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Interview with Robin Brenner

When looking for librarian sources to discuss the controversy surrounding the removal of Paul Gravett’s Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics from a California library, all fingers pointed towards Robin Brenner. It’s easy to see why. She’s the creator of No Flying, No Tights which recommends graphic novels for younger readers. She’s also a member of the American Library Association committee that is assembling a list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Brenner is currently writing a guide to manga. She’s also a fascinating and generous conversationalist, and I was delighted when she agreed to be my latest vic—er, interview subject.

DW: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I know you’re usually swamped, but you’re even busier than usual, since you’re working on a book. Could you tell me a bit about it? 

RB: I’m always swamped — I like it that way!

The short version is: I am writing a guide for librarians (and anyone else who wants to know) about Japanese manga and anime. (To clarify, I also include Korean manhwa and Chinese manhua in all of this) I intend the book to be a basic guide for librarians in terms of what manga is all about: why it’s popular, why it’s different from Western comics, where it comes from, what fans enjoy and will want, and what they need to think about in building collections (whether they be personal, for libraries, or for schools.)

The longer version is: My fellow graphic novel librarians had been asking me when I was going to write No Flying No Tights: The Book. I personally didn’t feel like there was a huge need for that — most of my colleagues were or are writing books on graphic novels in general, and I didn’t see that anyone needed yet another one. I did, however, notice that few people were writing expressly about Japanese manga. I also know from experience, in giving workshops on graphic novels, manga, and anime and speaking with audiences large and small, that librarians need help understanding the format and the trend. They want to know not just what to buy but how to read it, where it comes from, and why it’s worth collecting. Most librarians, teachers, and many parents do not read or try to read manga themselves — if they do, at best they are puzzled and at worst they are startled by images and stories out of context. So, my goal is to help demystify the format.

DW: And now you have three web sites: No Flying, No Tights, which is about graphic novels for teens; Sidekicks, which focuses on graphic novels for kids; and The Lair, which concentrates on material for older teens. What prompted you to launch them? 

RB: The germ for the idea arrived when I first became interested in graphic novels as a format for libraries. I as asked by the Young Adult Librarian in Lexington, where I worked for over six years, to help investigate this new format graphic novels that our high school librarians told us were leaping off the shelves.

For background, I had seen graphic novels before (I went to high school when many were reading Neil Gaiman’sSandman) and I had even read a few (Maus, a less than stellar adaptation of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat). I had read comics, of course, plowing through Calvin and Hobbes and Garfield and Archie. I had never, however, had anyone tell me they were either worth reading or that these individual books were, in fact, comics or graphic novels. Once I figured out the format, I was astounded no one had ever told me about them before — I was an artist and a writer who grew up wanting to be a Disney animator and write retellings of fairy tales. Graphic novels and comics are a natural fit for my interests, but no one had ever suggested I investigate the format.

As soon as I started reading, I fell in love. Being a librarian, I then proceeded to research all I could about the format and read as much as I could get my hands on. I found more to like with every book, and my own ability to read sequential art increased. Soon I realized that though there were many librarians out there who embraced and advocated for the format, there was still a lot of work to be done. I wanted to contribute, and the best way I could think of was telling people about my interest, understanding, and love for the format.

I was assigned to create a Readers’ Advisory website for my Young Adult Literature class while getting my Masters degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois. I knew as soon as I saw the assignment that I wanted to create a website reviewing and advocating for graphic novels for teens, first, but with an eye toward expansion into whatever might be needed in the future. And now, here I am, five years later, with three sister sites. It’s all a bit surreal to me, as it started out as a very enthusiastic personal project, but I’m delighted to represent librarians and graphic novels as much as I can.

DW: I think they’re all great resources, but it does strike me as kind of funny that they’re so necessary. So many people think of comic books and graphic novels as kids’ stuff to begin with, but the reality is that you kind of have to search for stuff for younger readers. It’s not right out there in the comic shops like the super-hero stuff, which isn’t always precisely what parents would want their kids to be reading.

RB: As someone who never heard a whisper from any librarian or teacher or adult about comics or graphic novels being something to read until she was, oh, twenty-five, I can attest to the fact that the word still needs to be spread! That’s precisely why I started the site, and then spun off both Sidekicks and the Lair: the general public has very little understanding of what comics, and by extension graphic novels, are or who can and should read them. Librarians are in the same boat as everyone else, and many of we librarian graphic novel advocates are doing everything we can to educate our colleagues about the format. We in the U.S. still have the lingering cultural impression that comics are for kids, leftover from their original audience in the 1930s and furthered by Frederick Wertham and the Comics Code crackdown.

Comics used to be everywhere: in the supermarket, in the corner store, on the newsstands. Then, they disappeared to survive only in the comics stores. Only recently, with the boom in readership beyond comics stores, have comics but especially graphic novels reappeared into public view. Within the past ten to twenty years, there’s been a noticeable shift away from the collector market, or the folks in comics specialty stores who buy issue #1, tuck it in a bag, and store it away, to the reader market, or the folks who just want to read it, whether it’s a comic or a graphic novel. This has been especially true in the last, oh, five years, with Japanese manga busting it all wide open.

Of course, anyone who’s read comics lately knows that the bulk of what’s produced is not for kids – most of it’s for older teens and adults. The main audience is also perceived as male. The problem was that for a long time, the only people that understood that were the comics store owners and readers – comics were not a blip in the book market radar, for kids or for adults, except for comic strip collections like Calvin and HobbesGarfield, andArchie. Parents expect whatever they grew up with, and adults in general stopped reading comics long enough ago that they’re unaware of the recent changes.

DW: Manga does seem to be the new kid/teen entry point for comics and graphic novels, assuming they go beyond manga into other categories. Since you’re a librarian who specializes in the category, can you give me a sense of what led the charge of graphic novels into libraries? Was it manga, or super-heroes, or something else entirely? 

RB: In libraries, one reason graphic novels started being collected over twenty years ago was for one very simple goal: to bring guys, especially teenage guys, back to libraries and to reading. Graphic novels were and are still great for what are known in the library world as reluctant readers, or readers who are not likely to pick up a book because they are intimidated by long passages of prose or because it’s not socially ok to read. Girls and boys both grow up reading, in school and hopefully at home. Due to a variety of factors, stereotypically girls are more likely to keep reading once they hit their teen years while boys tend to stop reading. Comics and graphic novels were seen as a way to support reading – and it is certainly reading – with a different kind of visual literacy including text bubbles, panels, and sound effects. Also, librarians knew teens read comics, and knew that most of them might not expect librarians to support their choices – and librarians wanted to make sure teens knew we understand what they like and that it has just as much value as any other kind of reading.

Most of what was collected originally were superhero comics, intended for the young male teenager, but once librarians started seeing the diversity that existed, they began to collect as widely as they could within the graphic novel format. Due to differences in intended audience and use according to comics publishers and libraries, most notably short print runs and poor binding, it took a while for graphic novels to be practically collected in a library. Librarians quickly understood that graphic novels reach far beyond reluctant readers and are definitely not only read by teenage guys. They kept building collections, and now most libraries maintain some sort of graphic novel section.

Of course, this is just one of the major factors – many librarians decided that comics and graphic novels were popular, were growing as an art form, and deserved collection within the library sphere that includes all manner of other formats, from films to websites to audio books.

DW: In your experience, what are the books that really move in libraries? Are they the ones that move in retail outlets like NarutoFullmetal Alchemist, and Fruits Basket, or are kids more omnivorous when they can check them out for free? 

RB: I’ve noticed my fair share of teens lurking in Barnes and Noble or Waldenbooks reading manga on the floor, and I know that they often read as many as possible sitting on the floor while never actually buying any (much to the dismay of bookstore folks.) Graphic novel readers are reading graphic novels the same way in the library – the haphazard state of my graphic novel and manga shelves every morning attests to how much they’ve been read in the library.

The most popular titles in bookstores will also be popular in libraries, including NarutoFruits BasketSpider-Man,Batman, and so on. In general, almost all of the graphic novels will go out, most much more often than books circulate (due to both popularity and the fact that many of them are faster to read.) That being said, once readers realize we have graphic novels, and especially manga, they are much more likely to just come in and browse. Browsing leads to discovering older, less popular titles, which is excellent to see.

As an example, I had one teen girl who was an avid manga reader who stuck mainly to the school melodramas and romances like Mars and Peach Girl. Then, she picked up The Golden Vine by Jai Sen because of the art – it is illustrated by three different Japanese artists – not quite anticipating she was getting into an alternate history of Alexander the Great, meticulously researched and compellingly told. She loved it, and we had a long discussion about Alexander and the historic facts and fiction both presented in the story. That’s the kind of adventurous browsing that is less likely in a book store, where they can only stock big sellers in their location. Library collections are by nature retrospective, so you can find a lot by browsing.

DW: Moving on to the stickier stuff, we’ve already seen some little flurries of backlash against some manga books being shelved in libraries based on their content. The one that immediately comes to mind is the California dust-up over Paul Gravett’s Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics. What was your reaction to that? 

RB: My immediate reaction was, to put it nicely, disappointment and anger. Paul Gravett’s book is an excellent nonfiction work covering the history and diversity of Japanese manga. It’s also an important work for libraries to collect, as interest in manga grows, as it’s one of a handful of recent nonfiction works that concentrates on Japanese manga (rather than anime). From what I understand, the title was shelved in the correct place for its audience: in the adult section in nonfiction. That fact that politics and media pressure led to the book being pulled from all of the county’s libraries was discouraging to say the least.

In the end, though, I admit I’m not terribly surprised by the challenge, but I am worried about the precedent set by the resolution. I’ve spoken frequently to librarians about how to successfully build their collections, and I am often asked about the explicitness of images (in terms of violence, nudity, and sexuality). I advise librarians to think of graphic novels, and thus also manga, as similar to movies, television, and other visual media including video games. Flip through a title and think about whether it would be considered a PG, PG-13, or R rated film. It’s not a perfect system, and the MPAA ratings system has its own issues, but it’s a familiar scale to start with when considering where to place a title.

Our culture currently reacts (and, in my opinion, too often overreacts) to visual images, whether they be films, television, or sequential art. The same exact event could happen in prose and no one would bat an eyelash. Only a small minority of people hem and haw over romance novels or R-rated films in libraries’ adult collections, and in the end its up to the person checking out the book to decide if it’s ok for them. If it’s not, they can put it down. It’s impossible for a librarian to predict every possible offense or red flag that will disturb each and every patron – if we tried, we’d have no books on the shelves.

When I began a manga and anime club in my library, I held a question and answer session for parents of the teens who were joining the club so that parents would know what we would be doing and could ask me, as the librarian, any questions. Among the parents who came I had one mother who couldn’t care less about nudity but was worried about cruelty or viciousness, while another set of parents was more worried about nudity and sensual content. The discussion helped me know what their concerns were and I was able to inform them about what we would and would not be reading and watching so they could make their own decisions. In the end, only education will help prevent the confusion that leads to challenges.

DW: I know librarians must deal with issues of appropriate shelving and content all of the time, but what would be your advice to librarians who are confronted with similar issues? How would you recommend that they prepare themselves?

RB: There are a few things I advise all librarians to do if they’re dealing with graphic novels and manga.

First, you must read them. You just have to. No one can read every one, of course, but you have to feel confident you know what you’re talking about, whether it be with patrons of the library or your bosses. I suggest everyone read one superhero graphic novel, one non-superhero (preferably of a genre they personally enjoy, like a mystery or a fantasy), one Japanese manga, one non-fiction title, and one other that just catches their attention. It may be difficult, especially if you’re not naturally a visual person, but it gets easier to read and the diversity of what’s available will be more apparent.

Second, every library should, at this point, have graphic novel sections in all three major areas of their libraries: Children’s, Teen, and Adult. There are graphic novels for all ages, and they should be shelved just like any other format (for example, most libraries divide movies into each general age category.) The basic reason: everyone will see that graphic novels are written for all three age ranges, not just for kids or just for teens. It also helps librarians collect a well-rounded collection, from Ghost in the Shell to Hopeless Savages to Owly, and know they’ll be found by their intended audience.

Third, you have to consider graphic novels the same way you would any other item. It can be tempting to think of them as different somehow, but as I’ve said, few people label movies as automatically inflammatory simply by virtue of their format. From my own and my fellow colleagues experiences, graphic novels are not challenged in libraries any more than any other kind of book. Still, you need to have what’s called a collection development policy in place – a set of guidelines for what the library will and will not collect – and you need to make sure to judge the graphic novels according to that policy. If someone does challenge a title, you should also have a clear and organized reevaluation procedure that will reconsider a title and render a decision according to the collection development policy. All of these are basic library standards, but it’s nonetheless important to keep updated and understood (this is also what was not apparently done when Paul Gravett’s manga book was challenged.) When there’s a procedure in place, whatever the outcome hopefully all involved will feel that the matter was seriously addressed.

DW: You mentioned in an e-mail that you had recently given a presentation on books from the shônen-ai and yaoi categories in libraries. That seems like such a potential mine field to me. How did it go?

RB: I think it went very well. I was speaking as part of a panel addressing new trends in graphic novels and manga at the American Library Association Annual Conference, our national professional gathering, and when we were figuring out what to present, we decided to cover the genre given its recent rise in popularity. As is usually true with librarians, they all seemed happy to learn more. I only had a few minutes to speak, but I decided to break it down into what it was, why it was appealing, and who was reading it. I’m sure there were folks in the room who thought, well, that’s not for my library, and there was a pointed question at the end commenting on its quality and importance, but all in all, a good discussion. Investigating it for the panel helped me learn more about the readers, which was great, especially learning from my own survey of readers that about twenty percent are guys. I’ve had librarians ask in the past about whether they were appropriate for and appealing to GBLTQ teens, and I discovered that over 80% of the BL/yaoi readers did not self-identify as heterosexual, which helped me answer that question more confidently. I could tell that it was a topic that a few librarians had run into but had no idea what it was all about, so I was happy to clarify the genre and its basic tropes for everyone.

DW: Going back to the “reluctant readers” idea, are graphic novels and manga a gateway drug for other kids of books?

RB: Graphic novels are definitely great for reluctant readers. A lot of readers get intimidated by long stretches of prose, especially if they’re not naturally inclined to read, but they know they’re supposed to get something out of it. Graphic novels include excellent vocabulary (with fewer words to work with, you have to use more precise and descriptive words to get your point across) and the images provide narrative support for readers not as adept at deciphering only words. There’s an emotional expectation in reading – that you’ll read something and get satisfaction out of it – and a kid who has trouble making those connections feels stupid and naturally wants to avoid feeling idiotic because they aren’t reading as fast or as well as their friends. Graphic novels help boost their confidence and reassure them that yes, they can read, and it does often lead to reading other works.

All of that being said, they’re also not only for reluctant readers. They are “real” books, with their own vocabulary both visual and textual, and in fact I feel they require their own kind of literacy apart from traditional textual literacy. Anyone who’s tried to read a graphic novel who hasn’t read comics in years will have trouble, and anyone who’s never read manga and makes an attempt definitely feels the learning curve as they try to figure it all out. I always remember trying desperately to puzzle through one of the first Witchblade graphic novels when I first began reading graphic novels and I had no idea what was going on. I spent the bulk of that attempt going, “The what now? Who is that again? Where did that come from?” When I picked it up six months later, with a lot more graphic novel reading under my belt, I wondered why it had seemed so impenetrable before.

DW: I live in a community that doesn’t have much in the way of graphic novels or manga in its library system. I’m sure there are a lot of systems in a similar place who might want to expand their holdings in that area but don’t know where to start. What basic advice would you give them? 

RB: First, if you’re a librarian, you need to figure out what you want to collect – what suits your library and its patrons. Look at what’s popular in prose and work from there. There’s always the problem that it may seem there’s no demand for graphic novels, but, once they appear on the shelves, the audience will come out of the woodwork and demand more. You may have to advertise the collection – put it on a prominent shelf, or start a rotating display of the latest titles – especially as many graphic novel readers still don’t realize libraries collect graphic novels at all. Make booklists, displays, write short articles for your library newsletter or in your local paper. A lot of things will constrain a collection: budget, demand, competing collection requirements – but developing a small core collection and watching how it moves will help immensely. There have been numerous books on graphic novel collections written for librarians on the topic, by knowledgeable graphic novel librarians including Steve Weiner, Steve Miller, Michele Gorman, and Allyson Lyga (and there are great title and genre guides coming out by Mike Pawuk, Kristin Fletcher-Spear, and Meredith Jensen-Benjamin). All of those titles will give any librarian a great start.

If you’re a patron at a library, your task is simple. Ask for graphic novels at the Reference Desk. Request titles be purchased through whatever avenues your library has for such requests. Talk up the collection to the librarians, exclaim over how great it is, and ask about future plans. Speak to the people in charge, too, from the Library Director to members of the Board of Trustees. Librarians need to know that there’s a demand, and the best and most successful way to do that is to tell them, face to face, that you want more graphic novels.

DW: I’m kind of obsessed with the Young Adult Library Services Association’s nominees for -blank> the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list. I blog about it every time a new batch of nominees shows up, and I was wondering what you thought of the process and how much of a reach the finished list is going to have. 

RB: Well, I can’t speak for the whole committee, but I personally think it’s shaping up well. The committee is made up of a great group of librarians, all enthusiastic about graphic novels and the variety of what’s available, and unafraid to rip the titles apart while we’re discussing them. So far, it’s working much like any selection list – we’re nominating titles left and right as they come to our attention, and trying to focus in on those gems that are going to make the list diverse, exciting, and helpful to anyone maintaining a teen collection. I’m sure we’ll kick ourselves for having not been able to include titles, or regretting titles we didn’t read in time – which is why we need anyone who has a suggestion for a great graphic novel (for teens, of course) should make a nomination.

We’re trying to consider every kind of title and are keeping our collective eye out for outstanding titles from any genre or style. Of course, what makes a graphic novel “great” can be subjective, and we’ve had some, ahem, colorful discussions about about titles. We also have to remind ourselves that this list, in the end, will be titles for teens, so we’re trying to gather as many teen reactions as we can to the nominated titles. Just because we like it doesn’t necessarily mean teens will.

The publication date restraints – that the titles must be published in between October 2005 and December 2006 – can make the process difficult, as there are so many titles that either make little sense to readers who haven’t read what came before or that fall outside of our date range. If I had a penny for the number of times someone’s said, “Oh, that was such a great title! Shall I nominate it? Oh, wait a minute…it’s too early. Crud!”

DW: Now, to finish up, what are some of your favorite manga titles, whether good for younger readers or otherwise? 

RB: Oh, manga. I’ve literally read nothing but manga for over a year while writing my guide, so at least I’ve been reading a lot!

For younger readers, I will admit to being a sucker for CLAMP, so I’ve been devouring Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle, and I think it makes a nice choice for older kids.Yotsuba&! never fails to make me laugh, and Baron the Cat Returns is a charming fantasy, and as a cat lover, shows off some of the best cat attitude.

Heading into older territory, I’ve been entirely won over by Bleach (and have chortled over teens arguing over whether it’s the greatest shonen manga ever or just the greatest action shonen manga ever.) One Piece cracks me up and I care not one whit how inane it is. I love Antique Bakery with an almost indecent fervor. Cantarella is great historical angst as I’ve always been fascinated by Renaissance politics. I will admit I’m a schmoop for melodramatic romance (though strangely I rarely read romances in prose), and particularly I love anything by Yazawa Ai, so Nana’s been my latest obsession on that front.

As for truly adult manga, I finally caught up and readGhost in the Shell and Akira in the past year, both of which deserve their legendary reputations. Lone Wolf and Cub also ranks right up there, and I’ve been sucked in byLady SnowbloodYellow and Embracing Love in the BL/yaoi categories are the two I ended up getting absorbed in, and I love the art of Same Cell Organism, along with its gentle humor and sappiness.

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