In light of Gene Yuan Lang’s appointment as the National Ambassador for Children’s Literature, I have a confession to make: until last year, I was terrified of graphic novels. It was the section of the store I felt the least capable in; the genre confused me and I had convinced myself I “just didn’t get it.” Here’s the funny thing, though. As a kid I loved reading Archie comics, but graphic novels for some reason seemed new and incomprehensible to me. I know this is absurd, but that’s how I felt when we first started carrying manga books years ago. I felt like a someone’s great-aunt who clung to 8-track while eschewing CDs out of fear.
Then I bit the bullet and started reading some graphic novels because as a bookseller, I just had to. And wow! They are so good!! The art is wonderfully different with all the books and sometimes it appeals to me and sometimes it doesn’t (just like picture books). I started with El Deafo and was blown away. Loved the art and the story was complex, heartfelt, funny and introduced me to a world I didn’t know. I started handselling the book and some customers leaped at it and others needed to be persuaded. I remembered a workshop about graphic novels I attended years ago when the presenter, Mark Siegel of First Second Books, spoke. He was at the forefront of publishing truly outstanding graphic novels and he addressed some of the fears people had about graphic novels.
The biggest thing I learned from Mark was that graphic novels often have more complex vocabulary than other “age appropriate” books. Add to that the addition of pictures, and it means your brain is doing more work because as you’re reading you’re also decoding the pictures. So, in many ways graphic novels are extremely beneficial to young people. Parents like hearing this. Sometimes parents, like me in the past, have a dim view of graphic novels saying they’re not real reading because of the format. I share my struggles with the genre with customers and they can see that I’m a convert, so they try it.
I have had a wonderful time reading graphic novels since my original foray. The range of choices is staggering. I’ve read about American history with Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales series, gone to summer camp with Maggie Thrash’s Honor Girl, reread Shakespeare with Gareth Hinds, and laughed out loud with the Lunch Lady series. Really, the breadth of scope with graphic novels offers something for all readers. And I’m very happy to now count myself as a big fan of this fabulous genre.