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Review of Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults: A Collection of Critical Essays

By Jill Coste

Abate, Michelle Ann, and Gwen Athene Tarbox, eds. Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults: A Collection of Critical Essays. UP of Mississippi, 2017.

Recently, a Publishers Weekly subject line stood out in my inbox: “The First-Ever Graphic Novel Adaptation of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, on Sale Now.” The promotional email proclaimed the arrival of this new version of Lowry’s young adult (YA) novel, a wildly popular dystopian tale that has populated high school and college classrooms and spawned countless other dystopian works since its 1993 debut. “Experience The Giver Like Never Before,” the PW email urged. “Witness Jonas’s assignment as the Receiver of Memory. Watch as he begins to understand the dark secrets behind his seemingly ideal world. Follow the explosion of color into Jonas’s world.” Witnessing, watching, and following in this case are all visual tasks, inviting the reader to engage with this perennial dystopian text in a new way. Not only did this promotional email highlight the qualities unique to a graphic novel, but it also assumed foreknowledge of Lowry’s text. This adaptation is for readers who know Lowry’s work and want to experience it anew.

This kind of adaptation is just one example of the connection between graphic novels and children’s and YA literature. As text-only novels for young readers have increased on the market and in popular culture over the last two decades, graphic works have followed suit. Despite this boom in production, critical work analyzing twenty-first century graphic novels and comics for young readers has been relatively scarce. In Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults: A Collection of Critical Essays, Michelle Ann Abate and Gwen Athene Tarbox begin to fill this gap, offering a much–needed selection of works that address imagetexts from a range of critical perspectives. Abate and Tarbox do address important previous critical work on comics for children—mentioning ImageTexT’s 2007 special issue on children’s comics as well as key cultural analyses by Bradford Wright (2003), Dan Hadju (2008), and Jean–Paul Gabilliet (2010)—but the editors explain that the aforementioned monographs are “largely limited…to historical overviews of children’s comics written before 2000” (9). Thus, their collection of twenty–one essays over five sections offers a variety of perspectives on twenty–first century texts both popular and less well known. This is a critical collection that will appeal to seasoned and nascent comics scholars and instructors alike, with essays that clearly lay out the language of comics analysis for those new to the field and that delve into compelling close readings with smart arguments about the value of the examined texts.

Considering that there is no common consensus on the terminology surrounding imagetexts, it’s important to note that Abate and Tarbox do not limit the language they use to refer to the graphic texts in their collection. They explain that they selected “graphic novels” for their title “to encourage the interest of the broadest readership possible, keeping in mind that the American Library Association often uses this term on its website and in the titles of its recommended lists, and most major publishers have followed suit” (10). They note, however, that the authors in the collection use varying terms, from comics to graphic narratives to graphic novels. All the essays, though, “take into account the inherently visual and tactile nature of comics” (10).

The editors introduce their collection by clearly laying out the stakes of their work. Scholarship on comics for young readers is essential not just because of the quantity and popularity of the primary texts, but also because of what graphic texts do for young readers: they promote multimodal literacy and reflect the ambiguity and different experiences of growing up. Abate and Tarbox highlight the explosion of comics aimed specifically at young readers in the late twentieth and early twenty–first centuries. Recent years have seen an evolution in the perception of who reads comics and why, as comics have become a viable option for children and teens, a significant shift from the mid–to–late twentieth–century marketplace. As Abate and Tarbox explain, in the 1950s the restrictive Comics Code greatly sanitized comics for kids, resulting in artists and writers turning their work to adult audiences. This, coupled with “the fact that the overwhelming majority of comics were sold outside the traditional bookstore environment frequented by children and their parents,” resulted in the perception that comics were not for kids (4). The 1990s saw a change in the comics marketplace, though, with the popularity of Japanese manga increasing the demand for comics for young readers (4). All of these factors, along with the popularity of young adult and children’s literature in general, have led to a booming industry of comics and graphic novels for young readers. Texts like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and American Born Chinese have become household names, and prolific authors like Raina Telgemeier and Dav Pilkey continually appear on best–seller lists.

Abate and Tarbox lay out several key reasons for the prevalence and importance of comics for young readers. As part of the world of children’s and YA literature, comics for young readers draw on the same creativity and generic experimentation often seen in non–illustrated works. Comics for young readers are significant in the way they introduce concepts of collaboration and adaptation, encouraging readers to synthesize multiple modes of production and multiple stories. Furthermore, a push for adaptation results in greater diversity, as reboots like Marvel’s Ultimate Comics: Spider Man and Ms. Marvel feature main characters of color. Additionally, support from K–12 and community librarians contribute to the increasing prevalence and value of children’s comics. As works that prompt readers “to fill in interpretive gaps on their own” due to their visual nature, graphic novels and comics provide valuable opportunities for young readers to explore their own understanding of both narrative conventions and cultural context (5).

The essays in Abate and Tarbox’s collection draw on these notions of narrative and context, delving into how visual texts play with plot and theme and provoke a greater awareness of one’s own world. The editors emphasize the importance of hybridity, noting that children’s and YA texts in general indulge in “generic and artistic experimentation” as they “employ child focalizers, provide indeterminate endings, and…[deviate] in terms of narrative coherence” (5). Indeed, the concept of experimentation and hybridity is a coherent factor among the essays in the collection; the essays vary broadly in theme, with sections on form and genre, adaptation, pedagogy, gender and sexuality, and ideology. What unifies these essays, aside from their focus on graphic work, is their overall emphasis on how graphic novels influence actual readers, from encouraging multimodal literacy skills to providing ideological awareness.

In addition to the larger topics under consideration, the essays in this collection offer clear application of comics terminology and draw on such theorists as Hillary Chute, Thierry Groensteen, Charles Hatfield, and Scott McCloud among others. Most essays are short, offering quick but detailed insight into the works under consideration. The essays’ shorter lengths make the daunting size of the book manageable, but such short works could use a little more space to address the larger significance of their close analysis. Overall, though, the essays are focused and fascinating. While the collection’s essays are unified by their focus on hybridity and reader interaction, they’re also grouped into five thematic sections, which allows readers to easily navigate the collection.

The first section, “Graphic Novels as Comics Storytelling: Word and Image, Form and Genre,” focuses closely on the materiality and form of graphic works. This section would be of particular interest for those looking to more thoroughly understand the distinct medium of comics, as the four essays provide analyses varying from comic–as–physical–book to the importance of visual narrative to convey meaning a text–only narrative cannot. Annette Wannamaker’s essay on Jeff Smith’s Bone series stands out for the way it uses Smith’s experience and work to illustrate both the historical context and evolution of comics. To explore materiality and also offer a history of comics publication, Wannamaker compares Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume, a 1,344–page tome, to the multiple other forms of Smith’s work, which were first published in slim serial form and later adapted into colorful Scholastic graphic novels. As Wannamaker argues, the multiple forms of Smith’s comic appeal to a broad range of readers, showing the fluidity of audience and style inherent in many graphic works.

The second section, “Hybrid Comics, Transmedial Storytelling, and Graphic Novels in Adaptation,” offers essays that consider reader interaction with texts and how transmedial adaptations affect that interaction. This section draws attention to the way that visual adaptations promote multimodal literacy, an especially important skill for today’s young readers, who increasingly encounter and engage with multiple forms of media. Rachel L. Rickard Rebellino argues, for example, that two popular series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries, despite seeming like “literary junk food,” actually “promote complex reader–book engagement” as they teach readers writing skills through accompanying do–it–yourself diaries (79). Aaron Kashtan notes that the My Little Pony franchise reflexively refers to itself across multiple transmedia platforms, from comics to an accompanying TV show, inviting readers to be literate in the different formats. All of the essays in this section also address the tension between adult creator and child consumer of media, noting both the send–up of adult authority and the affirmation of it. Joseph Michael Sommers shows how elements of the ridiculous in the Captain Underpants series allow children to explore the limitations of adult control, while Meghann Meeusen argues that graphic–narrative adaptations of the novels Coraline and City of Ember afford greater agency to their child protagonists but ultimately reinforce adult authority.

Part three of the collection, “The Pedagogy of the Panel,” is a strong stand–alone section that provides concrete examples for teaching visual texts. With their lucid definitions and clear pedagogical methodology, the essays in this section are a valuable resource for any educator. Gwen Athene Tarbox’s “From Who–Ville to Hereville: Integrating Graphic Novels into an Undergraduate Children’s Literature Course” is an excellent piece on classroom practices helpful for teaching any visual text. This essay articulates Tarbox’s efforts to “find a way to convey the basic principles of comics interpretation” in a children’s literature survey course, which often has limited time in the semester to delve into comics grammar (142). She aims to provide a pedagogical guide to “a unit on children’s comics that could be integrated into a 15–week undergraduate course in children’s literature and could be taught competently by an instructor who was interested in comics studies, but was not an expert” (142). Tarbox emphasizes comics as a clear vehicle for helping “young readers to appreciate the often complex relationship between image and text” (141) and lays out why this relationship matters, noting the increased emphasis by accreditation agencies on visual literacy in K–12 education. Thus, a unit in a survey course on comics interpretation can help future K–12 teachers better understand what their own students will need to learn. Tarbox then walks her readers through her unit on visual texts, which covers film and picture books before moving to graphic novels. Tarbox links her textual examples to a number of secondary readings that provide theoretical foundations for visual analysis. With clear and practicable definitions of comics terms like braiding and sequential art, and a well–explained glossary of other major terms, Tarbox’s essay will be invaluable to teachers’ use and understanding of comics.

The other two essays in this section on pedagogy are Christiane Buuck and Cathy Ryan’s analysis of masking in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Michael L. Kersulov, Mary Beth Hines, and Rebecca Rupert’s account of using Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part–Time Indian to model memoir in comics. Buuck and Ryan take masking beyond Scott McCloud’s traditional definition, which “explains that graphic narratives are welcoming spaces in part because characters, especially in cartoons, are often&hellp;rendered abstractly enough to avoid easy classification” (156). Buuck and Ryan extend masking to the background of graphic narratives, showing how the abstract landscape of The Arrival invites a multitude of student interpretations. Kersulov, Hines, and Rupert’s essay uses a specific case study of teaching Sherman Alexie’s popular work to marginalized students, who then created their own comic memoirs. Their case study reveals a student identifying with Arnold, the protagonist in Absolutely True Diary, and using that empathy to develop her own commitment to education. Since the publication of this essay collection, however, Alexie has faced numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and predatory behavior, and many educators are striking his work from their curricula. Kersulov et. al.’s essay would benefit from an additional case study, and given that Alexie’s work is largely denounced now on account of his behavior, this essay will likely not get as much traction as the others. That said, the principles outlined in it—such as using multimodal concepts to articulate meaning in their own lives—would work well with other autobiographical comics for young readers.

Part four of the collection is titled “Representing Gender and Sexuality in the Comics Medium” and features essays that cover primarily YA texts, such as Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s Skim and Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost. This section focuses largely on adolescent identity, and each essay illustrates how the complex layers of a visual text echo the complexity and ambiguity of the adolescent maturation process. The essays in this section fall under more traditional literary analysis, with tightly focused arguments and detailed close readings to support those arguments. All the essays in this section are strong, with convincing examinations of intersectional identity and the unique value in young adult texts to explore those identities as young readers begin to grapple with their own understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Krystal Howard’s “Gothic Excess and the Body in Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost” is particularly compelling for the way it defines the Gothic tradition and demonstrates that tradition at work in Brosgol’s text. Howard’s essay also offers clear examples of braiding, showing how Brosgol’s illustrated emphasis on both the corporeal and apparitional body ultimately lead to the protagonist’s self–acceptance. With these specific examples, Howard’s essay would pair nicely with Tarbox’s for readers and educators interested in how to apply foundational comics concepts to a longer analysis.

The final section of the text, “Drawing on Identity: History, Politics, and Culture,” features essays that consider the intersections of graphic novels and ideology. These essays particularly highlight the effect of graphic narratives on young readers. Lance Weldy critiques Jack T. Chick’s “Chick tracts,” or fundamental Christian pamphlets that use comics to advance an evangelical message. In a different approach, Joanna C. Davis–McElligatt puts John Lewis’s March: Book One in conversation with the nonfiction pamphlet Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, published in 1957 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, to illustrate the principles of passive resistance. Davis–McElligatt shows the power comics have to illustrate both the history of civil rights and the way young protestors engaged with it. Also addressing notions of systemic injustice is David E. Low’s essay on Marvel’s Ultimate Comics Spider–Man; Low focuses on a three–page section of the text where Miles Morales wins a lottery to attend a charter school in order to illustrate how ideology is inevitably embedded in a text. Anuja Madan’s essay on Sita’s Ramayana closes out the section and considers how different art forms can affect feminist representations of India’s famous quest narrative.

At 359 pages, Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults: A Collection of Critical Essays is long, but it is arranged in such a way that readers can easily seek out the essays relevant to their research or teaching. While each section is distinct in theme, the book as a whole provides a valuable and comprehensive guide to analyzing and teaching graphic narratives for young readers. The collection also leaves room for further study. Rather than a conclusion by the editors, the final section of the book comes from children’s comics scholar Joe Sutliff Sanders, who opens the conversation about comics for young readers to where they might go next. While the rest of the essays in the book look at printed comics, Sanders turns to the digital medium. Sanders points out that even as digital comics become more prevalent, many are simply recreations of what appears on a printed page, reflecting a reluctance on the part of both publishers and creators to fully embrace the digital medium. That medium, Sanders argues, “provides us with another aesthetic dimension to evaluate” and is worthy of analysis (337). He highlights Scott Wegener and Brian Clevinger’s “Along Came a Tyrantula” issue of Atomic Robo: Two–Fisted Tales as a piece that “makes use of its [digital] form—and its form’s limitations—rather than trying to be a paper comic in a digital format” (338). The potential for comics to find new life and invite still more visual interpretation through online publication speaks to the mutability of graphic narratives. That mutability appears throughout the collection, with many of the authors addressing the difficulty of categorizing graphic narratives and the “fluid boundaries” of image texts (144). Because of this ambiguity, young readers become agents of meaning making when they engage with visual narratives. While thorough on its own, Abate and Tarbox’s collection makes room for new scholarship on children’s and YA graphic narratives.

Works Cited

Publishers Weekly. “The First–Ever Graphic Novel Adaptation of Lois Lowry’s ‘The Giver,’ on Sale Now.” Received by Jill Coste, 5 Feb. 2019.

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