Interview: Kat Kan on Graphic Novels in School Libraries
Kat Kan needs no introduction, but I’ll give her one anyway. Kat is a pioneer in our field, having worked with graphic novels and libraries since 1983. She has worked in both school and public libraries and is currently the librarian for St. John Catholic School in Panama City, Florida. She writes the “Graphically Speaking” column for Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA), reviews children’s graphic novels for Booklist, and is the collection development librarian for Brodart.
This interview was done as part of my research for the article “Teaching with Graphic Novels,” which appeared in the September issue of SLJ.
How do you as a school librarian support teachers?
I don’t know how typical our school is: It’s a parochial school, grades pre-K to 8. I have done this for two years, and what I was told was my mandate by the principal, who just left, was that as a school librarian I was an adjunct to language arts. I saw every class once a week, and when the students came in, I taught them, not necessarily library skills, but research and also activities to help promote the language arts. We did puzzles, book reports, poetry writing, anything that could tie in to language arts in one way or another. I often worked hand in hand with the teachers, especially in the younger grades. I would ask the teachers what topics are you going to cover, should I do this in class with kids. I didn’t work as closely as I wanted to with all the teachers, but in grades three, four, and five, the teachers liked the fact I was doing more writing with the kids; they had to focus on grammar, and I did more creative writing. This year, I’ve been told that I can do what I want, as long as what I do fits into the standards; I still work with the teachers as much as possible and help them find books to match the units of study they’re covering in class.
How do you acquire books for the library?
I am pretty free to order from whatever sources I choose. I do have to make sure that I’m still within the diocese guidelines. I started the graphic novel collection when I was just a parent and kind of threw all kinds of books at the library. The first principal I worked with wanted only educational type graphic novels. I slipped Bone in anyway, and the librarian liked it. When I took over, I thought, the kids are really enjoying these, and I don’t see why I can’t have graphic novels as well as these other books, so I am going to add them. I did make sure I was adding kid-appropriate titles, but the kids were enjoying the material and they were reading for fun, and when I asked the teachers, they had no problem with it. For this past year, the first grade teacher had her kids do biography reports on famous Americans. Half the books we used were graphic nonfiction, and she was OK with that.
Are the parents supportive?
For the most part. I have a couple of families who are dead set against graphic novels, although in one case their son was an avid graphic novel reader and an excellent student—very articulate, very clear in his writing, and quite a good artist. On the last day of third grade, the mother came storming into the library, and yelled at me: How dare I let her son borrow Bone all the time, she and her husband didn’t think comics were worth anything, and I should forbid him to pick up another graphic novel in the library. I said “He likes to read, he enjoys this, and actually, Bone is very, very good.” She replied, “There aren’t enough words on the page.” It came to the point where I said, “Look, if you forbid him and you make me forbid him, he may end up hating to read. Why don’t we compromise: If he wants to check out Bone or any other graphic novel, he has to check out another chapter book.” The mother agreed to that. Five years later he, graduated at the top of his class.
For the most part, if the kids like to read comics, I am not hearing objections from parents. When I’m doing these assignments, they see what the kids are doing, and I’m giving them good grades for it, and the teachers are saying it is good, so I am hoping they will come around. For the most part, parents are happy the kids are reading, and when I make sure they are not only reading comics, that they read other materials as well, they don’t give me any grief.
What comics are popular in your library right now?
Babymouse, Squish, Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales—I got the World War I book; four different boys came to me and asked if I was going to get it. Amulet for grade four and up. Dave Roman’s Astronaut Academy, and anything by Raina Telgemeier. I do have Drama on the middle school shelves because of the homosexual characters, but there have been no complaints. I put it there with Twilight and The Hunger Games. I say “If you have any problem with homosexuality, don’t read this book. I don’t want you getting upset.” The boys in fourth grade also love Pokemon.
So you have manga?
I have Pokemon, Kingdom Hearts, Hikaru no Go—when the Go Foundation did that thing where $20 gets you the whole set, I got the whole set. And the kids borrow them like crazy. I don’t have Sailor Moon, but if any middle school girl asks me, I will get it for the middle school collection.
I figure because I’m in a school library, I have to be a little bit more careful about the kids and who is borrowing. It’s a small enough school that I know most of the kids and I have an idea of what they like and don’t like and what their maturity level is, and with some I can actually talk to their parents. I think as a school library we are held to more responsibility in what our students are reading and what we put into our library. After more than 20 years in public libraries it was a bit of a shock. It’s because the parents think of the school as taking care of their kids.
Do you tend to be more conservative because of that?
Yes I do. I have to be careful; even if there’s one bad word on one page, that is what they will focus on. So I couldn’t get Danica McKellar’s Math Doesn’t Suck—we can’t use that word in school. In Chiggers, the word “bitch” is used a couple of times. I can’t have it. I have to go through everything and make sure the language in the graphic novel is appropriate. It’s harder when it is in a graphic novel than in a prose book, because the kids’ eyes just skip over it in a prose book, but if it’s one of the few words in a word balloon on a page, it’s that much more visible and has that much more of an effect. There was a dust-up about it in our local library; they had to keep Chiggers in the YA section, somebody shelved it in children’s, a nine-year old got it, and the mom wanted the book banned.
What is the best way to prevent challenges?
I just basically have talked with the principals that I have had over the years, making them aware of what I was doing, and I was very proactive in talking with the teachers so I would have them on my side. Our priest, Father Roy, likes comics. I have always felt I have the support of the administration and faculty, but I am going to be putting something into writing and running it by him, and I’m going to put it on the library web page. Something to the effect that graphic novels are just another form of literature that is available for your kids to read, that I select books that are age appropriate, and that I have three different areas in my library, for the primary grades, middle grades, and middle school. I am very careful to make sure the books I have come from reputable publishers. I read everything before I put it on the shelf, I am watching out for your kids, and they are going to be good titles. I have been gathering the literature and the different articles that have come out. I use the Good Comics for Kids blog, and I got Raising a Reader from the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and I gave a copy to every single family in the school and told them “This is what I do, this is why I do it.”
I do Free Comic Book Day in the school. I order the comics through my comic shop, [the owner] gives me a super discount, and he gets to stamp his store name on them. I was just looking at the new Previews, looking at Halloween Comic Fest. We do a “trunk or treat,” where everyone comes in and decorates their vehicles and the kids go from car to car, so they get to trick or treat safely. I do “Mrs. Kan’s Little Comic Shop,” and I have all kinds of comics for them to pick out for free. The kids love it, the parents think it’s great, and I’m giving them something they can read and hang on to for more than the minute it takes to eat a candy bar. The kids are always coming home with some sort of comic from me, and I have never had a complaint.
Have you ever had a graphic novel formally challenged in your library?
No. No one ever said I should take them out. I think that’s because I’m very careful. I know about the Library Bill of Rights, but when you’re in a school library, especially in a Catholic school in a very politically conservative community, you do have to keep that in mind when you order.
I do have a thriving graphic novel section. I have been able to do comics projects for three years and the students are pretty enthusiastic about it. When I am able to bring comics into the curriculum, so far it has been OK. There have been no complaints from teachers, and even a non supportive principal was OK with it if I didn’t do it all year round. And I’m tying it in with the standards. That’s key for parents: Reading graphic novels is something that is in the Common Core standards as well as the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, and we use the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards, which Florida just adopted this year. I have also tested out some of the lesson plans that go with the Reading With Pictures: Comics That Make Kids Smarter graphic textbook, and they work. They work really well.
Filed under: Interviews
About Brigid Alverson
Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.
SLJ Blog Network