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Graphic Content

CBLDF BBW Jeff Smith posterEvery year, libraries and bookstores around the country set aside the last week in September for Banned Books Week.  In this week, we seek to remind everyone of the benefits of free and open access to information.  We underscore the dangers of censorship.  And we honor a right we never, ever want to lose: our Constitutionally guaranteed freedom to read. 

This year, Banned Books Week focuses on what might seem like a frivolous choice: graphic novels, a.k.a. comic books.  Why comics?  Why does the library even carry them, and why are they showing up on our kids' summer reading lists?  There are plenty of reasons!  To start with, comic books have changed a lot in a generation, but one thing that hasn't changed is the universal appeal of sequential story and art.  Comics have long been one of the best entrees into reading for new and struggling readers.  The shorter format is easier for them to swallow (especially for little people with short attention spans), and the artwork offers visual cues to help them process the text.

Today's titles also embrace far greater variety than they did thirty years ago.  Beyond the classic "funnies" and superhero comics, today's graphic novels include history, biography, classics, mystery, speculative fiction, and romance. They're used to explain scientific and political concepts.  They've won Pulitzers, as well as genre and artistic awards.  They offer stories with just as much depth and emotional impact as their plain-text cousins (more so, in some cases, thanks to some stellar artwork).  (For more about the appeal of graphic novels to adults, check out my Popping the Word Balloon entry.)

Graphic novels offer a lot in the way of of cultural diversity, too.  Consider some of the titles on this year's summer reading lists-- Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis show us what it was like to grow up in the middle of Iran's Cultural Revolution.  Brian K. Vaughan's Pride o#FreePersepolisf Baghdad, based on a true story, follows a group of lions freed from the Baghdad Zoo by the 2003 bombings, with each lion coming to represent a different-- often conflicting-- human viewpoint on the Iraq War.  Both of these titles offer students the perspective of an average person living through a significant point in history-- something you don't see often in the history books.  Both titles were critically acclaimed... and both have faced multiple censorship challenges.

 In a way, the banning of individual graphic novel titles (as opposed to the widespread condemnation of comics in the 1950s) signals a turning point in the public's view of the medium.  Graphic novels are being banned because they're being taken seriously, because they can relate to the reader in a way plain print can't-- they literally show us how someone else sees the world.  Their visual nature puts a reader in the story, even when that story is not always pretty or easy to see.  They have the power to provoke empathy and sway opinions-- and that power scares some people. 

At the same time, that power alsPride of Baghdad covero highlights why graphic novels are such an important addition to modern literature.  As Nusha Ashjaee, a Brooklyn writer and cartoonist, writes, "It’s no coincidence that the most relevant books are frequently the most controversial. Willfully imposing ignorance on students by censoring such books is truly irresponsible and hinders their ability to overcome negative social programming, to address contentious situations in their environments, and to become more complete and empathetic individuals."  Or as Eisner- and Harvey Award-winning cartoonist Chris Ware puts it, "Conveniently, a list of banned books also makes for one of the greatest reading lists in the world."

New City Library is a public library; our collection is for everyone.  That doesn't mean that every title is for everyone.  It's probable-- even likely-- that we own some things you don't want to read, or don't want your kids to read.  And you know what?  That's perfectly fine.  There are over 150,000 titles in our print collection alone; 2,800 of those are graphic novel titles (in Children's, Young Adult, and Adult sections).  There's plenty to choose from, and we don't expect you to read it all. 

What you and your family read (or watch, or listen to) is entirely your choice, and your business-- that's a basic freedom accorded to you by our First Amendment.  All we ask is that you remember your fellow patrons have exactly that same freedom.  You can condemn your neighbors' reading preferences, you can fear for their children's future therapy bills-- but you can't take away another's choice.  Supporting the right to read what you want will sometimes mean supporting another's right to read what you hate, something that scares or challenges you.  That's part of what makes freedom so difficult, but it's also one of our country's founding strengths.

If you'd like to learn more about Banned Books Week and graphic novels, here are a few resources for you to check out:

Banned Books Week

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: Banned Books Week

YouTube: Banned Books Week Virtual Read-Out!

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: Banned Comics Discussion Guides

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: Using Graphic Novels in Education

American Library Association: Frequently Challenged Books

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