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March 15, 2010

Op-Ed: Ten Years of Getting Graphic

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Michele Gorman is the teen services coordinator for the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is also the “Getting Graphic” columnist for Library Media Connection, and her books include Getting Graphic! Comics for Kids, Getting Graphic! Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy with Preteens and Teens, and both the third and fourth edition of Connecting Young Adults and Libraries: A How to Do It Manual. Michele is also the editorial director for Neal Schuman’s “Teens @ the Library!” series. You can find her online at www.comixlibrarian.com.

 
For me, it all began in 2001. I was new to the profession and new to working with teens in a public library. I tried everything in my power to get teens reading: creating enticing displays, engaging teens in conversations about my favorite books, booktalking the newest, hottest books, bribery—you name it and I tried it. Or at least I thought I did. Looking back now, I see I missed the single most important thing when it comes to building a collection that will appeal to teens: asking them what they want and doing my best to purchase those materials. I was so busy trying to save these kids from themselves that I missed the single most obvious thing in libraryland: Teens will read what they want to read when they want to read it. No display or booktalk or piece of candy was going to convert the so-called “nonreaders” into readers, and I didn’t have the power to will the hundreds of teens who hung out in my library after school to read what I wanted them to read.
 
There’s a lot of “I” and “me” in that paragraph. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had made this so much about what I thought teens should be reading that I missed the obvious—collection development is not about the selector, but the customer. And it took an old copy of Mad magazine to help me see the error of my ways.
 
A year into my job, after watching teens come in every day and thumb their noses at the books I so clearly adored, I happened upon several boys covertly reading a copy of Mad. By the way they were acting, you (okay, I) would have thought they were reading porn…crowding around each other, looking over their shoulders to see where I was in the room, giggling. In case you missed it, though, the key word in that last sentence is reading. They were reading! And they were having a lot of fun doing it. I’d spent the last 365 days trying to devise a plan to get teens in my library reading, and they were doing it all along—just not in the ways I’d been schooled to appreciate. In all my years of undergraduate and graduate school, nobody ever mentioned that teens will read what they want to read when they want to read it…and no amount of cajoling on my part was going to change that.
 
Keeping that tattered old copy of Mad magazine in mind, I visited my local comic book shop the next day. Within weeks, I had secured funding to do a test run of a small collection of circulating graphic novels. Within a month, my library’s circulation stats had doubled, and within a year, I had so many teen boys hanging out in my library that people started to get suspicious. So I wrote an article about graphic novels for teens in School Library Journal and the editors thought it would make a great cover article. That was 2002, and I had NO idea how big this was going to get. I published my first book, Getting Graphic: Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy with Preteens and Teens, in 2003 simply because there wasn’t one. I began doing workshops around the country about graphic novels for the same reason. And it just kept getting bigger and bigger. Some called it nonsense and told me I was contributing to the “dumbing down” of teens. Some applauded my efforts to promote a new kind of format. A few of my comic-loving colleagues, including Kat Kan, Robin Brenner, Mike Pavuk, and Francisca Goldsmith, and I began rallying the troops, talking up graphic novels anywhere and everywhere we could and talking with YALSA about a possible professional award or selection list that focused specifically on graphic novels for a teen audience. But mostly people outside our immediate circle just called it a phase, and time continued to pass.
 
And then one day I noticed a small shift in the status quo. I spent less time defending graphic novels at workshops and more time educating attendees about how and why these books were important for readers of all ages and abilities. Other professional books about the topic were being published and manga began to take up some serious space on bookshelves all over the country. Graduate students started emailing me with research requests for their Master’s theses and mainstream publishers started asking for advice. In fact, the term “graphic novel” had become common enough that I didn’t follow up every sentence where I mentioned writing or speaking about graphic novels with “they’re full-length comic books—I know the term makes it sound like I’m talking about pornography.”
 
So now it’s 2010 and I think we can all safely agree on one thing: Graphic novels are not a phase. I prefer to think of what has happened in the last decade as a shift—a shift in perspective and attitude; a shift on the part of librarians, educators, parents, administrators, publishers, and even young people. This shift has allowed people to open their minds to a new medium for visual storytelling. Yes, this medium has been around for a very long time. No, we didn’t invent comic books. Yes, we (and this likely includes all of you reading this) rallied behind this format to get these books in school and public libraries, on bookstore shelves, and in classrooms. And yes, we did all of this in a relatively short period of time!
It’s been a joy and a pleasure to be a part of this process throughout the last decade and I look forward to what the next 10 years will bring. Whatever it is, I hope to be standing in the middle of all of it—marveling at how far we’ve come and how things have changed and looking toward a future where graphic novels are just one more format available for emerging, struggling, reluctant, and proficient readers of all ages who want something a little more dynamic than just line after line of black words on a white page.