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Opinion: What is a graphic novel?

Esther Keller

When my students are crazed for books, it’s hard not to be overjoyed. Anything that keeps the kids reading! But I’ve been bothered lately that Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid is being called a comic or a graphic novel.  It’s not.  I even sat at work today, reading the third installment to prove myself wrong, but instead, I became even more convinced that this is a regular old illustrated book — though the cartoons are hilarious.

I looked up Graphic Novel in the Merriam Webster dictionary and saw that it defined it as follows: a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book.  It’s not the best definition Opinion: What is a graphic novel? of the format.  Others define it as story told in sequential art, which forces us to look up sequential art in the dictionary.  (Merriam Webster does not have a definition for sequential art.)  The bottom line: are the pictures and words telling a story together?  Are both absolutely interdependent?  Can one be enjoyed without the other?  (For the sake of this argument, I’m going to set aside wordless graphic novels, such as Robot Dreams, The Arrival and Owly.)  A strong graphic novel will use both the art and the words seamlessly, so that the reader needs both to drink in the experience.  I can’t imagine reading The Runaways without the pictures, and of course it wouldn’t make as much sense without the words.  And even though I am someone who leans towards the text, I couldn’t have enjoyed Jellaby without the images.  The story would not have been complete.

But when I picked up Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw this afternoon, I could have covered up all the pictures and read the book straight through.  The pictures add a lot to the story, but by no means are they integral to the story, nor are the text and cartoons interdependent. And this was definitely my feeling when I read the first volume a year or so ago.  The pictures make me laugh.  They make me pause – but often the pictures pull me out of the writing (not the story).  I could enjoy the pictures on a page of Time Magazine or I could enjoy them within the book. I could read the story without the pictures, and still laugh out loud.  Kinney has a great sense of humor.

So – why does Publisher’s Weekly list Diary of a Wimpy Kid Rodrick Rules as the #1 Comics best seller in January?  Why are so many news articles referring to the book as a comic?  Comic Book Resources links to it’s best selling status in USA Today – though USA Today doesn’t necessarily list it as a best selling comic.

To me, it doesn’t fit.  It feels like people are forcing the book into a category it doesn’t belong – sort of like forcing a square peg into a round hole – because it doesn’t neatly fit into any other category.  Rather than noting the author has created something unique and different, I feel like many are trying to force it into a category it doesn’t belong.
Oddly enough, in this NYT article – Kinney doesn’t describe himself as a cartoonist.  (Though I think he’s a fine cartoonist.)

By no means is this post meant to detract Kinney’s great work.  By no means is it meant to belittle his talent. In fact, I want to thank Mr. Kinney for giving me a glimpse into the lives of our middle school students.

I just had to take the opportunity and shout: This is not a graphic novel.
Thank you.  Enough said.

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Esther Keller About Esther Keller

Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. Her collection is also the model for all middle school libraries in NYC. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library, and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 3 and regularly reviews for SLJ, LMC. In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.

Comments

  1. J. Blair says:

    In the following USA Today article, Kinney himself calls his books “novels in cartoons”:

    http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2009-01-12-wimpy-kid_N.htm

  2. Esther Keller says:

    I read the article, but a novel in cartoons is not a graphic novel. Cartoons are singular drawings… a graphic novel is an entire story in sequential art.

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