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ALA 2012, Graphic Novels, and Literacy: A Chat with the Inimitable John Shableski

It’s been ten years already—that’s how long ago dedicated graphic novel programming was first introduced at the ALA Annual Conference. And with such programming now more robust than ever, it makes sense that this anniversary is being capped in a special way: with the first-ever Will Eisner Graphic Novel Prize for Libraries, which will be awarded to three libraries this Sunday afternoon in Anaheim.

Helping launch and promote the event is John Shableski, a name that will be familiar to many of you in the graphic-novels-in-libraries community. A key proponent of the medium’s place in both K-12 and higher education, Shableski has created professional development sessions/strands not only for ALA, but at Miami Book Fair International, New York Comic Con, Comic-Con International, Book Expo America, and the Texas Library Association—oh, and he also happened to be a judge for the 2009 Eisner Awards.

On a personal note, he first introduced me to the editors at School Library Journal and has always been enormously helpful regarding my own classroom teaching. So it was a real pleasure to chat with him and get a kind of “state of the union” update on where graphic novels are these days…

Let’s start by clarifying something that I was initially confused by—this year’s inaugural event is more of acknowledgement of how librarians have helped transform graphic novel readership over the last decade, right? Anyone can enter the competition…?

The Will Eisner Graphic Novel Prize for Libraries is actually the collection of titles nominated for the Eisner Awards which are held each year in July following the ALA summer conference. In a way, the prize is a big “thank you” to the librarian community that made it possible for the category to grow. Because librarians championed the category in many ways, it made it possible for more great stories to be published.

With this Eisner prize for the libraries, it is currently a basic enter-to-win scenario where any library can win and benefit from the collection and additional funds allotted to buy more graphic novels and host a graphic novel author event. It would be a great prize for any library who may not have much of a graphic novel collection or the funding to grow a collection at this time.

[Note: “Librarians attending the ALA Convention in Anaheim can register to win the prize at the Reading With Pictures/Will & Ann Eisner Family Foundation booth (#788). The three winning libraries will be announced at 4pm on Sunday, June 24th on the Graphic Novel Stage in the convention hall.” —from the press release of June 8]

But eventually the prize will be more merit-based in some way?

Next year the program will include a prize for libraries who demonstrate the most effective and enthusiastically supported graphic novel programming.

Great—that will be really interesting to follow. My concern is that while librarians deserve a huge amount of recognition when it comes to graphic novels, two things might be conflated:  commercial success and cultural acceptance. So should there be a sharper distinction between celebrating a new, and great, type of art and literature… and helping “grow the category”? After all, how many copies do poetry books sell?

I can agree with you about great art and literature, but the graphic novel format brings something quite different to the table. These books are bringing new readers into the library in greater numbers than poetry ever did. This is not to say that poetry doesn’t belong on the shelf but it will benefit from the traffic that graphic novels bring to the library. As you know there are some great graphic adaptations of classic poetry that make these works more accessible to readers who would otherwise never have paid attention to them.

Maybe the graphic form is essentially the next logical step in communicating the written word?

Hmmm, I don’t know about that, but let me ask something that’s sure to be of interest to readers: how do school librarians fit into all of this?

It seems that the school librarian market for graphic novels is growing in some unpredictable ways. You have librarians who have always known the value of the format (and the comics medium) but may have been prevented by an administrator from purchasing the books for their collections. Now those same librarians are in positions where they have become the decision-makers and are adding graphic content on their own. There are also those librarians who are relatively new to the idea of adding graphic novels to their collections but have begun building collections because they hear anecdotal stories about challenged and reluctant readers discovering their library.

This is a personal confession, I guess, but when I first met you five years ago I hoped that the popularity of GNs in public libraries and then school libraries would eventually lead to a greater classroom presence. But it seems that things got stalled on the classroom threshold apart from a very small handful of titles, almost like exceptions that prove the rule. Am I being too cynical, though? Will graphic narratives ever be widely used in K-12 curricula?

I can understand the cynicism and I think we may have been looking in the wrong places because there have been some amazing developments taking place that, individually, wouldn’t make a great deal of sense but when you view them from a higher altitude, you can see where the elements of the storm are coming together. Five years ago, we didn’t really have a lot of great content to work with but that has been changing.  While Scholastic led the field with some great books, there were also Lerner, Rosen, Capstone and a few others who were steadily increasing the number of titles in their catalogs each year. Lerner and Capstone have both made serious changes in their editorial programs where they are hiring qualified comics creators, writers and editors which is very evident in the books they have on display at the shows.

This change in editorial also coincides with the growing acceptance in the classroom libraries and with those teachers who are looking for books that engage kids.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Wimpy Kid effect.”  While comics aficionados may scoff at the idea of calling Diary of a Wimpy Kid a graphic novel, it’s the buyers in the school districts who are responding to the overwhelming demand for the series.  Teachers can’t get enough of the books to put into the hands of kids. More specifically, into the hands of boys who were not interested in reading for any reason, much less for fun. And when you see media coverage about the hundreds of millions of dollars that the series has hauled in for Abrams (the publisher) it makes the rest of the traditional houses sit up and take notice, and then sprint to the next comics convention in search of anything else that kids will demand to read.

The next critical element in all of this? Reading specialists. When we see the formation of a group of reading specialists along the lines of the ALA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee, then the game is really going to hit a new gear. There are thousands of papers written by incredible minds with just about any university you can think of that espouse the benefits of the comics medium and graphic format—and that is wonderful. It’s the voices of those in the trenches that will really blow this up.

Remember, the librarians have been talking about the value of graphic novels as reading for almost two decades but the directors didn’t really start listening until the conversation shifted to the impact on circulation.

The reading specialists will have a similar impact because they will have first-hand reports on the changes they see with the way struggling/challenged and recovering readers discover a joy of reading through the comics medium.

I used to love how you’d talk about the cultural emergence of graphic novels as paralleling or echoing the rise of rock ‘n roll in the 1950s. But if that’s true, what stage are we at now? 1967 and “Sgt. Pepper,” or later maybe?

In a way, this is very much like the mid to late ‘60s for the rock and roll parallel. There are a lot of great and very influential elements coming together, opening doors for a whole host of new talent and it’s also creating opportunities for well established artists to create new stories. Not only do we have the growth of the independent houses but there is also an incredible global web community of creators rising up. These artists have some brilliant platforms to present their works without the interference of the traditional gate-keepers.  Take a look at web communities like and you will see some of the most incredible talent and stories…this is where the next generation of talent will be found.  These artists are also learning how to be brilliant at using social media to promote their works.

About the only thing really needed in the mix is a solid core of well-trained comics editors. Like the prose world, stories in the comics medium rarely come out perfectly formed and there’s a serious need for editors who speak the language of comics.

The Beatles were a great band, yes. But without the help of their brilliant producer George Martin, they would have only been a good band.  He was the “editor” who made them a great band.

And to continue on the rock and roll theme, there will be a lot of little comics publishers who rise and fall overnight, taking with them some amazing stories. The reason for the failure? These publishers are creators and fans but not business people. There is an art to combining art and business and only a very few have that figured out.

Thanks so much for your time, John. Anything else ALA attendees should know about graphic novels at the conference?

It’s wonderful to see ALA celebrating the 10th anniversary of the arrival of graphic novel programming at the summer conference. So much has been accomplished in those ten years. I also tip my hat to folks like Tina Coleman who has worked endlessly to keep graphic novel programming moving forward at the ALA shows. Like the Great Graphic Novels for Teens librarians, Tina’s contribution is incredible.

In particular, I’ll be on a panel about the connection between the Eisner Awards and the Library World on Saturday afternoon with Robin Brenner, Eva Volin and Mike Pawuk (all Eisner Judges) and Jackie Estrada, the Eisner Awards Administrator from Comic-Con International: San Diego. Our session is at 4:00 PM on the Graphic Novel Stage.

Oh, and do not forget to hit the Artist Alley where you’ll find an amazing gathering of very talented comics creators!

About Peter Gutierrez