This sounds crazy, but it's true: The Charlotte-Mecklenburg library's Michele Gorman teaches other librarians how to read books.
Not just any books, but graphic novels – the book form of a format better known as comics.
Once regarded as junk literature aimed at teenage boys, a new generation of sophisticated visual stories has transformed that old image. The New York Times reviews graphic novels. Libraries covet them to attract young readers. And annual sales are climbing: In the U.S. and Canada, they grew five-fold from 2001 to 2007, to $375 million.
Charlotte's Novello Festival of Reading now regularly includes graphic novelists. On Friday, authors Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic”) and Harvey Pekar (“American Splendor”) appear together at ImaginOn.
But lots of people – especially older readers – still don't get the graphic novel concept. That's partly because the term itself is misleading. “Graphic novel” is a catch-all for any books whose stories are told with words and drawings – nonfiction, science fiction, humor, memoir, whatever.
Also, you've got to shift mental gears to read a graphic novel.
“So many librarians just read the words,” says Gorman, who gives workshops on using graphic novels to promote literacy. The images are essential. Skip them, and you miss key story elements.
Though magazine-style comics have been around since the 1930s, the term “graphic novel” gained currency in the late '70s when Will Eisner used it to describe his “Contract With God,” a book of short stories depicting 1930s tenement life in the Bronx.
“In its original usage, it was talking about content – comics that could tell a story as rich as a prose novel,” says Milton Griepp, president of Icv2, an online publication that covers pop culture trade news.
In 1992, the graphic-novel format got a big shot of legitimacy when Art Spiegelman's “Maus: A Survivor's Tale,” won a Pulitzer Prize. The book, which depicts Jews as mice and Germans as cats, recounts his father's struggles to survive the Holocaust as a Polish Jew.
Since then, writers have used the format for every kind of story. Superhero, fantasy and horror tales remain popular. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Scarlet Letter” have been retold in graphic novels. “The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaption” melds art and journalism.
The library's graphic novel collection has grown 25 percent since 2007, while circulation has climbed 36 percent.
Lots of that circulation growth comes from children and teens who check out these books by the armful. Popular titles include Jeff Smith's “Bone” series and Gene Yang's “American Born Chinese,” which won the 2007 Printz Award for outstanding young adult novel.
Also popular, of course, are the Japanese comic books known as manga. In ImaginOn's graphic novel section, you'll see regulars such as Juan Arroyo, 16. He zips through manga books, which read from back to front and right to left. Before he discovered manga, he says, “I didn't like to read at all.”
Memoirs … with pictures
This year's Novello graphic novelists, Pekar and Bechdel, are both memoirists.
Pekar's “American Splendor” series, written by him and drawn by various artists, has chronicled his battle with cancer, family issues and daily life in his hometown of Cleveland. It became a movie in 2003, joining the swelling ranks of comics-turned-films, including “The Dark Knight,” “Persepolis,” “Road to Perdition,” and, coming this spring, “Watchmen.”
Bechdel's “Fun Home” centers on her coming of age as a lesbian and her married-but-closeted gay father, a high school teacher and funeral director. (The book's title refers to the family's nickname for the funeral parlor.)
She worked on the book for seven years, creating what she calls “quasi-realistic” drawings from family photos, letters, maps and her own adolescent journal entries. When she didn't have an old family photo to use, she says, “I would pose myself for most of the characters I had to draw, and take a quick digital photo.”
Those drawings, hand in hand with her prose, tell a rich, complex story. “There's so much being communicated in the pictures you don't have to spell out,” she says. “I want people to read the images the way that they read the text.”
Bechdel hadn't expected critical success. “Part of why I became a cartoonist was it was a low-brow, low-pressure world,” she says. “I wasn't interested in competing as a literary writer or fine artist.”
But the book, named one of Time's best books of 2006, was well timed. “It caught the graphic novel wave at the right moment. And because it was a kind of literary story, it got the attention of more literary critics.”
Where to start
Despite that success, Bechdel says she still has friends who examine a page of panels in “Fun Home” and ask: What do I read next?
If you're new to graphic novels, she suggests finding one that matches your interests. No need to start with manga if your tastes lean to literary fiction.
When Gorman, the library's teen services coordinator, holds graphic novel workshops, she counsels teachers and librarians to change their ideas about reading.
“You have to let go of that preconceived notion,” she says, “that looking at the pictures is somehow less than reading.”