Saturday, February 25, 2012

Graphic novels: a word, and a review of "Anya's Ghost"

I would like to address an issue that comes up periodically at the school library, and probably in libraries of all varieties across the globe.  That issue is graphic novels.  Should they be available?  Are they worthwhile?  My answer to both these questions is a firm "Yes."

Should graphic novels (which includes Japanese manga and other sequential art, for my purposes today) be available to children?  That depends.  Last year, a group of parents at my school took up the issue with the CEO.  There was concern over such manga series as Bleach and Naruto, two popular series that offer a bit of violence and perhaps a little distasteful fashion sense regarding female characters.  The end results was the retention of all the books, with the caveat that parental permission would be required below a certain grade.  I had never allowed younger children to check these out; starting in third grade they can check out select comic books and child-oriented graphic novels such as the popular series Amelia Rules.

On the flip side, a colleague who teaches an upper elementary grade recently challenged whether we should allow his students to continue checking out what he derisively termed "Pokey-mans."  To him, graphic novels are synonymous with comic books, no more challenging than picture books and offering no literary value.  I argued the point with him a bit, then decided that the best way to change his mind is to loan him the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, Maus, the biographical graphic novel about the Holocaust.  Literary value?  Check.  Not for children?  Check.
Personally, I greatly enjoy a well-written, well-illustrated graphic novel.  It's a quick read, but offers mental stimulation.  Many works are aimed at older readers and explore societal issues, such as the violent dystopian series Battle Royale, which I've previously reviewed in conjunction with The Hunger Games, or the aforementioned Maus.  A graphic novel can literally illustrate a scene in ways which might not be conferred as clearly in text.  Compare it to reading a book and then watching a movie based on the book - except with a graphic novel, you're getting the text and the picture simultaneously.

What do you think of graphic novels?

In light of all this, I figure it's about time to add another feature to my blog, to showcase graphic novels.  I haven't come up with a pithy title for it yet; I'm open to suggestions.  Today, I am featuring Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol.
Checkouts: New to the library
Typical reader: Any of my older graphic novel fans
Source: Scholastic book fair

Synopsis: Anya, a Russian teen immigrant, cuts class and falls down an old, abandoned well.  There, she encounters a skeleton from 100 years ago - and the ghost to go with it.  When she's rescued, a finger bone accidentally comes with, and she finds herself with a spectral friend tagging along to school and parties.  But is having a ghost as a friend really such a good thing?

My Goodreads rating: 5 stars

The art style in this graphic novel reminded me a lot of those in Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: stark and to the point, yet visually appealing.  The illustrations are simplistic, yet all characters are easily identifiable and the almost grayscale coloration sets the mood quite well.

Anya is a complex protagonist who many teen girls could relate to.  She must deal with issues at home, fitting in with her peers, how she views her body, and the highs and lows of a crush.  As an added bonus, she's smart, witty, and a bit snarky.  Through both the words and pictures, we get a similar feel for those around her, from her delinquent friend Siobhan to the pretty girl dating Anya's crush.  Everybody is portrayed very realistically.

Emily is the ghost that moves the plot along.  That's not to say that she's merely a plot device, but the story does center around her, how she affects Anya's life, and what really led to her death in the old well.  She starts off meek and lonely, then helpful and friendly as she aids Anya in school and offers a unique companionship.  Her motives start to become questionable, though, in dealing with Anya's crush.  And what will Anya uncover about Emily's past?

With a bit of librarian geekiness, I must offer Kudos to Ms. Brosgol for including the scene where Anya and a classmate not only go to the public library to do research, but also use the microfilm reader to look at old newspapers.  That's seriously awesome.

In sum, this is a good ghost story as well as a coming-of-age tale, aided by illustrations that really suit it well.

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