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Roundtable: Dragon Ball and school libraries

Brigid: Anime News Network reports that a school library in Maryland removed the first volume of Dragon Ball from its shelves because a parent complained about nudity and sexual innuendo. If I recall correctly, the anime of Dragon Ball is more G-rated than the manga, and also Viz began editing that sort of thing out of the American edition in the later volumes, after a similar complaint.

This raises a lot of interesting questions: Was this particular challenge appropriate? How can librarians deal with a franchise where different media may be pitched at different age levels? (I believe this happens a lot with superheroes, where the movies are more kid-friendly than the comics they are based on.) What resources can librarians draw on to evaluate a series? And how can they keep incidents like this from giving all manga a bad name?

Esther:  I don’t feel comfortable saying whether or not this challenge is appropriate, because censorship is such a slippery road.  But as a school librarian, I know how important it is to have a strong collection development policy and procedures in place to deal with challenges.  As far as how the district is handling the challenge… it seems quite appropriate. They have a committee to review the book and to see if it fits into the collection development policy.  What further complicates this case is that the school in question serves both elementary age children and middle school.  I have enough issues dealing with the vast maturity difference between ages 11 and 14. I cannot imagine trying to deal with the difference between 6 and 14.  I wonder if this particular school had a separate graphic novel collection for the younger students and the older students.  There are titles appropriate for middle school that are not appropriate for an elementary school. If students have access to all part of the library, it will make librarians weary of buying those titles.

I do have concern about the title. I know when I first started developing my GN collection in 2003, I decided not to purchase Dragon Ball for my middle school library and was steered to Dragon Ball Z instead.  Out of curiosity, I looked up the two titles this morning in Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide.  His reviews list the age rating from Viz – 13+ for Dragon Ball and All ages for Dragon Ball Z.  But he also writes in his review that Dragon Ball contains violence, nudity, sexual humor while he only writes that Dragon Ball Z contains violence.  So perhaps this was an oversight or a purchasing error.  Perhaps this title doesn’t really belong in this particular school library.

While censorship is wrong, there is nothing wrong with looking at a purchase and saying, "Hey, I made a mistake. This doesn’t belong in my collection for reasons x, y or z."  I think that honesty makes us stronger librarians and I’ve done it on occasion in my school library.

Robin: One question I would ask is how long Dragon Ball has been in this particular library: if I recall correctly, many librarians who were interested in manga early on bought Dragon Ball very much because it was on television and many didn’t check that the content of the manga was appropriate for their collection.  I agree with what Esther says: There’s nothing wrong with looking at a book and realizing it isn’t actually appropriate for your collection and removing it. 

The problem with challenges like these is one, they’re public, and two, there are a lot more people involved now than just the librarian.  Whatever the librarian might’ve done if she or he had been consulted first (although from these stories, it’s unclear whether she or he was) is now unknowable, and it’s too bad that the parent with the concern didn’t take it to the librarian rather than a county council member.  Involving politicians in challenges never seems to make matters clearer, only more visible.

I too cannot say whether this challenge is justified—it very much depends on the local community, the entire collection, and what the librarian and school sees as appropriate.  School libraries are, of course, very different from public libraries and have different standards for collection development.  Generally, school librarians have more specific concerns related to the curriculums they support as well as the entertainment of their specific students.  I just recently presented at the Massachusetts School Library Association Annual Conference, and I am always very careful to give age and grade appropriateness ranges when I speak or give out book lists.

The main issues here, to me, are what they always are: education. School librarians need to educate themselves about the additions to their collections in terms of reading reviews and consulting other librarians when they’re not sure about a particular series. By the same token, however, we professional reviewers need to provide in depth, accurate reviews with school libraries’ interests in mind.  Many journals already do, including School Library Journal and Library Media Connection, but given the number of titles coming out, school librarians could always use more and more detailed reviews.  Some reviewers have difficulty getting across content that may be of concern—I know this myself from trying to indicate age level in a 200 word review—although all do their best.  The same is true in terms of educating selectors about the differences between media and graphic novels—we need to include that information in reviews.

I’ve had many librarians and school librarians bluntly ask me if there’s nudity in a graphic novel, and if so, what kind.  It’s not that these librarians will automatically not buy these series, but that they need to know what content is present to make those decisions.  I always try to err on the side of nonjudgmental content descriptions—i.e. that yes, there is a naked person—but not try to tell any selector who that’s appropriate for.  It changes given the story, and I trust school librarians to know their own communities and select well.

Eva: The most encouraging thing about the incident is that the school district appears to have a collection development policy and review process.  I agree with Robin that getting local politicians involved never really helps.  (And I’ve always wondered why a responsible public servant wouldn’t call the library to find out what was going on before taking the issue to a public meeting.)  In this case, the superintendent of schools just happened to be at the meeting and so was blindsided by the issue.  The Wicomico school district is lucky to have someone in the position who knows what graphic novels are and that they have a legitimate place on library shelves.
I do have the Dragon Ball series in my collection.  I work in a public library and our children’s department serves kids from birth through age 14, the same age-range served by ALSC.  Since my collection includes material for middle schoolers, and the middle schoolers in my area include children age 13 and 14, it is appropriate for the collection to include books rated 13+.  True, I don’t include many graphic novels rated 13+, because most really are more appropriate for high schoolers.  But in this case, I had so many requests for Dragon Ball that once VIZ released the series in affordable VIZBig editions, I could no longer put off adding the series.
One of the reasons I feel safe doing this is because my library has a strong collection development policy that includes a special section dealing with graphic novels.  Because graphic novels are a format and not a genre, just like audio/video materials or magazines, there needs to be wording in a library’s collection development policy that ensures a graphic novel won’t be pulled from a collection because of a single panel or image.  We also have wording that reminds parents that is up to them, not the library staff, to determine what is appropriate for their child to read.  That public libraries serve the entire community and not just a specific segment of the community.  School libraries, as Esther points out, don’t have this luxury.

Kate: The controversy points to a need for a more transparent rating system. Given manga’s popularity with young readers, manga publishers have a duty to inform parents, teachers, and librarians about the content in a consistent, clear fashion. Right now, Tokyopop is the only publisher that provides detailed explanations for its ratings, noting such things as the type of nudity in a series (sexual vs. non-sexual) and the intensity of the action (graphic vs. comic). Tokyopop’s rating system isn’t perfect, but it’s an instructive model for other manga publishers, many of whom use even vaguer, more subjective language in explaining why a series earned a particular rating, e.g. "Language, Violence." I’d love to see other companies follow suit; perhaps they could develop a common set of standards similar to those used by the Motion Picture Association of America. A more detailed rating system isn’t a cure, and it won’t prevent these kind of challenges, but knowing that a series earned a Teen rating for crude sexual humor makes it easier for a librarian unfamiliar with the franchise to make an informed decision about where to shelve it. It also makes it easier to point to that information and say to an angry parent, "This book is clearly labeled."

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.


  1. moritheil says:

    In my October 7 article at Anime Diet, I discuss how Councilman Holloway’s public record indicates that he has often attempted to cut funding for schools and libraries. This comes just as he is attempting to convince voters that a new library is not needed.

    Whether or not Dragonball manga should be in school libraries is a topic that merits debate on its own, but interested parties should know that this furor is being cultivated for the sake of achieving a political agenda.

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    I couldn’t find enough information on Councilman Holloway to make an informed statement about his role in the controversy, so I focused my comments on the bigger issue: how libraries deal with challenges. From what I was able to find, however, your observation seems right. The words Holloway chose to describe the offending panels in “Dragonball” implied that the series was pornographic — a gross and, frankly, silly distortion of the characters’ behavior.

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