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June 18, 2013

Beyond The Pages: Librarian Carrie Rogers-Whitehead Uses Comics as a Resource for Teens in Need


Carrie Rogers-Whitehead contacted us recently using the Teachers/Librarians Contact Form, and this is what she had to say: "I order the majority of graphic novels for my library system and use them all the time in teen programs. Recently I have found other uses for them, giving them to refugee teens. I have started doing outreach to a refugee center in our community and have found that the teens really respond to them. These teens do not speak English as their native language and graphic novels help them understand the story better. I have also used them with autistic kids, teens in detention, and others who may not read on their grade level. It's a wonderful way to encourage a love of reading in those who find it hard to read." We were so intrigued by her work that we had to learn more.

How are graphic novels helping teens at the refugee center learn and use English?
All of the refugees at the center have a language other than English as their native tongue. They are not only having to learn to navigate the American system of rules and a new culture, but having to learn a new language. Graphic novels, with the pictures illustrating the text, help with that language learning. At this time, the library system donates a great deal of graphic novels, particular nonfiction ones, to the center for the teens to keep forever. We have not done much programming with the graphic novels, but we will start in July to do more. But just having their own book to keep is very important for these youth who have very little.
What are the graphic novels and manga that those teens are responding to the most? Are they the same ones that the kids in your school library system also like?
Let me relate a personal experience with some of the refugee teens. I was showing them some superhero comics, the big names --- Batman, Superman, Spider-Man --- one day. Every American kid over the age of 2 knows who all these characters are, but the refugees were very unfamiliar and wondering why I was making such a big deal! So the graphic novels I thought they would respond to most, and be familiar with, were unknown to them! I am still figuring out their favorites, but I've come to realize that the ones I think would be popular are not necessarily so. I have also had to be careful with some graphic novels, particularly manga with "busty" females. Many of the refugee youth are Muslim and find that type of graphic novel uncomfortable. So that's something I keep in mind. Sticking to nonfiction works well.
Were the teens at the refugee center responsive to the books immediately?
These refugee youth have grown up with very little. In the camps they often had to fight for everything they got. When I opened up a box of books one time they swarmed over me and grabbed whatever they could take! This "hoarding" behavior is common for the youth who grew up in the camp environment. They were very responsive to the books immediately, but not primarily because they were graphic novels, but because they were something that was free and that they could keep.
I’m curious how you have used comics with autistic kids. Which comics have you used and how have the kids responded to them? What types of comics have worked the best?
I utilize nonfiction a great deal with the autistic kids. They are very literal-minded and love particular subjects. I have also used superhero comics. We had a superhero-themed activity with the autistic youth that was a huge hit. They all knew all the superheroes and several of them read the comics regularly. Even though some with autism are nonverbal, it does not always mean they cannot read. So I keep that in mind, providing books and materials, even if they do not respond to them the way another youth would. You never really know how much they understand, even if they don't speak.
What are the most popular graphic novels and manga at your library?
Manga is super-popular. They like Black Butler, Full-Metal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, and lots of others. The younger kids enjoy Babymouse, the Amulet series, Stone Rabbit, and other various topics.
What are some of your favorite comics?
I love manga, but really gravitate more toward non-manga style comics: Y: The last Man, the Sandman series, and right now I'm enjoying Joe Hill's Locke and Key series.

-- John Hogan