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Kid Lit Con Part 1: Reviewing Graphic Novels on September 29, 2012

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The pacemaker!, Digital ID 1190226, New York Public LibraryI was extremely excited when I heard that Kid Lit Con was coming to NYC this year, and that it was to be held in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building ("the library with the lions"). I could not have been happier. I do not travel much for conferences, so I was very happy to be able to experience a conference just for bloggers about children's literature. Thanks to Betsy Bird and NYPL for hosting the conference on September 29, 2012. Betsy Bird gave the official welcome. She said that blogging used to be considered the ultimate self-indulgence, but now it is simply what we read. Publishers are interested in what bloggers have to say. Blogging has not replaced print reviews, as was feared, but it supplements them.

The first panel that I attended was Reviewing Comics and Graphic Novels for Kids.

The panelists and audience members went around the table and introduced ourselves. One audience member said that she did not understand how to review art. Another audience member was considering writing graphic novels. There were quite a few school librarians in the group, and someone came from Tucson, Arizona.

The panelists included Janna Morishima, Dorothy O'Brien and Alex Simmons. Simmons has been in the comic book market for 12 years, and he has been a provisional writer for over 20 years. Morishima has been out of the publishing industry for a couple of years, but she was a former editor for Scholastic. She mentioned that graphic novels are an entirely different category of publishing that includes many genres. Graphic novels are a completely different way of telling a story, and all genres exist in comics. O'Brien mentioned a graphic novel Lio that is pantomime and includes no dialog. She mentioned that graphic novels and illustrated novels are completely different animals. An illustrated novel includes interspersed illustrations.

Any Genre Can Be a Graphic Novel

Morishima mentioned that you can organize graphic novels by genre and fiction and nonfiction, if you have a large collection of graphic novels.

Simmons mentioned that romance, westerns and superheroes also occur in comics.

An audience member mentioned that graphic novels seem like print versions of movies.

Morishima explained the difference between graphic novels and illustrated novels in this manner. She said that if you take the pictures away from an illustrated novel, you could still understand the story. However, if you omitted the pictures from a graphic novel, there is no way that you could understand the story. Visuals are essential in graphic novels. 

Comics or Graphic Novels?

Simmons mentioned that the term "graphic novel" sounds more sophisticated than the term "comics."

An audience member said that people sometimes interpret the term "graphic novel" differently. She had a parent say to her, "Oh my God; for my seven-year-old?"

Simmons said that ideally, text and images should work in sync in graphic novels. He has read online reviews by kids who have said that the text is terrific, but the illustrator can't draw to save his or her life. The two elements are supposed to work together, but sometimes it does not work out.

Art and Text

For Morishima, writing is paramount. She ended up writing a rejection letter for a children's graphic novel because she did not like the art. It turned out to be Baby Mouse. The art in that comic is a simplified child-like style of drawing, but it works for the story. This was an epiphany for her. There are many different styles of art in children's graphic novels, including art characteristic of what is typically utilized as illustrations in classic children's literature.

Simmons said that some kids love the art and are blown away by it.

Someone mentioned that Harry Potter was turned down by 13 publishing houses before it was published.

Morishima addressed the audience member who asked how to review art. Using Bone as an example, she explained how the artwork tells the story in conjunction with the dialog. In one passage, the characters are discussing where they are going, and we (the readers and audience) can see the evil character watching them. The color palette of the art can also affect the mood that audiences infer from the visual images. 

How to Review Graphic Novels

Simmons stated that the job of reviewers is to view the story and analyze what works and what does not work. Some art can irritate your eyes, and that is not be effective. Like some TV shows, some graphic novels have no dialog. The producers of the TV show he was thinking of were convinced the show would be a flop. However, the background music and pantomime sets the mood. Saying what is good and bad about a particular work of children's literature could be the way that educators discover materials and how to use them.

Morishima said that the term "graphic novel" is an upwardly mobile way to make graphic novels more palatable.

Simmons mentioned that the illustrations in illustrated novels are used to highlight the most effective points of the story, to accent certain moments. To him, comics is an okay word to use.

Morishima stated that since there is a bias against comics, the use of "graphic novels" as a term can help the situation.

An audience member mentioned that 30 years ago, there was a horrible bias against comics, and that the situation has improved since then.

Simmons said that comics are one more tool in the toolbox used to reach an audience (the students). It is important to realize their value and keep that tool in the box. Since fads exist, and graphic novels might currently be viewed as the "savior" to make kids read, it is vital to keep them alive and not let graphic novels die as a fad.

Nonfiction Graphic Novels

An audience member asked if the panelists could speak about nonfiction graphic novels.

Simmons said that nonfiction graphic novels can be relevant works. Some people belittle this, but they are real, valued ways to tell stories. Reviewers should write about what they like and dislike. Some material is not good, and we need to know about it.

O'Brien asked the panelists how they evaluate imagery.

Simmons said that literature is about the overall experience. He mentioned that DC Comics has a character in one of its books, Starfire, who is falling out of her costume at the beginning of a series. However, within a few months, there was a dramatic development. She was suddenly shagging (having sex with) any boy she came into contact with. Originally, the audience was middle grade girls, but the series shifted so dramatically, that the sequence of actions in the work was no longer relevant to its originally intended audience.

Morishima said that this is what made her leave traditional comic book publishers.

Simmons said that this is something that reviewers can address in their print or online reviews/blogs. If works are wonderful, reviewers should tell the public that, but he does not want reviewers to shy away from holding the industry to task about producing quality literature. Reviewing is about informing people of the good, bad, and the indifferent, and letting them be free to make their decisions based on that information.

Morishima said that she would like to see more scary books because kids love it. Horror and mystery are sadly underrepresented in comic books for kids.

Simmons mentioned that there seems to be a homogenizing influence on books. However, some kids do not wish to read manga (too much violence and sex). Some kids skip over the mainstream stuff. The industry can sometimes underestimate what stimulates a young mind and imagination. Kids read up a level, and good reviewers often make comparisons between and among two or more pieces of children's literature.

Graphic Novels Recommended by Panelists

An audience member asked if the panel could recommend the "best of the best" in children's graphic novels.

Morishima liked the Courtney Crumrin series, which is full of creepy things.

Simmons likes graphic classics. Graphic novelists have made adaptations of African American classics that are set in the 1920s to 1940s. He particularly likes one that is set in WWI in France. It consists of a dialog between a black and white soldier. Adaptations like that one create a lot of material that can be discussed.

Morishima likes humor, Dance Class by Beka and Crip (personally, I thought that there is too much drama and too little dance in that book, like in the TV show Dance Moms), and Aya. She also has a lot of recommendations for adults, including Stitches, etc.

An audience member mentioned that Owly is a wordless graphic novel. The graphic novel is done with wordless symbols, so that people think about and infer the context from the visual cues.

Graphic Novels for Kids

Kidlitsophere: The Society of Bloggers in Children's and Young Adult Literature

Future Children's Literary Salons

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