Let’s Get Graphic

Graphic novels for all ages are booming! For at least a decade, the number of graphic novels for youth has been growing, with increasingly diverse topics, characters, and storylines.

Until recently, though, graphic novels for youth with QUILTBAG characters and themes were few and far between. Despite all the awesome comics for kids and teens, graphic novels seemed to be lagging behind traditional novels in the QUILTBAG arena.

Thankfully that’s changing, and graphic novels for and about QUILTBAG youth are becoming more plentiful. In QUILTBAG #6 I talked about Drama by Raina Telgemeier, a groundbreaking middle grade graphic novel that’s been a massive hit ever since its release in 2012. In just the past year or two, a flood of other graphic novels for teens, tweens, and younger kids have joined Drama in the QUILTBAG graphic novel landscape.

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Check, Please! #Hockey by Ngozi Ukazu tells the sweet and funny tale of Eric “Bitty” Bittle, a former high school figure skater who applies his skating skills to hockey once he’s in college. Bitty loves baking for his friends, social networking (his tweets are compiled in the back of the book), and the camaraderie of his hockey team. The cute, cartoony art in this Morris Award finalist will appeal to younger readers, but this one is for older teens — the characters are all in college and the storylines are authentic to that. Some of Bitty’s teammates express themselves in the colorful ways you might expect from college hockey players, so fair warning. I loved this book and can’t wait for the next volume.

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In Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau, Ari is eager to move to the big city with his bandmates, but his parents need his help running the family bakery in their sleepy beach town. Ari thinks if he can find someone to take his place, maybe his father will let him go. Enter Hector, an easy-going guy who loves to bake and answers the Help Wanted call. Ari and Hector become co-workers, then friends. This charming, slow-burn romance features older teens but will appeal to younger teens as well; it’s published by First Second, who can always be counted on to provide some of the very best graphic novels for youth.

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The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang, also from First Second, showed up on the 2019 Rainbow List (see QUILTBAG #2) and is also a Teens’ Top Ten 2019 nominee. After seamstress Frances is fired for creating a dress her boss finds too edgy, she’s hired by a mysterious client who is intrigued by her daring designs. Her new admirer turns out to be the Prince, who secretly likes wearing beautiful dresses. Together, the two of them are unstoppable. Using a lush color palette and clean, sweeping lines, Wang beautifully tells this charming tale of fashion and finding one’s identity. This is a sweet story suitable for tweens and older.

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A collection of connected short stories, The Cardboard Kingdom by Chad Sell tracks a neighborhood-full of kids who, over the course of one summer, create an increasingly elaborate fantasy world using cardboard boxes and their imaginations. Several characters display some sort of gender non-conformity in ordinary, childlike ways — the boy who wants to play the Empress; the girl who wants to be a mustache-wearing scientist; the boy who’d rather be rescued by the prince than slay the dragon. The art is colorful and energetic, and the text is spare and easy to read. This book is perfectly appealing for all ages.

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Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw is a recent release from First Second for more mature teens. Mads attends Catholic high school where her friend group includes wild child Cat, goody-goody Laura, and Laura’s brother Adam, who has a crush on Mads. Venable has crafted a story rich with friend drama, family mystery and strife, and a main character who compellingly struggles to make sense of her family, friends, and feelings. Crenshaw’s drawings are lively; expressive body language and facial expressions help tell the story in tandem with the text.

There are plenty of other comics and graphic novels for youth with QUILTBAG characters, and also several with QUILTBAG vibes or appeal. Nimona, Fence, Witch Boy, Lumberjanes, Backstagers, Roller Girl, This One Summer, and Tomboy are just a few worth recommending.

What are your favorite graphic novels and comics for youth that have QUILTBAG characters or storylines? I’d love to hear your suggestions!

PS: I know some of you are educators, and if you’re still reluctant to read graphic novels or use them in your classroom, I recommend this essay-in-comic-form by Gene Yang, the author of the Printz-winning American Born Chinese and a huge advocate for comics for kids. A recent Edweek article weighs in, as well, on why graphic novels belong in your English classroom. And finally, Publishers Weekly explains why the graphic novel is a perfectly teachable format.

Bad for You

Last week the American Library Association put out their annual list of the top ten most challenged books of the previous year (for 2018, it’s actually a top eleven). It’s notable — and not unusual — that more than half of them were challenged because of QUILTBAG content.

The ALA compiles statistics throughout the year whenever a parent or patron questions the appropriateness of a book in a school or public library’s collection and tries to have it removed. If you take a look at the most recent list you can see the rationale given for challenging each book; six of the eleven titles list LGBTQ characters or themes as a reason. The accompanying infographic includes a word cloud that also clearly shows LGBTQIA+ as the biggest concern during challenges, with additional entries for terms like “gender nonconformity,” “transgender characters,” and “same-sex married couple.”

Drama, a graphic novel for tweens by Raina Telgemeier, has shown up on this list for several years now, and comes in this year at #5. Callie, the main character, helps with set design in her middle school’s drama club, and the story focuses on, well, the DRAMA of middle school, including failures, embarrassments, and first crushes. One such romance is between two boys. This tame comic book is perfectly fine for (and very popular with) upper elementary students — but many of its detractors cite the gay content as inappropriate, while finding no issue with the many straight kisses and crushes that arise throughout the story.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and illustrated by E.G. Keller, #2 on this year’s list, got its start as a satirical jab at the Vice President. Mike Pence’s wife and daughter wrote a book about their pet bunny Marlon Bundo. As a response, comedian John Oliver presented this picture book in which Bundo falls in love with another boy bunny, while a villainous stinkbug (who looks suspiciously like the President) tries to thwart their relationship. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo is a surprisingly sweet picture book that stands on its own, apart from the political and social satire that spawned it. While some of the complaints about this book arose from its political viewpoint, it received more heat from the same-sex romance between Marlon and his bunny boyfriend.

Why are parents and community members so concerned about QUILTBAG characters and themes in books for children? Why do some citizens attempt to have books removed from libraries and schools, even going so far as to hide or destroy copies of the offending books?

I can’t answer those questions. As a school librarian, I encourage my students to self-select what they want to read, which includes what they don’t want to read. I remind them that their parents can guide what kinds of books they choose, and some families might opt to place certain books off limits. But I emphasize that students and parents don’t get to make those choices for other students and families. I tell my students: If something makes you uncomfortable, simply don’t check it out. Choose the books you like, and leave other books for other readers.

(Several years ago, a mother of one of our students informed me that our library had more “gay books” than other junior highs in our area. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t meant as a compliment. At the time we had about 30 such titles amid a fiction collection of over 5,000 books. I’m glad that we have more than that now.)

Sometimes things make us uncomfortable simply because they’re unfamiliar. Perhaps the key then is to read more QUILTBAG books, not banish them from our children’s experience. Science has shown that reading fiction increases emotional intelligence and empathy. Author Sunil Yapa has said, “Empathy is a profound act of imagination and human connection. In fiction, we imagine ourselves into other people’s experiences.” Kids and teens will be more accepting and inclusive if they have read diverse stories about others’ lives.

While some people seek to remove QUILTBAG titles from children’s shelves, lots of people think we don’t have enough QUILTBAG books for youth in libraries — especially stories about people of color, kids with disabilities or mental illness, or youth from other marginalized groups, who also happen to be queer. NBC News recently published a story about the rise of YA books with LGBTQ content. The article features many YA authors, including Amy Rose Capetta and Caleb Roehrig, whose Rainbow List-ed books Echo After Echo and White Rabbit I touted back in QUILTBAG #2 – The Rainbow List. The NBC article also mentions many other worthwhile authors and YA titles.

I’m tired of seeing so many QUILTBAG books on the banned, burned, and challenged lists. We need to move beyond the idea that QUILTBAG books are somehow bad for our kids. In fact, a recent study showed that having a gay friend makes you a better person. So strive to be better, and help the children and teens in your life be better too. Read more QUILTBAG books!