Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe
Find more Comic Book Club
I see it every day in my library, and if you work in a library, you probably see it in yours: preteens and teens gobbling up the latest from Raina Telgemeier, their favorite manga series, or looking for that tattered copy of Persepolis or Maus they’ve been assigned to read. Comics, young patrons, and libraries are BFFs. But how do libraries build upon that friendship to further engage comics readers? Meet them where they are—which, for many of these patrons, is in school. Comics are a great way to create impactful library-school partnerships, and grant funding can help you do amazing things that connect teens with the library.
In early 2019, the Maumee branch of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library was coming off of a successful outreach initiative with local schools. We issued library cards to all students at the middle and high school and established a library book delivery service. As adult and teen services librarian, I was able to do programs in conjunction with the middle school’s extracurricular games club. Around the same time, we began thinking about how we might expand our school partnerships through grants. After considering a few ideas, we concluded that a group discussing graphic novels in a more general sense would be best, and we identified the Youth Literacy Grants from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation as being a good fit for the project. We applied, received the grant, and got to work implementing the project.
The plan was detailed in our grant application: Comic Book Club would serve 50 students in grades 6–8 at two middle schools. A librarian would lead four after-school discussion sessions at each school during the 2019–20 school year. We wanted to make the group a model for literacy instruction that supported comics readers, specifically focusing on visual literacy and comics terminology. There would also be an emphasis on the uniqueness of the comics medium to foster an understanding of how stories are told through sequential art. To provide context for what comics are and the different formats they come in, the roles of comics creators, and definitions of comics terminology, we incorporated the information found in the How Comics Work brochure, written by the University of Winnipeg’s Candida Rifkind and Brandon Christopher, illustrated by Alice RL (available at uwinnipeg.ca/1b19/how-comics-work/free-downloadable-comic.html).
We surveyed students prior to the first meeting to get an understanding of their comics knowledge. Ninety-two percent of students indicated they had read comics before, but only 42 percent expressed a high level of confidence with reading comics. When it came to terminology, almost all students said they were familiar with basic terms like “graphic novel” and “comic book,” but far fewer were familiar with terms like “gutter,” “page layout,” and “splash page.” Very few of the students expressed familiarity with the term “closure,” which Scott McCloud defined in Understanding Comics (1993) as the “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole,” a core component of reading comics. We utilized these student responses when structuring discussions; an exit survey will be conducted when the program concludes to gauge our success at building more confident comics readers.
So why did we need the grant money? To buy books, of course. We could have used library funds, letting students borrow items from our collection. Instead, we wanted students to be able to keep the books, based on evidence that book ownership is a key factor in educational attainment for children. More importantly, we did not want to dictate what books students read because we didn’t want Comic Book Club to feel like another school assignment. We wanted students to select the books because evidence suggests when children have a choice in what they read, it helps develop a sense of ownership in their reading experience. To avoid the chaos of 50 students selecting 200 different titles, we gave the students options that took cost, potential for discussion, and diverse voices into consideration, using the 2019 Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) Graphic Novels Reading List for Grades 6–8. Students voted on titles prior to each meeting, with the popular choice being the title the group read and discussed. The winning selections were:
I opened each discussion by asking what students thought of the book: thumbs up, thumbs middle, or thumbs down. Most students gave thumbs up to every book, and they had great things to say! Students were able to see themselves in New Kid, relating to being the new person in school and having to code switch throughout their day, behaving differently around friends or adults. With Primates, students expertly discussed the stylistic choices made in the art and how biographies can’t always provide a complete story. Students expressed shock at learning the number of people sometimes involved with creating a comic (penciller, inker, colorists, writer, and so on). The discussion on Child Soldier was especially memorable, as illustrator Claudia Dávila was able to join the group for a brief presentation and Q&A session via teleconference. I was so impressed with the level of nuance and complexity these students brought to the discussion.
Meetings were formatted like any library book discussion, with participants seated around a single table with the librarian joining them, another way the book club distinguished itself from regular school experiences. I put together a slide presentation for each meeting, calling attention to specific panels or introducing outside resources. For Primates, I showed three short documentary videos of the primatologists profiled. I also came with discussion questions, either writing my own or using existing questions available on publisher websites or from freely available curriculum guides. For example, a cursory Google search of Child Soldier led me to the publisher’s website with links to a teaching guide, allowing me to structure the conversation around the concept of rights, wants, and needs, and introducing principles from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I tracked what worked and what didn’t during meetings by writing brief observational reports afterward so that I could improve for the next discussion.
Despite the overall success of the program, we did face obstacles. Though we hoped to have 50 students involved at two different schools, we only had 12 register at one school. This turned out to be a blessing; the discussions seem to be most effective in groups of 10–15 participants. We were also able to add a local high school into the program. For that group, we had students select titles from Young Adult Library Services Association’s (YALSA) Great Graphic Novels for Teens reading list, and a second librarian led those discussions.
This program also relies on a partnership, which brings along its own challenges. School staff are (understandably) busy, and at one meeting where only four students attended, we realized students were not being reminded when and where meetings were taking place. Issues like these were resolved by keeping an open dialogue with our school partners. We also encountered the logistical challenge of ordering books in a timely manner. We relied on purchasing books through library vendors, but processing was sometimes slow—once, we didn’t receive the books on time, leading us to scramble to order a set from Amazon so students would be able to read before the discussion. It is my hope that, in the future, we will be able to order books through a different avenue, such as directly from a local comics shop.
Another unexpected hurdle was the closure of schools and the library because of COVID-19; we held the last few meetings over a Zoom videoconference. The meeting format remained the same, but the discussion was much different—one student summed it up when he mentioned how much he missed seeing his friends. It was less book focused, but no less meaningful.
Comic Book Club was created for a variety of reasons: it helped the library strengthen its relationship with partner schools, it uniquely provided a valuable library service to teen patrons, and it was a personal interest and passion project for the two librarians involved—me and Maumee branch manager Allison Fiscus. Though there is always room for improvement, we are motivated to continue the program, and we are seeking additional grant opportunities to grow Comic Book Club in the 2020–21 school year. I think one participating student put it best when we asked them why they were interested in joining the program: “Because I absolutely love graphic novels, but I don’t have the funds to go out and buy many or I’m kind of picky in my book choice. I also really love reading, but I don’t have much motivation to read, so I hope this will help motivate me.” If that’s not endorsement enough to pursue and create programs like this, I don’t know what is.
Franco Vitella is an assistant branch manager at Toledo Lucas County Public Library in Ohio and a 2020 ALA Emerging Leader.
Free Trial, activate profile, or subscribe