Teenagers Reading

research for my PhD thesis

Why collect graphic novels?

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I’m writing about the interviews I conducted with six librarians last year. (Names of people and libraries have been changed to ensure confidentiality.) One of the first topics we discussed was why their library had a graphic novel collection. The most common reason was because their borrowers wanted to read them, with interest gleaned through requests for purchase and circulation statistics once acquired. Ms Marchamley cited the popularity of graphic novels among her students as the reason for Banksia Park High School Library’s collection, “I don’t think you can deny that they’re not getting used, especially all the new ones.” Her colleague Ms Tyler continued, “I mean nothing really sits on the shelf.” Ms Turner said of Tuart Grove High School Library’s graphic novels, “There’s a little hard core of students who prefer that format, so they’re ticking over steadily.”

As a voracious reader of graphic novels, Mr Carlton had slightly different reasons for a library collecting graphic novels. He was passionate about the format and read them in his spare time. He referred to their popularity, but also considered graphic novels were “a part of literature.”

I think you can’t not have graphic novels in your collection, because not everyone wants [conventional books]. I mean if you’re going to have you know, audio cassettes,…you’re going to have videos, books, DVDs…It’s just another format. And you’ve got the internet in there, so you’ve got graphic novels whether you want it or not through the internet [ie. web comics].

The literature relating to the classroom and school libraries discusses “inferior” compared to more “respectable” reading materials. Education researcher, Ann Reeves notes,

When the reading an adolescent loves is outside the realm of respectable literature, teachers are taught that their job is to move students away from their chosen genres and into the fold of “something better” as quickly as possible. [1]

She is discussing conventional books, but some have transferred this inferiority of certain genres to the whole format of graphic novels. Reeves does not agree with this concept and continues by describing some teachers’ beliefs.

Teachers are given the responsibility for making the young person a more mature reader and thinker who can look upon popular fiction critically and understand why it is “inferior.” [1]

Fortunately, Reeves and Mr Carlton are not alone in striving to ensure young people encounter a variety of genres and formats in their reading, without making judgments on supposed “quality.” Ms Davilak also thought highly of the graphic novel format, “they enrich and add to the reading material of adults or young people and a lot of young people do take advantage of it.” She read graphic novels in her spare time, although she only discovered them while at Hakea Park Public Library, specifically during the 2006 CBCA Conference when manga expert Kosei Ono spoke [2].

Researcher: Do you think they’re like equal to other types of [conventional] books?
Ms Davilak: Oh, especially now days. Yes, yeah. There’s just some amazing stuff. You know, the art work is just incredible.
Researcher: Mmm, yeah.
Ms Davilak: And maybe, not so much the manga. I mean they just, they’re like the LPs, you know. They keep getting churned out, but there are some really fantastic, you know Maus [3]?
Researcher: Mmm
Ms Davilak: Yep. It is just amazing.

Ms Armitage did not personally enjoy reading graphic novels, but she understood they “would appeal to a wide range of people and for that reason alone, it’s very important to have a good collection in your library.” She developed the collection at Dryandra Public Library in the mid 1990s because more and more graphic novels were requested through inter library loan and “there was a real need.”

I could see what appeal it had for kids at that stage and people in general. And at that stage there was the Pokémon thing going on and lots of interest in manga.

While both Ms Marchamley and her colleague Ms Tyler at Banksia Park High School Library praised the format, Ms Marchamley recognised the greater knowledge of her colleague, “Ms Tyler has really got into it.” Both attended professional development sessions on graphic novels, but Ms Tyler was “a definite graphic novel fan.” She had read comics when she was younger,

But I mean I haven’t read a graphic novel as such in a long time and then this, the last couple of years, when they started to bring out those ones [manga] that I started to go back to them.

As well as investigating series recommended by students through reviews and online forums, her reading of titles in her spare time, provided “a bit of background about what they’re about.” She could give more personal recommendations to students who came to the library just looking for something to read, not necessarily a graphic novel.

Other librarians unfamiliar with the format did not have the benefit of a knowledgeable colleague. Ms Turner at Tuart Grove High School Library had read comics as a child, and liked some comic strips in the newspaper, but

Personally it doesn’t do it for me. It’s never turned me on…I don’t get them somehow… I think they’re an acquired taste.

She wondered if this was the fault of “those adaptations” of Shakespeare which used “colloquial language with fairly crummy artwork.” Ms Turner had tried reading manga, but like students in the focus groups, she was “not sure which way on the page you go” in traditional orientation manga. She equated graphic novels, particularly manga, to “cornflakes, sort of. They’ll fill you up, but they’re not the best nutrition you could have.”

Her personal disdain for the format did not affect the collection at Tuart Grove High School Library. Some graphic novels, including Fathom by Michael Turner [4], were acquired in 2001 when the school’s “Art Department became interested in fantasy art.” They were “used by a very eclectic set of students and usually under the firm direction and guidance of the Art Department” because the teachers “were aware of the graphic nature on the part of some of the images.” Around 2004-05 a “little posse” of students who were in Year 9-10 at the time, began requesting manga titles.

They were avid borrowers. They were always in the library and they were always chatting to me about what they liked to read and when they saw this, it was “Oh you’ve got this, you should get such and such.” And they nagged and nagged and nagged at me about getting Full-Metal Alchemist [5]. And they gave me a whole list of things [titles of manga] and when I bought the Fruits Basket books [6] they were over the moon.

In order to overcome her trepidation of the format, Ms Turner “canvassed their opinions.” Usually when a book was requested Ms Turner would order it on approval or look for a copy to preview.

I’d feel more out of my comfort zone with these [graphic novels] than I would with other novels where I could go and look up various reviews on the Net or find them in Magpies [book review magazine]…because they’re not my forte. I’m not really sure what I’m letting myself in for, but you know, but certainly if the students requested it and there was enough support for them and they’re no better or worse than the others that we’ve already got.

She asked this group of students, “If you had a wishlist and you had X number of dollars to spend what would you buy?” which enabled their knowledge to inform Ms Turner’s selection decisions. They “argued a good case for having them [graphic novels] and answered all my questions about the content and would it be suitable? Will I get complaints from Year 8 parents?” From there, the collection “burgeoned.”

Ms Hatcher was also unfamiliar with the format and Illyarrie High School Library’s limited graphic novels were underused. Unlike Ms Turner, Ms Hatcher had not utilised knowledge of students to diminish her ignorance. In the past she had intended to buy graphic novels but she disliked the portrayal of female characters in manga, “I’m still not sure that I particularly like them.” She conceded this was “a couple of years ago” and continued, “I won’t not have them, but I have to say I’ve looked at some of them…I just flicked through it [a manga title] and I thought, ‘Nup, I can’t.’” When booksellers visited the library with graphic novels, she selected some, such as The Hobbit by Tolkien, Wenzel, Dixon, & Deming [7] and Black Beauty, Dracula and Treasure Island from the Puffin Graphics series, but she felt intimated when entering a comic shop, “going and just seeing a whole wall of them… I don’t know what’s right…so I just left them.”


  1. Reeves, Ann (2004) Adolescents talk about reading: Exploring resistance to and engagement with text Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
  2. Murphy, David (2006) “Kosei Ono” Reading Time Supplement: Book Now 8th National CBCA Conference, vol.50, no.2, pp.2-3.
  3. Spiegelman, Art (1986) Maus: A Survivor’s Tale New York: Pantheon Books.
  4. Michael Turner (2001) Fathom Berkeley, CA: Image Comics.
  5. Arakawa, Hiromu (2005) Full-Metal Alchemist San Francisco: Viz.
  6. Takaya, Natsuki (2004) Fruits Basket Los Angeles: Tokyopop.
  7. Tolkien, Wenzel, Dixon & Deming (1990) The Hobbit Boston: Unwin.

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Written by ClareSnow

29 December 2008 at 10:02 am

2 Responses

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  1. An excellent piece. I am now 37. But once, I was 18!

    What you have written is something I have been extolling for years. Here, we have an exams called GCSEs (16 years) and A Levels (18 years).

    My GCSE books were quite enjoyable, engaging, even. The Great Gatsby was one. The poetry of Seamus Heaney was another.

    My A-level English Literature, however, was very poor. Titles such as Clockwork Orange WERE on the available list of texts. Instead a class of 18 year old boys were given Waiting for Godot (how inspiring – life is crap, kill yourself now) and Wuthering Heights (hardly demographically representative of the reading material of 18 year old lads).

    Back in those days, the graphic novel was just emerging – Batman Year One was the landmark for me. But try and get a librarian in a very dusty grammar school to stock it? Forget it.

    Last year though, one of my friends, who was teaching in a very rough school, was bewailing the lack of reading her pupils would engage in. She was also concerned about the rising rates of illiteracy. I lent her five or six of my own collection of graphic novels – which, may I add, sit next to many great 20th Century classics – to give to the most needy of the kids.

    Apparently they haven’t looked back, and are now being “weaned” on to non-comic content.

    Snobbery plays a big part in this scenario – I just hope that something that has long been regarded as a throwaway medium can take its place with other educational tools, and improve the lot of some of our most needy kids.

    Paul Beattie

    8 May 2009 at 6:45 am

  2. It’s great to hear about the students at your friend’s school. Hopefully the school’s library caught onto the importance of graphic novels and more students are finding that reading can be fun.


    27 May 2009 at 2:34 pm

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