Graphic novel collections have become a staple of libraries across North America. But with greater popularity comes greater scrutiny and new issues. As demand for graphic novels and comics grows—especially among younger patrons—attempts to censor and remove certain titles from library shelves are also increasing.
In addition, self-published graphic novels (which are often crowdfunded) and digitally published comics are becoming more popular. But libraries, bound by acquisitions guidelines that require validation of books’ quality (generally a review in a reputable trade or consumer publication) that is not often available for self-published works, are struggling to include them. And comics in digital formats—such as e-books, streamed comics, and webcomics—are also difficult for librarians to justify purchasing: despite the growing demand for these works, there are only a few library vendors—OverDrive and Hoopla Digital among them—that offer them to libraries.
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Book challenges—the term for a formal effort to remove a title—filed by parents who find certain works objectionable are a constant in libraries. The visual nature of graphic novels and their prevalence in library collections makes them a big target. “You might be willing to read something, but adding the pictures is still really scary for a lot of folks,” says Carol Tilley, associate professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Thus it should come as no surprise that two graphic novels topped the American Library Association’s annual list of the most challenged books: This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki and Drama by Raina Telgemeier. Both are acclaimed works by respected authors; however, that acclaim may have helped cause the problems. This One Summer, published by First Second, is marketed as a YA book for older teens. It deals with two girls on the cusp of adolescence who are learning about life and sexuality in an honest and nonexplicit manner. However, when it was named a Caldecott Honor book in 2015, some librarians and parents may have assumed it was for younger readers, despite the fact that it also won the Printz Prize for best YA novel.
“Most librarians buy all the Caldecott winners and they may not have been aware of the content,” says Robin Brenner, teen librarian at the Brookline (Mass.) Public Library. The confusion reflects the belief, still widely held in the U.S., that all comics are for children. “Everyone needs to be reminded that the Caldecott doesn’t always go to picture books for younger children,” she says.
James Larue, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, confirms the rise in challenges to graphic novels. He notes that both This One Summer and Drama—which includes a subplot about two gay middle schoolers—deal with LGBTQ themes, and “that continues to be a concern for many who challenge books.”
Even acquiring and shelving conventionally published graphic novels for adults can pose problems. Big Hard Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky collects a popular crime comedy series about a couple who can stop time when they have sex and use their powers to rob banks. The book is rated mature for explicit content. According to Larue, in the library where it was challenged, it was appropriately shelved in the adult section and clearly labeled as such. Larue suspects that, once again, parents assumed that “a book in the comics format is aimed at kids, even when it clearly isn’t.”
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Making it easier for libraries to offer digital comics is Hoopla, a digital streaming service providing a wide variety of content to public libraries. Hoopla Digital is the digital lending service of Midwest Tape; the service offered e-books, music, and movies when it launched in 2014 and added comics in 2015. Hoopla is currently available in 1,400 library systems and 5,600 branches across the U.S. and Canada.
When its comics service began, Hoopla offered only a small selection of DC comics and titles from independent comics publishers. Since then, “it’s grown by leaps and bounds,” according to Michael Manon, public relations and communications manager at Hoopla Digital. The service works with more than 70 publishers (including every major comics publishers except Marvel) and offers nearly 10,000 titles, including single-issue periodical comics, which are often a problem for libraries to carry because they are essentially magazines and not durable enough for circulation. Patrons of library systems using Hoopla can access the comics for free using their library cards.