Riding their recent surge in popularity, creators and publishers of middle-grade and YA graphic novels had a strong presence at Comic-Con in San Diego. HarperAlley, HarperCollins’s young readers graphic novel imprint, sponsored the Eisner Awards, and Scholastic, whose Graphix line dominates the middle-grade graphic novel market, had a large and well-stocked booth.

While there were no big announcements, comics for young readers had a prominent presence on the exhibit floor and in the panel rooms. Scholastic was promoting its upcoming titles, including Gale Galligan’s Freestyle and Jamar Nicholas’s Leon the Extraordinary. Marvel and Abrams collaborated on a panel on bringing Marvel comics classics to young readers, and Heavy Metal executive editor Joe Illidge moderated a panel on “Real Comics, Real Issues” that included Jerry Craft (Class Act), Johnnie Christmas (Swim Team), Terri Libenson (Remarkably Ruby), Laura Gao (Messy Roots), and Yehudi Mercado (Chunky Goes to Camp). Tapas Media, a webtoon platform that hosts comics for readers of all ages, featured Magical Boy at its booth; the YA graphic novel is published in print by Graphix.

The YA title Run: Book One, the successor to the late John Lewis’s March, took the award for Best Graphic Memoir at the Eisner Awards, and co-creators Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, and L. Fury joined Lewis’s son John Miles Lewis at the Abrams booth the next day for an autograph session. In previous years, Lewis cosplayed as his younger self at his panels, leading a children’s march across the convention center wearing a trench coat and carrying a knapsack containing a toothbrush, an apple, and a bible, the same gear he had during the march on Selma in 1965. This year, the march was held as a memorial to Lewis, who died in 2020.

The Eisner Award for Best Publication for Early Readers went to Julie and Stan Sakai’s Chibi Usagi: Attack of the Heebie Jeebies, a children’s adaptation of Stan Sakai’s long-running Usagi Yojimbo. Salt Magic by Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock took the award for Best Publication for Kids (ages 9-12), and Shing Yin Khor’s The Legend of Auntie Po won the award for Best Publication for Teens.

One topic of serious discussion, in panels organized by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and others, was the recent surge in challenges to books for young readers in school and public libraries. In a panel for librarians, Moni Barrette, president of the American Library Association’s Graphic Novel and Comics Round Table, stated that there were a total of 729 book challenges in 2021, up sharply from 156 in 2020 and 377 in 2019. Cartoonist Jeff Smith, whose Bone graphic novel has been challenged many times, offered an explanation for the increase: “It would be one thing if it was actual parents standing up and being very concerned, but I don't believe that,” he said. “There's a script, and they use the exact same words over and over, and they're oftentimes not even from that district. So I feel that this is an insidious effort.”

The way to counter this, Barrette said, is for those who oppose the challenges to make their perspective heard as well. “The people who are challenging are really loud,” she said, “and when they come en masse to the school board or city council meeting, those might be the only voices they hear unless you speak out.”