Plea for graphic novels to remain free charges up Comic Con

burning bookLike the fictional superheroes who inhabited the recent New York Comic Con, Deborah Caldwell-Stone was there to fight injustice: Attempts to ban graphic novels from libraries are threatening to choke off free access to the books. "There are kids who don't have the resources to go to," Caldwell-Stone, the deputy director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, told WalletPop after a speech urging librarians to take action.

Challenges to graphic novels -- the majority made by parents on supposed moral grounds -- involve hundreds of titles annually in some of the nation's 15,000 library systems. Many do not succeed, but bad publicity can "have a chilling effect," Caldwell-Stone said. Some parents might deny their children a graphic novel simply based on what they heard. Some authors might begin to tailor their vision for fear of being censored. Bad for business all-around.
The graphic novel, basically a long-form comic book, isn't cheap. WalletPop cruised the aisles of Comic Con and found books ranging from $10 to $30 and more. I know many comfortable families who don't want to shell out that kind of money under any circumstance. The stakes are bigger in rural small towns, where residents generally have less to buy books
or mount a first-amendment legal fight, Caldwell-Stone said.

It's not just free books (a primary concern of WalletPop) and freedom of speech that are endangered, the speaker said. Graphic novels also attract reluctant readers who would perhaps abandon reading without them.

Caldwell-Stone emphasized that she isn't out to squelch a difference of opinion; she just doesn't want any one parent or group that objects to the content of a certain book to speak for others.

She pointed to a few prominent cases:
  • A Halsey, Oregon, mother issued a formal request to ban Bunny Suicides, a darkly humorous graphic novel recommended by the American Library Association for middle school students. She refused to return the book checked out by her son and threatened to burn it.
  • In Nicholasville, Ky., library workers kept checking out Black Dossier to keep the public from reading it. One said she had people pray over her while she read it so the images would not become burned in her head.
  • In Marshall, Mo., a group mounted a fight to have Fun Home, an award-winning, coming-of-age story about a lesbian, stricken from the shelves.

Every form of comics has been under siege at some point, Caldwell-Stone pointed out, reaching a high-water mark with psychiatrist Frederic Wertham's anti-comic rant, Seduction of the Innocent, in the mid-50s. Graphic novels sometimes don't get respect as a literary form, either, even though it's a genre that has generated a Pulitzer Prize winner, the Holocaust tale Maus, and other well-regarded bestsellers such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Graphic novels have also been converted into live-action film dramas like A History of Violence.

Librarians received advice from Caldwell-Stone on how to challenge the challenges and keep books gratis: Instead of dumping graphic novels into one lump category, divide them by separate children, young adult and adult sections. Promote parental involvement in what kids read. Provide a legitimate, official outlet for protests. Beef up the selection with inspirational graphic novels so all readers have a choice. Finally, use promotional displays to tout the best graphic novels. Authors who usually reap a small royalty from a library purchase will be more motivated to get their books into the library knowing that a larger audience awaits -- one that will want to own the works.

And for those who simply can't afford them, the graphic novels will remain in the stacks as they were intended: absolutely free.
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