It has been quite an exciting year so far for graphic novels. On January 4, 2016 Gene Luen Yang was appointed as the Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (NY Times article). Then on Monday, January 11, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson was an honoree for the Newbery.
What do these events have in common? Aside from the whole graphic novel thing?
1. Both authors write great books for middle grade kids. 2. Both were able to connect with readers by creating fun, complex and fully realized characters. 3. Both are mis-and-under-represented people who have found a voice in the overwhelmingly, almost laughably White-male business of publishing.
Why does that matter? If you are unfamiliar with issues around books and representation take a few minutes to get up to speed, or at least begin the learning journey — look here (We Need Diverse Books), here (Melinda Lo on LGBTQ representation), and here (Lee and Lo in BookRiot).
Look, we all know the history of comics and graphic novels. Comic books have long been considered the territory of boys, White boys in particular. But, the truth is comics and graphic novels have an audience that reaches beyond gender and race barriers. According to on study done by The Beat (Schenker,2014) of nearly 24 million comics fans, 47% self-identified as female. That is just under half … which means around 11,280,000 women – who bothered to respond to a survey – are reading comics in one form or another. That’s a lot of people who are not men.
“So what?” you might ask. “What’s the big deal about some girls reading some books?” Well, for one thing, although graphic novels are probably the most diverse areas of children’s literature, it is still hugely, predictably, and programmatically White, male and straight. “But, what about Gene and Roller Girl?!?! You just said that things are exciting and new!” You might be saying. And, if you follow book news, you might also add, “Last Stop on Market Street‘s Newbery win. What about THAT!?!” And yes, things are moving but instead of sitting back — basking in the collective glory of recognition of great books written by and about women and people of color. I’m willing to bask for a minute, but I intend on seizing the moment. I am working hard on raising awareness about issues of representation, trying to build tools, and theory to help educators critically examine and talk about these books with each other and with our students.
I have been working on ways to help readers try and focus the ways people who are traditionally under-or mis-represented are used and read in graphic novels. This isn’t about ignoring or replacing traditional literary analysis or evaluation. Rather, it is looking at who and how people are represented in ADDITION to literary qualities.
One way to focus on representations comes from Alison Bechdel author of Dykes to Watch Out For, Fun Home, and Are you My Mother. The Bechdel Test highlights if women appear as functioning characters in movies and books using 3 simple questions,
- Are there two named female characters?
- Do they speak to each other?
- About something other than a man or men?
That’s it. That is not a lot to ask of the media that we see every day, and it really isn’t much to ask of the media our kids see. You can also ask the same questions about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer characters or people of color. This (unbelievably) low bar does not address the quality or fullness of characters that are either under-or mis-represented people. And, it certainly does not get at the images used in graphic novels to, literally, represent these people. So, I am proposing my own Jiménez Character Scale to focus a readers attention on a character’s authenticity or “roundness”. Think about a characters that stayed with you after you closed the book … I’ll wait here …. Do you have one? Good.
What made that character believable? Did they have complicated motivations that made sense within the book? Did they change? Where they complex and sometimes even contradictory? Were they more than a single behavior or look or emotion? More than a collection of stereotypes or simple tropes for the main character to bounce off? Could you imagine them existing before the events of the book ? And do they continue on after the events in the book are resolved?
And, because I am reading and writing about graphic novels, there needs to be a way to address the ways physical appearences are handled in these books. Think of it as a Physicality Scale that goes from Barbie to Actual Possible Person.
In addition, we need to seriously look at the sexualization of women and girls in graphic novels. I’m not saying women can’t be sexual or shouldn’t be sexual, but is that all we are? Do female characters in graphic novels need an hour glass figure and cleavage? Are come-hither looks, ripped and revealing clothes all we have? And, why is whiteness the overwhelming norm?
These are some of the questions I am asking. This is where I am going in my reading and my research. Hope you come along for the ride.