Graphic novels in schools, the LGBTQ community and the diversity of readers and artists, were the main themes in the programming and displays on the floor at this year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), held May 12-14 at the Toronto Reference Library.

Attendance this year was estimated to be up slightly over the 24,000 fans that attended last year’s event, according to TCAF founder and director Chris Butcher.

Organized by the Toronto Public Library in partnership with the Beguiling comics bookstore (which is also managed by Butcher), TCAF is an international showcase for literary and self-published graphic novels and comics. The show featured a celebration of Toronto’s Koyama Press’s 10th anniversary (and its publisher and founder, Anne Koyama); the 40th anniversary of NBM and Image’s 25th. There were new books by such artists as Gary Panter (Songy Paradise, Fantagraphics), Svetlana Chmakova (Brave, Yen Press), Metaphrog (The Little Mermaid, Papercutz) and Guy Delisle (Hostage, D&Q).

This year’s TCAF featured more than 600 exhibitors set up in the Toronto Reference Library, and the show continued its expansion into the nearby Masonic Temple, a historic Toronto performance venue, which housed the Image Comics Pavilion. Artists signing in the venue included such well known figures as The Walking Dead’s artist Charlie Adlard, Monstress writer Marjorie Liu and artist Sana Takeda and Sex Criminals’ artist Chip Zdarsky.

Attendance at the TCAF Librarians and Educators(L&E) Day, held the Friday before the show opens, nearly doubled from last year, according to organizers. The conference offers a day of panels and workshops focused on using graphic novels in educational settings and building library collections of graphic novels.

At the L&E program, cartoonist Shannon Hale (Princess Academy) gave a show-stopping presentation on gender called “No Boys Allowed: The Subtle Ways We Gender Books and Cut Boys off from Reading.” Using reader reaction to her own graphic novels, Rapunzel’s Revenge, The Princess in Black, and her newest book, Best Friends, Hale pointed out that boy readers are often shamed into rejecting books about girls.

“We need to change the message,” she said. “’This is about girls’ instead of ‘This book is for girls.’” Armed with statistical data, Hale showed how graphic novels improve reading levels and can even help overcome gender stereotypes about reading.

One of the most talked about books at TCAF was Gengorah Tagame’s My Brother’s Husband (Pantheon), the story of a Japanese man who is surprised to meet his gay brother’s Canadian husband when the husband visits unexpectedly to pay respect to the family after the brother’s death. Originally published in Japan, the book offers a revealing view of gay life in that country and marks an important new mainstream direction for Tagame, who is famous for his work in the bara manga genre, an explicit erotic genre for Japanese gay men.

Kabi Nagata’s autobiographical manga, My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness from Seven Seas also generated a lot of fan buzz. The book details Nagata’s problems with cutting and anorexia as she struggles to come to terms with her sexuality.

Also featured with a spotlight panel was Ngozi Ukazu, creator of Check, Please!, a hit webcomic turned print graphic novel about a fictional gay hockey player that raised more than $400,000 on Kickstarter. Ukazu confirmed that the self-published Check, Please! two-volume print series will soon have a trade book edition. She expects to announce her new publisher as early as next week.

LGBTQ issues were prominent throughout the show and at the Doug Wright Awards, an annual awards presentation honoring the best Canadian comics and graphic novels, held on Saturday night. Cartoonist Katherine Collins became the first trans creator to be inducted into the Giant of the North Hall of Fame. Under her former name Arn Saba, Collins wrote and drew the lighthearted fantasy comic Neil the Horse in the 1980s and 1990s, but stopped drawing when she transitioned to female.

A new collection of her work has just been published by Conundrum Press, and at the awards she spoke movingly of finding acceptance for her work with the new audience for comics.