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Find more Why Comics Matter
Challenges to comics and graphic novels are nothing new. In 1948, German American psychologist Fredric Wertham stated his firmly held belief that the comic book industry was worse than Hitler. In 1986, Michael Correa was arrested for displaying “obscene materials” in his comic book store, including titles like Heavy Metal, Love and Rockets, and Elektra: Assassin. And in 2000, a college professor was called to a Texas courtroom to testify on the literary and artistic value of manga on behalf of a comic store clerk who was arrested for selling books to an undercover police officer.
Despite the drama, comics have survived and grown into one of today’s best-selling book mediums, with annual sales in the billions of dollars. The publishing industry has been busy answering a huge demand for children’s graphic novels, particularly at the middle-grade level. Comics, manga, and other illustrated books are especially popular with readers who are neurodivergent, English Language Learners, or still developing their reading skills.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news in the world of comics these days. Book bans and challenges have increased at an alarming rate over the past few years, and the movement shows no signs of slowing or stopping. Comics and graphic novels, with their unique visual format, can become easy targets for book challenges. Panels can be taken out of context and used as evidence to campaign against the inclusion of comics in libraries.
Speaking Up against Quiet Censorship
As book bans and challenges sweep across the nation, a lot of librarians are worried about the safety of their library collections, their jobs, and even their lives. Social media is alight with horrifying accusations that librarians are grooming and brainwashing children simply by putting diverse books on our library shelves. Amid all this vitriol, a quieter threat has also emerged—one that is far more insidious and much harder to track.
A recent survey from School Library Journal found that 42 percent of respondents admitted to removing a book from their library collection without experiencing a formal review or challenge. Another 13 percent removed a book from their library following an informal directive from an administrator. For these librarians, taking a potentially controversial book off the shelf sounded easier than dealing with harassment or being asked to fight for and justify a book’s place in the library.
These kinds of preemptive removals are a form of self-censorship, sometimes referred to as soft or quiet censorship. Kelly Jensen at Book Riot defines it as “when materials are purposefully removed, limited, or never purchased at all despite it being a title that would serve a community.” Graphic novels, comics, and other illustrated books are especially subject to self-censorship—particularly if they are written by (or about) a member of a marginalized community. Just one year after his book New Kid became the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Medal, Jerry Craft was uninvited from a scheduled author visit in Katy, Texas. Craft, a well-respected Black author and illustrator, was accused of sneaking critical race theory into his book because it contained portrayals of white students performing microaggressions against Black students. Craft’s books were also pulled from the Katy ISD library shelves for review—a practice that goes against most library reconsideration policy recommendations.
Some librarians voluntarily engage in smaller bouts of self-censorship. In librarian groups on social media sites like Facebook, it’s not uncommon to see school librarians discussing the ethics of putting certain popular book titles “on vacation.” Bemoaning the fact that their students don’t want to read anything but graphic novels, Dog Man, or Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, some librarians declare that they have taken entire series off the shelves, and hidden the books in their office, so that students will be “forced” to read something else. Many librarians, especially those who have limited budgets and can’t afford to buy enough copies of these popular books for their own libraries, have expressed outrage at this idea.
Willingly denying books to students based on the faulty idea that students need to read more “real books” is incredibly problematic, especially in the midst of rampant book bans and challenges. It can send the wrong kind of message to patrons—that librarians have something to hide, or that they are stocking their library shelves with books that they don’t really think should be in the collection. It also minimizes and denies the huge impact that graphic novels can have on readers.
It is therefore critical that we speak up when other librarians dismiss graphic novels as “not real books.” Teachers and librarians telling young readers that they have to get “one easy book and one hard book” sends a similar message—one that only inspires shame among our readers. Challenging other librarians is never easy. We’d like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and believe that every librarian possesses the same devotion to students’ First Amendment rights. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The urge to not “rock the boat,” to “mind your own business,” may be strong, and in politically volatile times like these, it is also completely understandable.
But readers, authors, queer librarians, and librarians of color—they don’t get the option to “opt out” of these kinds of issues. If scores of librarians who aren’t facing direct threats to their library collections decide that they have no issue with removing books from the shelves, then it becomes that much harder for the library field as a whole to support keeping diverse books on the shelves. If too many of us stay quiet, the end result is that diverse stories—including many amazing comic books and graphic novels—will be diminished and eventually erased.
As a famous quote attributed to Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, says: “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Protecting Graphic Novels
So how can we protect graphic novels and comics? The first step is to be aware of what’s happening so you can be prepared for potential challenges. Stay keyed in to what’s going on in library circles, at both the local and national level. Attend your local school board meetings and vote in elections for new trustees. If books are challenged in your local area, get involved and make sure to follow up on the end result of each challenge. Websites like Get Ready, Stay Ready provide community action toolkits that can help guide you.
When books aren’t in danger of being challenged, you can still show your support in the following ways:
Interested in learning more? You can find resources on supporting books during bans and challenges, as well as specific resources on supporting graphic novels and comics, on my website, adrianalwhite.com, or by visiting bit.ly/ALWbans.
Adriana Lebrón White is an autistic librarian, writer, and speaker. Her work primarily focuses on neurodiversity in children’s books, and she also delivered a TEDx Talk on neurodiversity in 2021. She has an MLIS and a Master’s in Education, and she’s a staff editor for the website A Novel Mind.
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