Cathy Camper “gets” kids. She’s an author, illustrator, and librarian with a pulse on children’s literature.
Above all, she’s an avid yet discerning reader.
Cathy, what’s right about childrens literature?
Graphic novels! When the concept of graphic novels emerged in the 1980s and 90s, childrens publishers raced to jump on the bandwagon. There was much confusion about how graphic novels and comics differed, (there still is!), and lots of children’s publishers slapped together horrible comics compilations, or cartoon stories that read like B-grade Classics Illustrated comics, just to get something out there they could call a graphic novel. Shrewder children’s publishers, who had a deeper understanding of how illustrated stories worked, bankrolled their futures by hiring talented illustrators and writers in both the adult and children’s comics field to create full-length children’s works. They also scoped out books that were successful in Europe and Asia for translation and reissue in the U.S.
But good art takes time, sometimes decades, especially when an artist is committed to several projects at once. Now, twenty to thirty years later, this investment has paid off. Many of the graphic novels published today are amazing. Publishers like First Second are releasing original works and translations of high quality. Francoise Mouly’s Toon Books have come up with one of the freshest innovations in easy readers in decades —comics with a limited vocabulary. Mouly also imported from comics another innovation to the world of kids’ books. She encourages writer/illustrator partners to create together, recognizing this kind of creative collaboration is often richer and more fruitful than an editor-assigned partnership. Innovative authors and illustrators are also exploring the variety of just what a graphic novel can be. Books like Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Arrival by Shaun Tan and Mo Willems We Are in a Book all stretch the meaning of what a book is, and enhance literacy skills by demanding readers read the book’s images as well as the text.
And finally, young creators, who grew up reading graphic novels, can now major in the creation of these same books in art school. Its an exciting time to be creating, reading, and watching the graphic novel as it finds its place in American literature.
2. What can be done to make that good better?
While women and people of color are breaking down barriers and finding a voice in a field that was formerly limited to mainly white males, there is a sad lack of graphic novels for kids of color, especially graphic novels starring kids of non-white backgrounds.
For example, this is glaringly true when trying to find graphic novels for young black readers. Three recent titles, all of them good, make my point. Yummy; The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Greg Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke, fascinates middle-schoolers with its true tale of an eleven-year-old murderer but, in doing so, it also reiterates many of the stereotypes about black males perpetuated on the nightly news. African American Classics edited by Tom Pomplun pairs classic African-American writers with comics illustrators, but its historical content (including the use of dialect) place it more in the realm of a school book than a pleasure read. Best Shot in the West; the Adventures of Nat Love by Pat McKissack, illustrated by Randy DuBurke seems like it should be a winner, telling the tale of the famous African American cowboy also known as Deadwood Dick. Sadly, DuBurke’s illustrations lack the immediacy of the work he did for Yummy. Readers rarely make eye-contact with Love’s face, (even on the cover of the book), distancing them emotionally from their subject, as if reading about historical ghosts, not flesh and blood cowboys. The technique might work for an adult book, but young readers need a more visceral connect.
While all three individually are high-quality books, without graphic novels showing regular kids of color doing regular things, they create their own stereotypes, limiting the role people of color play to either troublemakers or remote historical role models.
I think of kids of color I see choosing graphic novels at the library, for example, the middle school Somali girls voraciously reading their way through manga series like Fruits Basket. And I ask myself when will we see Diary of a Wimpy Kid starring someone wearing a hijab? No, really! My hope is, when these kids grow up, maybe a few of them will create a brilliant new form of Somali-manga, an exciting merging of comics and non-white experience that could only happen in America. I, for one, can’t wait to read it.
Cathy Camper wrote Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives, a nonfiction book that opens big possibilities for readers. She is a person with many hats: musician, robot artist, author, librarian, award-winning seed artist, reviewer, and reader. Learn more at www.cathycamper.com.