What’s So Special About Youth Graphic Novels? One SEE-IT Award Juror Speaks Out

Librarianship | June 14, 2017

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With the launch of the new SEE-IT Award recognizing the literary and cultural impact of graphic novels in youth reading, one SEE-IT juror shares her perspective on the long-overdue recognition of graphic novels.

Gail is a professional storyteller and educator, and has taught an online comic book course for the University of Alberta School of Library and Information Studies for more than a decade. She is the author of nine award-winning books on storytelling, folklore, comics and popular culture. She is also a librarian advisor to the H.W. Wilson Core Collections, specializing in K-12, adult nonfiction, and graphic novels.

What is it about graphic novels that you think appeals so much to readers?
My students who are entering the world of youth graphic novels for the first time often cite the fact that the books are fairly quick reads as a positive element of appeal. I obviously think that it is much more than that. The appeal includes storylines that could not be created as effectively in any other medium, the creation of well articulated and artistically rendered stories with great character development that offers a chance to slow down to appreciate the elements of the story, the art, the panel construction and layout to enter the story at one’s own pace. Graphic novels, of course, do not only contain stories ... they open the world of nonfiction such as medical issues (Graphic Medicine being a vast innovative category for patients, medical practitioners and family members), history, science and so on. The most prohibitive aspect of graphic novels is the price point, which is often balanced by inclusion of these items in a school or public library collection.

Why do you think graphic novels have risen in prominence over recent years?
The acceptance of them as a viable format for all ages of readers who are engaged in the same wide variety of reading material as those reading novels (most often the same readers). When I first started discussing comic books with librarians and educators twenty years ago, I was told again and again that they were not a format that would ever grace the library shelves. My work revolved around demonstrating the different genres and approaches to graphic novels to dispel some of the misinformation and negative perception about them, which unfortunately still resides today in our schools. I was not the only one beating this drum — social networking, librarians with clout, critical review sources and monographs began filtering out into the consciousness of people who were now concerned with multiple literacies beyond the obvious one of reading a “real” book. One of the most important elements in this rise of prominence is the support and explosion not only of awards such as the SEE-IT Award specifically offered for graphic novels and their creators, but also of graphic novels and their creators winning awards outside of their niche. Librarians and educators pay attention to award-winning materials, especially in times of financial constraints.

As a storyteller, what drew you to focus on comic books and graphic novels?
When I was researching the proliferation of folktales and folklore in popular culture for one of my books, I reacquainted myself with the world of comics. Reading these re-workings of folklore and ballads, such as Charles Vess’ Book of Ballads, with fresh eyes made me realize that comics were the closest print material to oral storytelling: so much of the comic book story depends on body language, dialogue, tone and pitch, and reading of the gutters (the power of silence) in the same way as does the oral tale. Once I started reading them again (I read comic books as a young person but was never fond of superheroes so tuned out when they were the only genre of comics I could obtain in my small home town), I became enamored with how often and well elements and motifs of folklore are incorporated in the world of comics even outside of the more recognizable re-workings of the folktales.

Can you speak to your experience using graphic novels as an educator?
In all my literature courses, graphic novels are included as part of the required reading list. In my graphic novel course, naturally, all the readings are graphic novels including the text book, Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. There was more resistance in earlier years about my requiring the students to read a comic book/graphic novel and, to this day, several students still resent having to read a format they are not comfortable with reading and do not respect as a viable form of reading. I have always taught the students how to read a graphic novel so they can become comfortable with the format and often begin with a wordless book to lead the way. I do this for two reasons, one to get them to slow down and actually read the illustrations and discover the layout of the page but to realize, for those who have not yet done so, that reading comics is not as easy as they have always deemed them to be.

What do you think sets the best graphic novels apart?
I believe it’s the artistry of the marriage of the text, the illustration, the panels and the lettering with a superb plot that incorporates vivid and believable characters that the readers can identify with, but more importantly, care about as the story moves along. The beauty of the panel and the page play a large part in this marriage and is often not acknowledged in reviews of the individual titles.

What did you find the most rewarding about being a juror for the new SEE-IT Award this year?
Discussions with my colleagues about all the books and then specifically about those on our individual long lists. I was already familiar with many of the titles before serving on the jury but others had not penetrated my radar so that was also a definite plus. I also was very chuffed about having a role in the establishment of an award that will make titles for the younger reading group more visible to librarians, educators and parents. I am hoping the SEE-IT Award will aid in making these titles even more available to young readers for their reading and learning pleasure.

Visit the SEE-IT website for more information about the SEE-IT Award for achievement in youth graphic novels and this year’s finalists.

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