Teenagers Reading

research for my PhD thesis

Challenges to Graphic Novels in Libraries

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Updated 1 August to correct a misquote from David Serchay**

I’m currently writing my PhD thesis, collating all the data I amassed from my survey, focus groups and interviews. It’s a slow process, but this week my muse has been visiting and I’ve been writing about challenges to graphic novels in libraries. A discussion on the GNLIB-L email list a couple of months ago reflected some of what my interviewees discussed, so I thought I’d blog about it.

Are comics just for kids?

The perception that comics and graphic novels are “just for kids” [1] was true in the past, but is no longer the case. Janna Morishima, a publisher of children’s comics and graphic novels, said at the 2007 New York ComicCon, “It has been over forty years since comics were really a kid’s medium” [2]. The perception still lingers and causes problems in libraries with graphic novel collections, particularly those housed within a Young Adult (YA) section.

What may go unchallenged in words only, may become contentious when delivered graphically. [3]

The visual nature of graphic novels makes titles aimed at a more mature audience more easily accessible than ordinary books, which may have to be read in their entirety to find objectionable passages. A graphic novel could be flicked through, one or two objectionable pictures noticed, and the whole item deemed “inappropriate” [4]. In discussing adult manga in Japan, long time writer on manga, anime and Japanese culture, Fred Patten maintains,

Practically every adult [manga] comic of any length will involve sexual relationships at some point, usually graphically depicted though not to the extent of being X-rated. [5]

If a complaint about an individual title, whether a graphic novel or other item, is received by a public library from a parent (often following their child borrowing the item), the usual response is that it is the parent’s responsibility to supervise what their children read and borrow [6]. Extreme cases of challenges, where parents ask for titles to be removed from the library [4,7], are more common in the US literature, than the Australian literature. In some unfortunate cases titles have been removed, although usually by a local government official rather than a librarian [8]. My survey of libraries and interviews with librarians aimed to ascertain to what extent challenges (or complaints) occurred in Australian libraries.

The case of Corymbia Library

I interviewed Nathan who worked at Corymbia Public Library.* He trained as a paraprofessional, but was employed as a library clerk. He had a personal interest in graphic novels through his recreational reading of the format and assisted the YA librarian Raewyn in selecting graphic novels. Before Nathan was interviewed for his position he visited Corymbia Library and was impressed with their graphic novel collection, joining the library so he could borrow some titles. During his interview he mentioned this and “found out later on that was one of the things that kind of pushed [him] over” in the library management’s decision to hire Nathan. Nathan’s enjoyment of graphic novels written for adults led to him wanting to add them to the collection, which caused problems because the collection was housed in the YA area. Librarians have questioned such a shelving arrangement. Public librarian Joel Hahn posted to the GNLIB-L email list (30 May 2008) asking:

What message does it send when the adult prose fiction collection is general interest, but in that same library, the adult GN fiction collection only contains material considered too ‘racy’ for the ‘general’ GN collection?

Nathan also questioned why graphic novels are automatically deemed YA, when they are “actually a medium [or format]” and written for all different age groups. He believed this arose from people thinking of graphic novels as a genre that is written for teenagers. Nathan continued, addressing a hypothetical librarian in the second person,

I mean, if I gave you a book you would go, ‘Oh that’s not suitable for young adults’ and put it in the [general fiction collection]. But if I gave you a graphic novel, you’d just go [say it belonged in] YA, because you don’t even look at it.

He compared this to cartoons such as South Park and The Simpsons which he said,

are both mature age cartoons…People think cartoons [=] kids and that’s when trouble happens…It extends to manga and anime.

Nathan then discussed the massacring of the anime Battle of the Planets (1978) which included a transgender villain. It was translated for US television with numerous scenes deleted, redubbed with dialogue changed and characters added, and shown in a child friendly time slot. The editing not only removed the transgender villain and violent scenes, but changed the story from “earthbound, dark-toned, and environmentally-themed” to “a kid-friendly outer space show with robot characters, although some environmental themes were kept” [9]. Nathan contended it would have been better rated as an adult anime, but animation was only considered for children at that time.

The assumption of comics and graphic novels being for teenagers** was widespread at Corymbia Public Library and caused problems in Nathan’s selection.

Mature graphic novels

Preacher I would want to get things like Punisher [11] and Preacher [12]. Especially Preacher, I really like it, because it’s [got] some good stories [although] it’s very graphic [graphically violent]. But I wanted to get things with content and popular ones. Whereas we had to stay away, we couldn’t actually get Preacher because it [the graphic novel collection] was in the young adult section.

“We’d had complaints, previous, to kids taking them out,” said Nathan and mentioned other problematic titles: From Hell by Alan Moore [13], Constantine [14] and Sandman by Neil Gaiman [15], “which are great classic graphic novels.” These are written for an adult readership and in parts are “quite graphically violent.” They are legitimate additions to a public library’s collection, and belong in a general fiction or graphic novel collection. Although Raewyn had steered away from such titles because she was buying for a YA collection, this changed when Nathan arrived. All graphic novels were shelved in the one section and parents of teenagers or younger children objected to mature titles in the YA section.

Despite Nathan asserting, “It’s not actually the librarian who should be censoring,” one or two graphic novels were removed from the collection of Corymbia Library after complaints. Nathan disagreed with this, stating, “If the book’s objectionable don’t read it or don’t let your kids read it,” but the decision was not his to make. Nathan continued, “There’s only one or two books that she [Raewyn] actually did get rid of because she couldn’t justify them being in a young adult collection.” One of these titles was Preacher. Despite Nathan saying previously, “We couldn’t actually get Preacher because it [the graphic novel collection] was in the young adult section,” the title was added to the collection but subsequently discarded following complaints.

The solution

The obvious solution, to move the collection out of the YA area, was not allowed at first by Corymbia’s Branch Librarian (Nathan and Raewyn’s boss). Individual adult titles were not moved from the YA collection and added to the general (adult) fiction collection because there were not enough to justify a separate adult graphic novel collection and interfiling them in adult fiction would have “buried” them. Raewyn did have a legitimate reason for acquiring very few adult graphic novels. The most use made of the collection was from children and teenagers and she received requests from these borrowers. She wanted to, as Nathan said,

Concentrate on the people who were actually reading it [the graphic novels] rather than, you know, the weird, obscure people like me.

“The solution that should be in place [to start with],” of moving the collection from YA, was eventually initiated. The adult fiction shelving ended next to the YA section.

We [Raewyn and Nathan] managed to convince everyone to move it [the graphic novel collection]…We moved the bay to the end of the adult fiction and removed all the YA stickers. So then technically it’s part of the normal [adult] fiction section, but it’s still accessible for the Young Adults.

With Raewyn being the YA librarian, when the collection moved to general fiction, technically graphic novel selection was “no longer her domain.” As the librarian with the greatest practical knowledge of graphic novels Raewyn did retain selection of them, but this was a contributing factor in opposition to changing the status quo.

The new shelving arrangement ended the complaints about individual graphic novels in the collection and the historical accident which caused all graphic novels to be deemed YA. Hakea Park Library also had a graphic novel collection in their YA area. When complaints were received about adult titles in this collection (from staff members before the title was put on the shelf) the titles were added to the general (adult) collection and interfiled with ordinary fiction. They might not have been as easy to find, but they were still available for all borrowers, teenagers included.


To complicate matters, Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi [16] is an example of a graphic novel aimed at teenagers that has some nudity. The “nudity is sometimes employed for comedic effect, but never for salacious purposes” [17], but some find it objectionable. Lyga and Lyga discuss graphic novels suitable for school libraries, and “recommend the book for its insight into Japanese culture, from the architecture, to school uniforms, to the food, to the ubiquitous bathing rituals” [17]. Nathan said,

The nudity in Ranma and a lot of those similar ones [manga titles aimed at teenagers] is very non-descript, it’s not detailed and it’s more of a conveyance…You could go on the Net and find a lot worse.

None of the Australian librarians interviewed had problems with this series and many of their libraries carried Ranma 1/2. This was the case in the school and public libraries, including Corymbia Public Library which had never received complaints for Ranma 1/2. It may be that Australians are more accepting of non-sexual nudity than Americans, although the small sample of seven libraries cannot be generalized to all libraries.

Nathan mentioned Japan’s very different culture. The Japanese have a “more open attitude” (Nathan’s words) to nudity, sex, transgender themes and other topics (in manga) we, in the western world, may find objectionable [18]. Nathan also noted the knowledge in Japan that manga is written for “different [age] levels and [in] different genres” thus, not automatically deemed a young people’s format.

Two of the teacher librarians interviewed were considering acquiring Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakawa [19], another series written for teenagers, but with violence leading to questions as to its appropriateness. Renee had “reservations” about acquiring it. Because it was requested by her students, she added,

You have to maintain some sort of credibility with the students. And you have to allow them some sort of flexibility in their choice and trust their maturity.

Public librarian Beth Chandler posted to the GNLIB-L email list (4 June 2008) describing Fullmetal Alchemist as:

one of the best-written and drawn manga out there, the violence is only what’s necessary for the plot, and it has broad appeal (adventure, action, personality clashes, humor, ethical issues, attractive people of both genders, angst, you name it.)

I was able to convince the librarians Fullmetal Alchemist would be a good addition to their libraries, particularly as both had received requests for the series from students.


flowers of the marri tree *All names of people, libraries and schools have been changed to ensure confidentiality. I love nature, so all libraries and schools have been assigned pseudonyms of plants native to the Perth area. The marri tree has the scientific name Corymbia calophylla and in autumn their cream flowers light up their lofty heights.

**I originally misquoted David Serchay [10] here. My misquoting totally changed what he wrote. If you would like to read his chapter “But those aren’t really books! Graphic novels and comic books” in Thinking Outside the Book: Alternatives for Today’s Teen Library Collections, he provides good advice for starting a YA graphic novel collection.


  1. Versaci, Rocco (2001) “How comic books can change the way our students see literature: One teacher’s perspective” English Journal, vol.91, no.2, p.63.
  2. Morishima, Janna (2007) Kids comics: The category waiting to explode. Paper presented at the New York ComicCon, 23 Feb 2007.
  3. Laycock, Di (2005) “Developing a Graphic Novel Collection” Synergy, vol.3, no.2, p.51.
  4. Miller, Steve (2005). Developing and Promoting Graphic Novel Collections. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.
  5. Patten, Fred W. (2004) Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 years of Essays and Reviews. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, p.236.
  6. National Coalition Against Censorship, American Library Association & Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (2006) Graphic Novels: Suggestions for Librarians. New York: NCAC.
  7. Goldsmith, Francisca (2005) Graphic Novels Now: Building, Managing, and Marketing a Dynamic Collection. Chicago: ALA.
  8. Gonzalez, Miguel (2006) “Postmus Urged to Keep Comic Book in Libraries” Daily Press, 25 April, previously at http://www.vvdailypress.com/2006/114597098999319.html
  9. Battle of the Planets (2008) Wikipedia.
  10. Serchay, David (2004) “But those aren’t really books! Graphic novels and comic books” In C. A. Nichols (Ed.) Thinking Outside the Book: Alternatives for Today’s Teen Library Collections. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, p.40.
  11. Ennis, Garth (2003) Punisher. New York: Marvel Comics.
  12. Ennis, Garth (1996) Preacher. New York: DC Comics/Vertigo.
  13. Moore, Alan & Campbell, Eddie (1995) From Hell. New York: Mad Love Publishing.
  14. Ennis, Garth (1997) John Constantine, Hellblazer. New York: DC Comics.
  15. Gaiman, Neil (1991) The Sandman. New York: DC Comics/Vertigo.
  16. Takahashi, Rumiko (1988) Ranma 1/2. San Francisco: Viz.
  17. Lyga, Alison & Lyga, Barry (2004) Graphic novels in your Media Center: A Definitive Guide. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, p.77.
  18. Brenner, Robin (2007) Understanding Manga and Anime. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, pp.90-2.
  19. Arakawa, Hiromu (2005) Fullmetal Alchemist. San Francisco: Viz.

Written by ClareSnow

31 July 2008 at 12:01 pm

5 Responses

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  1. […] Coincidentally, Clare Snowball has posted a terrific piece on her blog Teenage Research about challenges to graphic novels in libraries. It’s here. […]

  2. Just to clarify things, I do not believe, nor have I ever believed, that graphic novels are ONLY for teens. There are many books written specifically for younger children and there are many books written specifically for adults. There are also a great many that are read and enjoyed by people of all ages.

    David Serchay

    31 July 2008 at 11:13 pm

  3. I think this issue will remain for some time in libraries, and really, three will always be someone who isn’t happy with the way the books are classified. guess all we can do is go ahead and make a decision in each library and then stick with it.

    Carleton Place Public Library

    1 August 2008 at 3:15 am

  4. Hi there Claire, have been following your blog for awhile and was so disappointed to find out that I won’t be able to hear you speak in brisbane as it is already booked out. Hearing Stephen would have awesome, but I would have loved to hear you also.


    1 August 2008 at 3:14 pm

  5. Hi Jo,
    thanks for your comment and reading. I’m sorry you can’t make it to my talk. I’m hoping to publish my paper after Reality 2.0 and I’m sure I’ll blog about what Stephen Abram has to say.
    Cheers, Clare.


    4 August 2008 at 10:28 am

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