Ingram Blog

Just a Comic Book: A Defense of Children’s Nonfiction Graphic Novels

Jenny McCluskey, MSIS, Collection Development Librarian

What do you think of when you hear the term “graphic novel?” Superheroes, check. Manga, check. Fun stuff, right? And what about the term “nonfiction graphic novel?” Does that suggest popular classics of the medium, such as Persepolis or Maus? Or maybe newer standards come to mind, such as Congressman John Lewis’ New York Times-bestselling MARCH trilogy? Suddenly we see a great divide that is unfortunately still a very real misperception; that reading books that are fun cannot also be educational, and vice versa.

Some might say these YA titles are the reason for any recognition and popularization of nonfiction graphic novels, but what about solid, well-done graphic nonfiction for the younger set? Does that even exist? The answer is yes, and you already know more about children’s nonfiction graphic novels than you think. The medium of comics/graphic novels doesn’t limit the possibilities of what nonfiction can mean to a reader; it expands it, because there are literally endless possibilities to do so. As a comics specialist, I have long been a proponent of the one true cause: to make comics readers out of everyone I talk to, no matter their age or experience. Comics/graphic novels are anything and everything that their creators (AND readers) want them to be, including, in the case of nonfiction graphic novels, both factual and compelling to read.

The struggle to get acceptance for graphic nonfiction can be compared to the rise of narrative, or literary, nonfiction. Much has been made for years of the merits of narrative nonfiction, officially so for many K-12 schools. And why is that? Because narrative nonfiction is essentially an artful rendering of facts, or, to put it another way, using literary techniques to portray factual subject matter. Narrative nonfiction plays an important and official role in recent K-12 curricula standards. Using the vehicle of narrative, it is an excellent introduction to a topic, event, person, etc. It brings the reader to the facts through a story. Sounds much more appealing as homework than pages 12-30 in a dry textbook, right? 

If that’s the case then, can children read factual narrative titles comparable to the quality of what is available in prose, but in graphic form? The answer is a resounding yes, they can!

Graphic novels do so much more than prose can through a seemingly endless variety of visual representations, subgenres, and art styles. They can intrigue even the most reluctant or emerging readers, as well as the avid, veteran ones. Seemingly gone are the days when libraries and teachers actively discouraged students from reading comics. On the contrary, there has been a rapidly growing movement of public librarians, who, joining with publishers and others over the past few years, are promoting the merits of comics/graphic novels, helping the K-12 community to learn more about how the medium can be included and taught in the curricula. Through the growth of comics programming at both library shows such as ALA, and comics conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con International, librarians and educators are coming together to learn from and support each other in ushering in what many hope will be an important component of every classroom one day: teaching and learning with graphic novels. 

In that vein, graphic nonfiction has made many strides in establishing recognition for those classic graphic nonfiction titles, which are much more mature in theme than your average 8- to 11-year old child is ready to take on. So where can younger readers get these graphic nonfiction titles that earn straight A’s for drawing and keeping attention, not just in the classroom, but out of it as well? 

The middle grade graphic memoir, along with slice-of-life nonfiction, has become a phenomenal draw and is one of the strongest trends in comics right now. This is, in part, by capturing the attention of non-comics readers with a winning combination of clean, colorful lines with compelling, and often true, stories about being in school, navigating life, and relationships. These books are coupling the very real highs and lows of life with artistry and imagery that appeal to, and often mirror, children in this age group. Those with female protagonists have resonated the most.

In fact, Raina Telgemeier, who is the reigning queen of the middle grade graphic novel, has created some of the most approachable books about real kids out there today. When you pick up one of her colorful titles, you might just be fooled into thinking it’s not “just a comic book” because of the inviting packaging blending seamlessly in with any children’s prose collection. Unless you look closely, you might have no idea that her New York Times-bestselling titles Smile, Sisters, and Guts (coming in Fall 2019, woo!), are all in fact Raina writing about Raina—that they are all childhood memoirs. Memoirs?! Yes indeed, some of the most popular, bestselling middle grade graphic novels being published are NONFICTION! The millions of Raina fans out there like nonfiction graphic novels because Raina has revealed parts of her childhood with artful imagination, and schools and parents everywhere are sure to want more titles that inspire children to express themselves through imagination. So not only are nonfiction graphic novels educational, but they are among some of the most popular graphic novels being published.