Sunday, 2 November 2014

Words and pictures

November is Picture Book Month, one of very many international initiatives for encouraging reading and literacy. Some of these are set up formally by organisations like CILIP, The Reading Agency and the ALA while others, like this, emerge from informal association and get a momentum of their own.

Picture books are great and even in these austere times we have lots of them in our libraries. The combination of words and pictures helps young readers to associate words with ideas. The pictures encourage "Can you see..." and "I wonder what..."and the "What do you think happens next?" questions that make sharing a story such fun. And the artwork is often brilliant. So I like picture books.

I always puzzled — still do, in fact — about librarians' antipathy to comics. We were brought up reading comics; my dad reckons comics taught him how to read and I was one of those horribly precocious little kids who read "The Bash Street Kids" before I ever saw the cover of a "Janet and John" reader. And yet the only comic you ever saw in the library when I was a kid was "Look and Learn." All those stories with pictures and their captioned narrative links and speech bubbles to tell you who's talking were somehow "not quite the thing." Later on when I started working with and in libraries I saw the same thing. The two biggest selling children's books every year were The Guinness Book of Records and The Beano Book and while we bought the first by the bucket load if anybody ever donated a copy of The Beano Book or any other comic annual it went straight into book sale. One of my friends tried to slip some into one of the collections he was managing and was told very firmly that: "We don't buy annuals." Given that the accession shelves were groaning with expensive yearbooks destined for the reference library he wasn't best chuffed at this.

We do have comics in the library these days but they're either dressed up as "graphic novels" or put somewhere in the 741s amongst the non-fiction. Personally, I think there's a distinct difference between a collection of comic and a graphic novel. It's not necessarily the format or the genre, it's the structure of the storytelling. One's not better than the other, they're just different, albeit very close relations. It's lovely to see graphic novels in libraries and I'm all for the study of graphic arts; I just wish we could also celebrate comics without having to sneak them in by disguise.

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