to. I think this list always has a great array of different kinds of comics from different sources: mainstream comics, book publishers, independent creators, and manga publishers.
 

How difficult is it to compile this list each year? With so many books to choose from (and to stay current with), how massive of an undertaking is this?

Robin: It’s pretty daunting! We all do our best to keep up with current titles. I always made sure to consult Diamond Comics' Previews to see what was upcoming that I should look for in stores. I also went to my local comics stores every few months and asked the staff, once I’d explained the purpose of the list, to recommend titles. There are usually officially around 150–200 nominations, but we read a lot more than that just to try and keep up with what’s happening. However, we all know that’s the commitment you make when you volunteer to be on such a committee, and at least we do have a year to read all of the nominated titles. On other judge panels I’ve served on, we’ve only had a few months.

How is the GGNFT list used in libraries and schools, or anywhere else that you’re aware of?
Michelle: I promote the list in GN workshops I do around the country, so I often receive email from school and public librarians letting me know they’ve used the list to make displays and bookmarks for their libraries. I know frontline staff and collection development staff who use the list for purchasing recommendations, and I know many librarians who simply use the list as a personal reading list to stay current with the latest and greatest GNs.

Robin: I believe most librarians use them as selection tools. I, for example, pull out all of the awards list every year and put them in a big binder as a reference tool for parents, teens, and myself when recommending titles. I also go down the lists every year in February (Great Graphic Novels included) and make sure to purchase the titles I’ve missed and discover titles that I haven’t gotten in the past (especially with the topical lists like Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults). I don’t buy absolutely everything without also consulting reviews and making sure everything’s suitable for my own collection, but I do buy a fair mount from the lists. I’m always happy when I already have titles—it makes me feel like I’ve been doing my job up to my peers’ standards.

I have also used awards and selection lists to “prove” to a parent or educator that a title is worth their attention. Inclusion on a list like this means that the title has been vetted by a selection of professionals. It does not mean that they’re appropriate for every teen, of course, but it does mean that a group agreed that it was great.
 

How would you encourage parents, librarians, teachers, and teens to approach the list?
Kat: As with any other list from YALSA, this is not a complete list of great titles, but it’s a good starting point. And not every library will need or want every title on the list. It’s diverse enough that schools can find suitable titles as well as public libraries. It’s always a good idea for librarians to seek reviews and other information about the books—many comics blogs and websites post interviews with writers and artists, and those interviews can give information about content, and sometimes one can find previews or excerpts of graphic novels online. Start with the list, find titles that look interesting, look them up online and/or in stores, read as much as you can, then decide if the titles are suitable for your collection. In the best of possible worlds, librarians can work with parents, teachers, and teens to help them find something on the list that will be a great read.
 
Robin: I do fear that sometimes librarians or educators or parents might just take the list and buy everything off of it, thinking it’s appropriate for their teen without looking at the annotations or reviews. That is a mistake—since the list is for teens from ages 13–18, it’s bound to include titles at both ends of the spectrum, and not every title is appropriate for every teen. So I recommend everyone approach the list with that in mind—think about what your teen likes to read, or watch, or play, and match then with titles on the list that include those elements.

I also hope parents and teens will approach the list with an eye for titles they may not have heard of in their usual perusing of the graphic novels collections. Nonfiction graphic novel titles and independent creators often are lost in the sea of series and well-known properties, and I like that the list pulls out remarkable titles from all kinds of publishers and creators.
 
Michelle: Once I inform someone about the list, I always include the following caveat: This list was selected for readers ages 12–18, and that’s a huge developmental jump within one list. There are books on the list that are appropriate for 12-year-olds that an 18-year-old might find childish and books that do not belong in a middle school library. There are books on the list that are appropriate for every middle school and some that are only appropriate for more liberal high schools and young adult collections in a public library. The thing about the list is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. It still requires whoever is using it to check out secondary reviews for each title to see if it’s a fit for their service population. That’s where our professionalism comes in. Our job is to select the right books for our community, not just order off a list because someone else said “these are the best.”  “The best” differs by community, and our job as professional librarians is to figure out what our community wants and needs and then purchase books that fit within the library criteria and community standards.

What are the qualities you find essential in a book that makes the GGNFT list?
Robin: It must be accomplished—the art, the writing, the style, and the publishing itself (i.e., the binding, the editing, etc.) must all be solid. We have actually had titles lose points, so to speak, because they were poorly bound or full of typos. It must have teen appeal—even if teens themselves have not adopted it yet, we try to get teen feedback, and we use our own knowledge of what teens enjoy to judge how much teen appeal a title has. There have been many great titles over the years that didn’t make the list because the committee felt their teen appeal was not strong. This is no way diminishes their greatness, just their appeal to the target audience.

As I said before, being great is not easy to judge. We are not judging only literary quality, as the Printz Award Committee does. We are judging everything mixed together: quality, teen appeal, popularity, art, writing, presentation. We are also judging for a wide range of ages (there’s a lot of differences between your average
13-year-old and your average 18-year-old) and for the entire country, where teens show variety depending on their surrounding community. This is why having a diverse committee, from all over the country geographically as well as a mix of those familiar with graphic novels and those who are relative newcomers to the format, is vitally important.
 
Michelle: Fiction or nonfiction, there is usually a compelling narrative. The artwork must contribute to the work as a whole and the books selected for the list must have proven or potential appeal to the personal reading tastes of teens.

Do you have any personal favorites from the list, whether it's this year’s list or any of the previous ones?
Michelle: Absolutely, but it's hard to narrow it down. Here are five of my favorites from this year’s list:
Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel by C.M. Butzer
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders by Emmanuel Guibert
The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook by Eleanor Davis
The Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan
Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Edition by Tim Hamilton

Robin: I love that Journey in Mohawk Country by George O’Connor made it on the list—I’m personally a big fan of that title, and I’ve had tremendous success with it for school librarians and educators because I can hold it up and say, “It’s a primary source! The complete text, no editing, and it’s incredibly engaging!”

There are a number of excellent independent titles on that list: Off Road by Sean Murphy, Emily Edison by David Hopkins, Night Trippers by Mark Ricketts, and Iron West by Doug TenNapel.

From 2008:
I’m a big fan of Blue Beetle (and am disappointed that the series is now canceled—my teens adored it and were always pestering me about when the next volume was coming out). Many of my favorite manga series made it on that list: Emma by Kaoru Mori, After School Nightmare by Setona Mizushiro, and Flower of Life by Fumi Yoshinaga. They’re all so excellent, and I’ve been very pleased to see them circulating steadily since we purchased them here in my Teen Room.

Anyone who knows me also knows I adore without reservation Matt Loux’s Sidescrollers. It makes me laugh and laugh every time I read it, and I can be a pest if you start reading it in front of me (“Did you get to that part yet? Isn’t it awesome?”). His art is striking and compelling, and I love that it’s a title I’d heard of mainly because I was attending New York Comic-Con and met Matt himself at the Oni booth. I’d already been eyeing the title, but his pitch made me pick it up, and I’m still glad I did!

From 2009:
I still have a fond memory of reading The United States Consitution the day I voted in the presidential election and exlaimed, “Finally! I think I fully understand the Electoral College!”

I love Atomic Robo (I am the daughter of two physicists, so all of the physics in-jokes cracked me up; plus, I love the style and humor of that series). Rapunzel’s Revenge is such genius to me, all around—strong retelling, excellent art, and everything I expect from the amazing duo of Shannon and Dean Hale. Real by Takehiko Inoue is astounding: phenomenal art, gripping sports scenes, and eloquent emotion.

Kieli, Skim, Hikkatsu!, and Cairo are all titles I read because I was on the committee, and thoroughly enjoyed.

From 2010:
As I’m no longer on the committee, I do have to admit there are many I haven’t read, but I adore Pluto, so I was extremely pleased to see it make the list. Solanin was a title I was worried about, as its teen appeal could easily be debated, but I thought it was a strong title, so I’m glad to see it on the list. Ooku was similar—the debate on teen appeal there is likely still going on—but I now know a number of teens who’ve fallen in love with it.
 
 
Kat: T-Minus by Jim Ottaviani is a fabulous history of the space race; for me, it was a wonderful look back at what I saw from my childhood onward, with lots of information on the behind-the-scenes stuff that didn’t make it into the TV news reports. And I just love Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer by Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins; talk about a high-concept!
 
 

Is there anything essential about the list that you would like everyone to know about it?
Michelle: Simply that it exists and that any YALSA member (school or public librarian) with a background and/or experience in the selection and use of graphic novels can apply to serve on this selection committee. If anyone is interested, the application form can be found here: http://yalsa.ala.org/forms/selectionvolunteer.php. Reminder: If you are interested in serving on this committee, this form needs to be filled out annually, as there is no repository of applications on file.
 
Robin: The main thing I think people don’t realize, or don’t remember, is that we want nominations from everyone! From teens, from comics readers, from parents. You do not have to be a librarian to nominate titles. To be honest, when I see various folks dissecting the list online after it’s been announced, and criticizing us for not including this title or that title, there’s a part of me that wants to bonk them over the head and say, “Well, where were your nominations? If we don’t get the heads-up on a title that should be considered, it’s not just us who are to blame for missing something stellar!”

Similarly, I really do think people need to remember that it’s a two-pronged consideration: great AND for teens. When criticism comes down the pipes, it’s often with either a skewed idea of what teens means (13–18-year-old people, so we have titles for that entire age range) or forgetting that titles that are awesome when you’re a teenager are not always those titles that are awesome from an adult perspective. Yes, there are titles in there that aren’t literary award winners or may not get your adult mind jazzed, but if you’re 13, it’s great. We spend a lot of time thinking that way, as teen librarians, and I fear that a lot of folks forget how different what you loved as a teenager actually is.

My personal touchstone (and this is a bit embarrassing to admit) is that when I was 13, I thought Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was the best movie ever made. I know, now, that that is far from the case, but when I was 13, it blew me away. That kind of mindset is what I try to recall when considering teen appeal.