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Great Graphic Novels for Teens

The 2010 Great Graphic Novels for Teens (GGNT) list was posted in middle of January.  After spending 2 years on the committee – I know how much effort and work goes into reading, discussing, and selecting the titles.  Even so, it’s still a lot of fun to dissect the “best of” lists when they’re posted.  So I turned to my GC4K friends and asked:
So… Which of the titles on your list is your favorite? Which title makes you go, huh? And which title do you wish you saw on this list?

Brigid: The list covers an amazingly wide age range. I would think Animal Academy and The Secret Science Alliance would appeal to rather young kids, while The Photographer would be a stretch even for older teens. That said, I don’t see how some of the older titles would have much teen appeal. Could high-school students really relate to the working college graduates in solanin? That seems like a phase of life that’s more interesting once you have gone through it yourself.

I was happy to see Green Manors on the list. I read the first volume and really liked it, and I’d like to see it get more readers. But that raises another question, one for the librarians—does this list reflect what teens are reading or what grownups think they should be reading?

Esther: Brigid, it’s true, the list covers quite the age span, but YALSA’s mission is to serve teens between the ages of 12 & 18.  Grades 7-12.  That in itself is a big span of years. So it’s a bit odd to see some younger titles with the more mature titles listed together. In addition, books published for adults (like say – Stitches!) but with teen appeal, could make the list.  (I believe Stitches was a nomination, but it didn’t make the final list.  I wish I could have been there to see that title discussed.)

Each year, I wish I could see more Graphic Nonfiction, but in truth the amount of graphic nonfiction that’s being published (and is Great!) doesn’t compare to the amount of graphic fiction that’s being published.  I was really excited to see Gettysburg.  I know the book wasn’t perfect, but the use of color and the intensity of the book was quite gripping.

I really fell in love with Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane: Sophmore Jinx. This was another title that didn’t make the final cut, and I can probably see why. But I loved the artwork. I got a real sense of Spider-Man’s age just from the artwork.  And the story was a lot of fun too!

One of the books that made it that I didn’t love – Orange by Benjamin. I thought the story was raw, but I just didn’t get it. I didn’t feel any connection with the characters. I suspect, though I don’t know, that this book was pushed to the list on the merit of the artwork, because that was outstanding!

There are probably more titles on the list I did not read than titles I did read – though quite a few titles that are sitting on my night table on the “to read” pile. Like Night School, Oz, Crogan’s Adventures and a whole lot more. I was trying to keep up with the nominations, but it’s a pretty difficult task when you’re on the committee, it’s nearly impossible when you’re not.

Brigid: As an adult, I didn’t care for Orange; I agree that the story was not well told and I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for the characters. But I do think that it would click with a lot of teens who feel isolated and detached from the world around them. So that’s an example of a book that kids may like better than adults (although I do think the art is stunning).

Esther: I wasn’t trying to read Orange from a Teen perspective. If I still had it on hand, I would re-read again.  But I agree, the themes and the mood will resonate with teens.  But for me, the storytelling was clunky and awkward and that was why I couldn’t connect.

Kate: I agree with Brigid: the committee did an excellent job of catering to a variety of tastes and reading levels, balancing the broccoli titles (i.e. educational, worthy books that are good for you) with the chocolate cake. As with any list, there are a few titles that surprised me, either because I thought they weren’t very good — the shojo X-Men manga comes to mind — or that they lacked teen appeal. Ooku: The Inner Chambers falls into the second category, as its Masterpiece Theater-meets-Kurosawa vibe seemed like something that a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old might not appreciate, especially if he or she didn’t know much about feudal Japan. The faux-archaic language, too, seems like something that would invite more giggles than thoughtful discourse on, say, the Tokugawa class system. (I admit to giggling, and I’m 37!) I also wondered about the inclusion of the Color of Earth trilogy. As with solanin, I think Color of Earth works best for readers who’ve lived through the various life stages depicted in the series. I found the mother’s story, for example, much more powerful than Ehwa’s, in large part because I’m about her age. That certainly doesn’t preclude teen interest; I adored watching Laura Ingalls Wilder grow up over the course of the Little House on the Prairie books, though These Happy Golden Years didn’t interest me nearly as much as the earlier installments.

That said, this is a great list. I was delighted to see so many girl-positive titles, from more obvious candidates like Kimi no Todoke: From Me to You and Otomen to books like I Kill Giants and Children of the Sea. And I was delighted to see than fun didn’t get the shaft, either — I know I was more excited about Secret Trashy Forbidden Books than Great Literature when I was fifteen, and it’s refreshing to see that the committee acknowledged teens’ need for escapism and fun, too.

Robin: Like Esther, I remember well the massive amount of work (and good-natured arguing) that goes into creating any selection list.  The Great Graphic Novels for Teens List is always a bit of a tough one.  Neither popularity or literary quality are the ultimate decider, so it’s some combination of the two, and deciding if it’s great can mean looking at a lot of different factors.  Deciding if it’s for teens can also be a great struggle, and requires many librarians to one, step outside their own adult point of view, and two, seek out opinions from today’s teens about whether these titles are appealing.

I sat in on many of the final discussions at ALA Midwinter, and as I remember from my own time on the Committee, the discussions were lively and full of committee members presenting their points in favor or against titles making the list.  On many titles, it’s clear right away that it will make the list, but there are quite a few that make it on (or fall off) by only one vote, and that’s where the discussions get the most heated (and interesting.)

Every year there are titles that appeal to the 17-18 year olds at the older end of the range, and this year is no exception.  On solanin, for example, I think of that book as being appealing to those older teens.  While they are in college, and thus struggling with corporate jobs and the ennui of losing track of your dreams, the greater themes of music, friends, and deciding what dreams are important enough to pursue are just as intriguing to older teens as they are to the people who’d live through their twenties.  I was happy to see it make the list, as I think it deserves recognition, and I can already think of a few teens I need to pass it to.

Ooku is one I had the same feeling about: I had no idea if it would appeal to teens or not, and I was leaning towards not.  However, when I heard part of the discussion on the title, many of the librarians reported positive feedback from teens, and I myself just had a teen who fell in love with it (and she was fourteen.)  So, there is appeal there, and it’s one of those titles that may not be for every teen, but is for some of them.  Great Graphic Novels always tries for diversity, and I think they achieved that in spades this year.  I especially like the Top Ten — it shows the full spectrum of what teens read.

Lori: I was happy to see a lot of manga titles on the list, and not just the hot button titles.  Pluto, Children of the Sea, and Kimi ni Todoke are all great titles that don’t make it to the New York Times Bestseller List, even though they should.  It’s great to see these titles getting some recognition.  Scanning through the list, I noticed that there were a lot of adaptations of novels, something that I’m a big fan of.  Graphic adaptations can draw kids into titles they might not have given a second look before.  Ender’s Game, Fahrenheit 451, and the Twilight Zone story Death’s Head Revisited are great science fiction stories.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the Wonderful Wizard of Oz are classic stories that are worth reading no matter the format.   I really like to see more of these adaptations, and titles like Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle that are side stories to novels that might draw teens into the novel’s universe and start picking up them up as well.

Brigid: Let me ask the librarians a question: What effect does this list have on the world at large? Will it increase sales of these books to libraries? Has anyone ever documented that that happens? Is the list ever marketed directly to teens themselves, as suggestions for what to read next?

Esther: Brigid, that’s a great question. I don’t have any hard facts. But in general, librarians use these list to help guide the selection. So making one of YALSA’s book lists can be very beneficial to sales. Robin is our figures lady. Perhaps she has some answers to that one.

Robin: To answer your questions as best I can, Brigid, I will start with wider impact.  I do know that our lists cause an increase in sales, especially to libraries.  With over 120,000 libraries in the country, that’s not a small increase.  I don’t have exact figures, but I have heard from industry folks at Diamond Comics Distributors that our lists move books while, for example, the Harvey Awards (and other industry lists) don’t nearly as much.

The most specific example I heard of directly from Dan Buckley, President and Publisher of Marvel Enterprises, while speaking at the ICv2 Graphic Novel Industry Summit in early 2009 before New York Comic-Con.  We were discussing a variety of topics concerning all aspects of the industry, and he told me (and the crowd) that the librarians endorsement of Runaways on our first Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and the resulting sales, is what kept that series alive.  Runaways had been in danger of being canceled.  I can’t think of a better demonstration of the impact of our list.

The lists are used by librarians as selection tools, and so they definitely inform librarians on what to purchase next.  I know that I go through all of the awards lists during February every year and make sure I’ve purchased the bulk of the titles.  I count on the fact that those recommendations are solid, and I love that I can go through and be reminded of titles I might have missed.  With this year’s Great Graphic Novels list, there are a number that were not on my order that I’m going to immediately purchase, including I Kill Giants, the Ender adaptations (I have one, but not the other) and The Helm.

I also use this list (as I do all the awards lists) in my recommendation book.  I keep the last few years of recommendation lists in a big binder, and I use it all year long to jog my memory of titles when patrons come to ask me questions.  I also have that same binder at our Reference desk, so my colleagues can refer to it when I’m not around, as well as for patrons to use in the Teen Room.

Snow: I can say from my own experience that I’ve seen that librarians, parents, and teachers are responsive to all of the YALSA lists. I’ve used them a lot with parents who want help knowing what’s out there for teens, titles that their teen might enjoy. Because the lists are so wide-ranging in both age and subject matter, there’s something for everyone on a YALSA list somewhere. I have also seen librarians and school teachers use the list as a way to make sure that they are aware of the titles that are out there for teens, titles that have been looked over by librarians and teens and said to be popular or quality or both. It’s impossible to keep up with all the titles published each year for the 12-18 year-old set, so having the YALSA lists allows librarians and teachers to spot titles they may have missed. That’s especially important for those titles published by smaller presses, the ones that might not know how to market to librarians and teachers. Teens are not necessarily the main users of these types of lists, it’s true, but they do respond when asked about what titles should be on the lists and that information is seriously considered by the committees making the lists. Sure there are titles on there that may not be for every teen, but there’s at least one teen who will respond to that particular title, which is why it makes the list and why the lists are useful to parents, librarians, and teachers.

Esther: Thanks all for the chat!

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 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.


  1. I’m looking for graphic novels with Latino/a characters. Any suggestions?

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    Have you checked out “Blue Beetle” (Keith Giffen; DC Comics)? Jaime Reyes, a.k.a. Blue Beetle, is one of the very few Latino superheroes that I can think of. You might also look at Frederick Luis Aldama’s “Your Brain on Latino Comics” (University of Texas) as an additional resource for finding more comics featuring Latino characters.

  3. Chris Schweizer says:

    Jessica Abel’s “La Perdida” is about a half-Mexican girl trying to discover her heritage. The book is a little heavy for a young teen, in terms of content, but might be really good for a late teen or young adult.

    Also the “Love and Rockets” series has truly excellent segments. My favotie is “The Death of Speedy,” found in the second volume of the “Locas” set from Fantagraphics books.

  4. Robin Brenner says:

    Rene Montoya (of Gotham Central and a variety of Batman titles, who is now The Question) is also a great character. Kyle Raynor (Green Lantern) is half-Mexican and half-Irish. Angel Salvatore is in the X-Men universe and first appeared in New X-Men. Also Angela del Toro became The White Tiger after her uncle, Hector Ayala, so both of them count.

    I also totally agree about Blue Beetle and Love and Rockets. Although they’re very different, they’re strong titles.

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