Laura Howell: selling the idea of comics to the librarians of Birmingham
Laura Howell is a comic artist from Birmingham, whose work has featured in a great many comics but her work for the DFC, Toxic and The Beano is probably what she’s best known for.
Her other work will be well known to the readers of the FPI blog, and we’ve looked at some of her mini comics here: Comic Pie 1 & 2, Strip-a-day-spectacular, Hell On Toast, and her quite brillaint Gilbert & Sullivan adventures. Her website has had a lovely makeover, and you can follow her blog and see lots of examples of her work on her Flickr page.
(Johnny Bean from the Beano by Laura Howell)
Laura was recently contacted by Birmingham Central Library with a view to delivering a talk on graphic novel & comics for kids. And knowing I’d recently been putting together a graphic novel section for my primary school she got in touch for some advice. I did what I could, put a few things in an email and asked her to get in touch to tell us how it had gone.
But she’s gone above and beyond, providing us with a complete report on her talk and the reactions to it. I think it’s a great insight into the way libraries think about stocking graphic novels.
(A quick note about the images I’ve used – rather than just putting up pictures of the covers to books Laura mentions, I thought it would be interesting to see some of the library graphic novel pictures I managed to find online)
(Nice GN image from Moses Greeley Parker Memorial Library, Massachusetts)
Laura Howell library talk summary Mar 16th 2011
I was contacted last year by Jen Bakewell, from Birmingham Central Library, about the possibility of giving a talk about graphic novels/comics for kids. She had seen the website of the Midlands Comics Collective (MC2), which I’m a member of, and was hoping its members could pool our knowledge to put the talk together.
In the end I gave the talk alone, armed with input from MC2, books about comics, friends, websites for librarians, and Forbidden Planet International’s own Richard Bruton. Clearly there’s a LOT that can be said on the topic, and I hope to be able to do a follow-up talk at some point – 40 minutes barely scratches the surface!
(Being selfish – let’s open the pictures with one from the library at the primary school I work at. A portion of the great collection of works for ages 5-11. written about here on the FPI blog.)
Jen had a few specific questions she asked to be addressed, which were:
Why comics and graphic novels are so good
What titles are recommended – for different age groups
Ideas for using them with children – bookgroups, interactive sessions etc
So, plenty to work with just in that lot. Now I’ll hold up my hands and admit to knowing very little about superhero comics, so I decided to not try and recommend much in that area. However, they were covered on an extensive recommended titles list, which I put together for the librarians from a combination of suggestions by the MC2 members, and a list that members of the DFC had compiled between us for a similar purpose last year. This is one of the great things about being part of the comics community – there’s always people out there with knowledge of fabulous titles that you yourself have never come across, and pooling that knowledge can produce some really powerful resources.
(Graphic Novel display, Eden Prairie Library, Minneapolis, from their Flickrstream. Hate those barcodes – why put them over the titles and cover artwork?)
Focusing on my own graphic novel collection for titles for the librarians to pass around and look at during the talk, I wanted to make sure I covered a) all-ages titles, b)titles for girls, and c) things I suspected they wouldn’t have encountered before. Here’s the final list (there would have been more, but this was about as much as I could carry!)
Magic Trixie and Scary Godmother, by Jill Thompson
An example from DC’s MINX series (Good as Lily, in this case)
Psychiatric Tales by Darryl Cunningham
Action Philosophers! Volume 1
The DFC library – Mo-Bot High, Mezolith and Vern and Lettuce
Garen Ewing’s The Rainbow Orchid
Pyongyang by Guy Delisle
The Babysitter’s Club Graphic Novel, by Raina Telgemeier
The Bellybuttons and Melusine, from Cinebooks
Again, I consciously avoided bringing any titles that I was confident they would already be familiar with, such as Sandman, Persepolis, The Tale of One Bad Rat, etc.
Overall I wanted to express the diversity of content that you can get in graphic novels – from fun fantasy through edutainment (jeez, I hate that word!), life experience, history, soap opera and drama. A point I reiterated several times in the talk is that graphic novels/comic books (and yes, I did talk about which is the “correct” term – more about that in a moment) are as rich in diversity of content as prose novels, and are categorically not all sex, violence, boys with catapults or men in tights.
(The graphic novel section in the very attractive new library of Dixie Grammar School, Market Bosworth)
A quick note on what to call them. I based my conclusion on Paul Gravett’s musings on the topic in “Graphic Novels – Stories to Change Your Life”, namely that “graphic” can be problematic because it can be confused with “explicit”, wheres “comic book” might mistakenly make you think it’s all humour. In short, it seems to me that no-one’s come up with the perfect term yet. I used “graphic novel” throughout the talk, but that’s a personal preference – plus, it seems to be favoured amongst librarians. Anyway, call them what you like, and explain your reasoning if anyone challenges you!
Out of curiosity, I wanted to know how librarians shelve their graphic novel collections. It seems there are three approaches: to have a dedicated Graphic Novel section, to mix them in amongst the prose books in their appropriate age sections, or even, as some librarians had done, put them all under “Young Adult” regardless of content. This is a difficult one and I’m not sure a perfect solution has been found yet.
Mixing them in with the prose books means you’ll need to know exactly what title you’re looking for and who wrote/drew it in order to stand a chance of finding it. This works fine if you’re after the latest Harry Potter, but it seems to me to drastically decrease your chances of finding something similar to a title you’ve already enjoyed, which I suspect is how many people’s comic book reading list grows. It’s still better than lumping them all under Young Adult though, as that’s two massive demographics (kids and adults) who are effectively being told that comic books are Not For Them. I’d be interested to get more people’s thoughts on this, as it’s a tricky one.
(Graphic Novel shelves at the W. Van Alan Clark, Jr. Library in the Museum School, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Richard made an excellent point when we were exchanging emails before I gave the talk, which was that selling comics to librarians as an encouragement to reluctant readers, as so often happens, can be damaging. It suggests that comics are something to aspire to move beyond, to be left behind in favour of “proper” books once the reader is more confident. Since this blog’s readership is probably made up of adults reading comic books, I’m sure we can all agree that’s not the case. So I made the point that far from spoonfeeding kids, as some people believe they do, reading comic books is a very interactive experience, requiring the reader’s full attention to decode the reading order, the passage of time and place, and so on. As we know from the books of Scott McCloud – which I also recommended to the librarians – reading comic books develops a particular skill set that is different from, but equal and complementary to, that of prose.
(Now that’s an extensive Manga library – from Cumberland County Public Library, New Jersey. More at their Flickrstream.)
Talking to librarians about graphic novels would be impossible to do without covering manga, although the main issue there lies not so much in what to recommend as how to manage it in a library context. The main issue is that many manga series stretch of dozens of volumes, so if a library stocks all of it it will dominate the shelves. Possible ways round this could include spreading the volumes between many local libararies and having them orderable between branches, or perhaps setting up swop meets or reading sessions for people who own particular titles to meet up regularly with other library users to catch up on each other’s collections.
This led on quite well to the final part of the talk, where the librarians were looking for suggestions of how to use graphic novels to engage the library users more. As well as the ideas of creating a manga readers community, libraries could perhaps organise movie sessions where the anime that goes with a particular manga series in the library is shown, perhaps with a discussion comparing it to the manga afterwards. I gather some American libraries even do cosplay events for the manga fans – that’s something I’d certainly like to see in the average town centre! Of course, I suggested strong engagement with their local community of comic artists, for recommending titles, organising workshops/talks, and so on. Birmingham is particularly strong in this area, having several social comic groups meeting regularly and also being host to the British International Comics Show. I suspect many towns and cities have a community of comics experts ready and willing to share their knowledge with the local libraries, and why not? It’s a win-win situation. The comics fans get to share their passions with a willing audience and the libraries get to massively improve their graphic novel stock, in turn creating more fans and helping to build that lifelong love of comics that we already enjoy.
So next time you, the dedicated comic fan, are in your local library, take a moment to ask the librarians what their policy is about stocking graphic novels, and if they’d like any recommendations. You might be surprised at what a difference it can make…
(Thanks again to Richard Bruton, Ryan Taylor, the members of MC2 and the various DFC contributors whose thoughts and ideas helped shape all of this.)
Wow, Thank YOU Laura, for putting together such an insightful talk, and thank you for letting us put it up here on the FPI blog.
It would be interesting to know from the readers what library provision for Graphic Novels is like in their local library. Speaking personally, Pocklington library tends to shelve with Teen Fiction and mostly it’s all licensed stuff (Buffy, Star Wars). I’ll make a point of going in and talking to them about their graphic novel policy soon.
One thing we can all do is to go into our local libraries and our local independent bookshops (if we’re fortunate enough to have one) and talk to them about stocking graphic novels, espouse the benefits, talk them up.
One final thing I can add; when talking to school teachers, librarians and bookshop owners I’ve made great use of Jim Medway’s phrase “visual literacy” when describing one of the great benefits of having graphic novels on the shelves. It immediately establishes in their minds the notion that graphic novels are capable of being something special, something wonderful. Not “an easy read”, not something to engage reluctant readers before moving them on to “proper reading”. But a unique and highly literate medium in it’s own right.