Free Comic Book Day is Saturday, May 5, 2018! More and more libraries are taking the opportunity to partner with local comic shops and foster young readers’ introduction to (or continuing fascination with) comic books. Comics, however, can be a complicated subject when it comes to issues of intellectual freedom. The format has a long history of being frowned upon by gatekeepers and educators, and even as children’s comics have become more mainstream with standout creators like Raina Telgemeier, Gene Luen Yang, Victoria Jamieson, and Jennifer Holm, they still can attract undue amounts of controversial attention. Due to the visceral impact that visual artwork can have, titles which receive complaints of inappropriate content can often be reclassified or even removed with little fanfare, where similar complaints against text-only books might be handled differently. Often, librarians and teachers can be caught between their collection development policy and an administrator convinced that controversial comics are, somehow, different than controversial books.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit organization specifically dedicated to protecting the intellectual freedom rights of the comics art form. They often work with libraries, assisting them with sticky challenge situations, and are currently working with the ALSC Intellectual Freedom committee. I recently took the opportunity to have a brief email chat with Charles Brownstein, the Executive Director of the CBLDF, and ask him a few questions about comics and libraries. For more information, make sure to visit www.cbldf.org (and go here or contact email@example.com to find out how your library can be a part of next year’s Free Comic Book Day).
Justin Azevedo: How can CBLDF help libraries and educators with intellectual freedom issues that revolve around comics and graphic novels?
Charles Brownstein: CBLDF is dedicated to protecting the freedom to read! We provide a wide range of proactive comics advocacy resources as well as advice, letters of support, and other interventions in response to specific challenges. Librarians and educators facing a challenge should make us their first call by ringing 800-99-CBLDF or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll provide connections to experts and resources to help them resolve the case. Even when a positive outcome seems likely, reporting challenges helps us track what books are at issue and create resources that can help others facing potential censorship.
CBLDF.org has hundreds of pages of resources to help teachers and librarians, including title specific resources to assist in challenges, teaching guides related to specific graphic novels, and advocacy publications encouraging reading using comics. The better comics are understood — and used — at every level of education, the less likely censorship is to prevail. Here’s a brief rundown of the various CBLDF items available, completely free, to educators and librarians:
- Graphic Novels: Suggestions for Librarians
- Adding Graphic Novels to Your Library or Classroom Collection
- Raising a Reader! How Comics & Graphic Novels Can Help Your Kids Love To Read!
- Panel Power
- Using Graphic Novels in Education
- CBLDF Discussion Guides
- CBLDF Banned Books Week Handbook
- Comic Book Club Handbook
- Manga Book Club Handbook
- Working With Libraries! A Handbook for Comics Creators
JA: Are there any recent library cases CBLDF assisted with?
CB: CBLDF is a sponsor of the Kids Right to Read Project, where we provide letters of support and other resources to protect the freedom to read. Recent KRRP cases have defended The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Adjacent to library cases, we’ve produced some valuable education work for students, most notably Be Heard, a short comic helping students understand their protest rights, which you can read here. We love when folks download this story and display it in their classroom or library. It’s a great jumping off point for teaching kids about their First Amendment rights and to encourage them to use their voice.
JA: Were comics important to you as a young reader?
CB: Absolutely! I came of age in the late 80s and 90s when there was still a stigma about comics. In school they were treated as contraband. My parents took a long time to get comfortable with me reading them because when they grew up comics were something associated with delinquency and bad reading habits. If anything, comics expanded my already voracious reading habits, made me curious about the creative process, and introduced me to a wider range of influences within prose, history, and art. For instance, Sandman opened the door to mythology, LGBTQ characters, and a wide range of world history.
The other thing comics encouraged was an understanding that I could make my own culture. My dad was a technology writer, so I had a pretty good understanding of how books were made, but comics were something entirely different. This led me to start interviewing creators when they came through town to sign at Golden Apple, and eventually to publishing an interview magazine called Feature when I was in high school. I wouldn’t have ever done that if it weren’t for the self-publishing movement in 90s comics, led by Dave Sim, who created an important comic called Cerebus. Dave advocated self-publishing, inspiring folks like Jeff Smith, Terry Moore, Colleen Doran, Paul Pope and others to take to that method for getting their work out. That movement also inspired me to learn how to take my interviews and put them into a magazine. In doing that, and in interviewing comics creators, I came to understand that comics has a very, very short distance between creator and audience. All it takes is an idea, your native skill, and a means to share your work— either a copy machine or the internet. It’s a powerful lesson that is still vital for kids now.
Today there’s less of a stigma against comics than there was when I was growing up, but it still comes up. Ultimately, comics are multidisciplinary in a way that encourages younger readers to develop multiple types of literacy and to build a sensitivity and awareness or many styles of expression. And for the kids inspired to make them, comics help build teamwork if the work is the result of collaboration, and encourage a wide range of creativity. I think comics are great for everyone, and they’re especially great for kids.
JA: What one piece of advice would you give those who provide comics in the library or classroom?
CB: Art is powerful, and comics are especially powerful. The marriage of text and image can provoke some strong reactions, both positive and negative, so take the time to understand the medium and how to talk about it in a way that can help encourage deeper understanding. It goes without saying that this is important in the case of challenges. But it’s also important to help encourage the kids who take a positive shine to the medium. You have the opportunity to help them open their minds to all sorts of creativity within the comics form and outside of it. Comics is becoming the most vital literary form of the 21st Century because it unifies a range of disciplines into a format that connects immediately with its audience. Understanding that art form yourself can help you inspire others to use it in a way that opens incredible vistas of imagination!
Charles Brownstein is the Executive Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
Justin Azevedo is Youth Materials Selector at the Sacramento Public Library and a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee.