Sales of graphic novels—especially manga—have boomed during the pandemic, as have their readership in libraries. Despite lockdowns and supply chain issues, comics remains one of the most popular categories in library lending over the past decade.

But now comics have become the focal point of increasingly strident battles over what material should be carried in school and even public libraries. Challenges and attempted and actual book removals at libraries across the United States have surged: in 2021, the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom tracked more than 1,500 individual book challenges or removals, the most in the 30 years it has been reporting.

Organizations such as Moms for Liberty claim that award-winning books often push racial agendas or are obscene and demand their removal from shelves and reading lists. Many librarians counter that these concerns arise from the fact the books’ creators are Black or identify as LGBTQ, or that the titles touch on queer themes. Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a memoir about growing up nonbinary, was the most banned book of 2021 and continues to be a flashpoint for controversy. Even acclaimed graphic novels like Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which won a Pulitzer Prize) and Jerry Craft’s New Kid (which won the Newbery) have become targets for removal.

The challenges have left librarians anxious and intimidated. In Texas and Florida, widespread library challenges have become highly politicized, with librarians in one Texas district being harassed and called groomers, heretics, and child pornographers on social media.

The movement to remove books from libraries and schools has affected school board elections, and laws are being passed to change library reporting structures, resulting in highly confrontational board meetings.

“It’s just demoralizing,” says Tina Coleman, membership specialist for the ALA and liaison for ALA’s Graphic Novel and Comics Round Table (GNCRT). “I’ve talked to librarians who have had to deal with the challenges, and even if it’s a relatively straightforward, easy challenge, librarians are getting all of this vitriol and being harassed. And we have to work under the assumption that this is going to be going on for an extended period of time.”

Indeed, the challenges show no signs of letting up—Moms for Liberty just released a fourth list of books it wants removed from libraries, including classics like The Kite Runner, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Slaughterhouse-Five (coincidentally adapted into a graphic novel in 2020).

It’s a frightening and exhausting atmosphere for librarians across the country, says Matthew Noe, lead collection and knowledge management librarian of Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library, who is wrapping up his second term as president of the GNCRT. “A lot of this stuff is sheer intimidation, and it’s mind boggling,” he adds. Noe feels that while the challenges were mounting all through last year, the phenomenon didn’t strike a chord in the mainstream news until Maus was removed from a school curriculum in Tennessee. “That seemed to be a wake-up call for a lot of people.”

Initially, challenges mostly took place in school libraries, where collection guidelines have always been more heavily scrutinized—however the drive is moving to public libraries. Llano, Tex., has become a particularly intense battleground. The Republican-led local government has changed the entire makeup of the board that administers library policies, stacking it with politically conservative members, some of whom don’t have library cards.

Tactics in some locales have escalated from book removal to criminalization. A proposed law in Indiana could make it a crime for librarians to buy books that are deemed “harmful” to children, and it doesn’t distinguish between school or public libraries, Noe says. He notes that academic libraries could eventually be impacted as well, as local governments control purchasing for many large research libraries.

“Defending our collections”

Graphic novels are easy targets for challenges, because “there are panels that are easy to pull out and throw around on social media and take out of context,” Noe says.

“It’s much easier to flip a comic open and see something that you might object to than it is in a prose novel, where you have to sit down and actually read it,” says Robin Brenner, teen librarian at the Public Library of Brookline (Mass.) and president-elect of the GNCRT.

Such is the case with Gender Queer, a major symbol of the ongoing battle. There are only a handful of panels in the 240-page graphic memoir that depict sexual activity, but the entire work has been condemned as obscene and pornographic, despite having won an Alex Award and a Stonewall Award from the ALA.

Controversy can move books off shelves in more ways than one—Maus sales surged to the top of NPD BookScan’s sales charts after it was banned, and Gender Queer enjoys healthy sales. But for Oni Press, which publishes Kobabe’s book and other educational graphic novels with queer themes, it’s no solution. Tara Lehmann, Oni’s director of publicity, says that “selling more copies doesn’t fix the intrinsic problem: people are trying to police what others read. We are against the banning of books, of any kind.” She adds that Oni supports schools, libraries, and organizations as best it can, but “our main focus is being supportive of Maia and making sure we’re doing the most we can to ensure Gender Queer is available to any and all people who want to read it.”

Despite the turmoil, the GNCRT, now in its third year, continues to move forward developing reading lists and additional resources for librarians who are looking to grow their graphic novels collections, and there are hopeful signs of public support. An ALA poll revealed that seven in 10 voters oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries. Teen readers in many communities are forming banned book reading clubs and mounting their own protests to keep books on shelves. And while the challenges have been making headlines, challenged books often remain in collections after going through established procedures—for instance, a panel designated by the board of education governing an Ohio school library voted to keep Gender Queer on shelves.

“We’re all very committed to defending our collections,” Brenner says. “The things that go viral tend to be the negative things, but I know from reading and talking to local folks that there are just as many if not more people coming out on the side of the library.”

To try to stem the tide of challenges, ALA has launched #UniteAgainstBookBans, a national campaign aiming to “empower readers everywhere to push back against censorship.” Twenty-five entities, including major book publishers such as Penguin Random House and Lerner, the Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), have signed on.

More directly, the GNCRT is designing resources to help libraries with procedures and best practices to weather the storm. The need for these guidelines emerged as librarians reached out privately looking for help with challenges. “It became clear that we needed more resources and more guidance specific to comics,” Brenner says.

The committee has been gathering data via a survey asking for examples of collection development and challenge policies. The goal is to create a toolkit that shows how to address challenges in various stages at public, educational, and academic libraries. The committee hopes to have some of its findings ready before this year’s annual ALA meeting.

Even when there are established guidelines for libraries, however, organizations like Moms for Liberty are changing the rules regarding who can deal with challenges, which Brenner sees as a particularly troubling move. “I think the hardest part is the realization that you can have all those procedures, but it sometimes doesn’t matter,” she says. “It’s a publicity fight now, and that’s something that libraries aren’t necessarily as used to handling.”

Legal recourse invoking the First Amendment is another way to combat censorship, but it’s not clear what role the courts will take in a shifting landscape. CBLDF acting director Jeff Trexler says court decisions can be unpredictable. “For years the standard response to attempts at censorship has been to highlight procedural irregularities in school and library decisions to remove books, but now we’re seeing the use of procedure to exclude,” he explains. “In fact, procedures are now being rewritten across the country to provide for the immediate removal of books once there’s a challenge.”

Trexler says the CBLDF has been working with the Office of Intellectual Freedom and other anti-censorship organizations to “develop new legal strategies for responding to bans and restrictive laws. One key argument now being deployed is based on civil rights law: when books are being removed from curricula or libraries on the basis of their depictions of LGBTQIAA+ or racial identities, there are grounds for finding that the removals constitute illegal discrimination.”

Grassroots advocacy is also ascendant among parents who view liberty as free access: Llano County parents are suing to keep books on shelves, claiming the book removals are a coordinated censorship campaign that violates the First Amendment and 14th Amendment.

As national midterm elections rev up, Coleman at the GNCRT expresses concern that increased media attention will lead to even more conflict. “I would love to be proven wrong,” she adds, but she fears that groups issuing challenges are “only going to be strengthened by all of the attention being paid.”

The GNCRT marches on

With so much energy devoted to addressing censorship, it’s easy to forget that libraries are still slowly emerging from two years of a pandemic that fundamentally changed librarianship and the rest of society. But work went on even with libraries closed, and GNCRT board members proudly point to their ongoing progress in the ambitious slate of goals the organization launched with three years ago.

“We’ve been laying the groundwork,” Noe says. “Because we’re still a relatively new round table, we’ve been setting policies and getting things in place for future work.”

In 2021, the GNCRT released a well-received first adult graphic novel reading list, a much-needed tool to help librarians build adult collections. Earlier this year, it debuted its first reading list of graphic novels for kids ages five to 12. Current GNCRT president Moni Barrette is particularly enthusiastic about the organization’s collaboration with ALA’s Black Caucus on several reading lists, and indicates she hopes to work more closely with other ALA affinity groups, such as the APALA, its Asian American and Pacific Islander interest group.

Another long-term goal for the GNCRT is setting up awards, but that ambition remains on the to-do list. “Awards are the logical next step, but it’s a lot to accomplish,” Brenner points out. One thing to be decided: whether to give out a single award like the Newbery, or a whole slate like the Stonewall Book awards presented by Rainbow, the ALA’s queer focused round table.

A select GNCRT exploratory committee working on developing a comics librarianship mentoring program has been formed, aiming to team would-be comics librarians with veterans to grow the subsection of the field. Another project may be esoteric to nonlibrary workers but is vital behind the scenes: an overhaul of comics and graphic novel metadata, which helps make comics easier to locate and order. Noe reports that the metadata and cataloging committee has been finalizing a draft, years in the making, which is now out for comment—an exciting development for those in the library sciences world.

Supply chain problems hit manga

The explosion in manga readership has been one of the biggest industry stories of the pandemic, but librarians and patrons have been disappointed by interrupted stock, as supply chain issues have left random volumes of popular series such as One Piece unavailable, making it impossible to collect. When anime and manga go viral on BookTok, certain titles become unexpectedly popular—Brenner often wonders, “Why does everyone want this book right now?” she says. “And inevitably, it’s because of BookTok.”

Demand from readers for manga remains sky high, says Jillian Rudes, a school librarian at the New York City Department of Education in Queens, N.Y., as well as Japanese culture and manga cooperative collection development librarian for the New York City DOE. “The supply chain is a new challenge, and it’s almost impossible for me to meet the needs of readers, but more students are reading more manga now than ever in my career,” Rudes says. “During the pandemic, kids were watching a lot of anime, and they are consuming this culture like crazy—but we can’t get the books for them.”

Digital lending has jumped up to fill the gap, with more than 105,000 digital manga circulated in the New York City DOE during the 2021–2022 school year. Rudes even has a hack for getting print copies of out-of-print manga: going to bookstores, which sometimes still have them on shelves. It’s an approach that can call for unorthodox funding methods. “I’ve been telling librarians to write grants, fund-raise, have a book fair, ask for money,” she says. “You can go to Barnes & Noble and wipe them clean, because for some reason they sometimes have shelves full of the books we’re looking for.”

Rudes, along with GNCRT member Matthew Murray, has also been producing an ongoing series of webinars to educate libraries about manga, so they “can be independent collectors,” he says. “We’ve had 10 webinars so far, and each one comes with a resource list.” The need for education is paramount—manga is a huge field, and some popular series, such as Chainsaw Man, are not intended for younger readers, but that may be difficult for novice librarians to determine. Knowing what is generally appropriate for a teen or children’s library is key.

“It’s tricky,” Rudes says. “Librarians want to know what to get because they’re afraid of what to buy. They want a list of safe, appropriate manga. But what counts as safe and appropriate where you’re from? New York is one thing and Texas is another.”

Live and in person

Live comics and book events are coming back this year, with the ALA annual meeting taking place in person for the first time since 2019. As in the past, there will be an artist alley and multiple programming tracks. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series cocreator Kevin Eastman will be a featured speaker, and Barrette is putting together the President’s Program panel to kick off her term as president, which spotlights “a mix of indie publishers, new creators, people of color, and one of our student liaisons who’s currently in library school,” she says. “It’s not just the old guard of the movement.”

This year’s comics-focused Friday Forum will be devoted mostly to challenges, Coleman says. “It’s not even the elephant in the room anymore; it’s just the topic of conversation—not just for the comics librarians; for everyone.”

Other returning programs include the announcement of the winners of the 2022 Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants for Libraries. Also, for the first time, the GNCRT will have a dedicated booth, selling merchandise and sharing resources.

Barrette notes that as comics conventions come back, they are also bringing back their library programming. San Diego Comic-Con will be held in person in July, with a day of library programming returning. Whereas the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, held in June, will have its annual library day in virtual format as it did last year. “I’m very grateful that every major convention company is reaching out to librarians, putting us on the main schedule, and boosting our messaging,” Barrette says. “That’s something that has really moved forward in the last five years.”

Local librarians, though, are still figuring out how to best proceed with in-person events. Libraries launching their own large-scale comics events—colloquially known as library cons—were booming in the before times but are coming back more slowly, Coleman says, given the realities of Covid and the spread of new variants. “Being able to do virtual talks to libraries or schools is still important,” Coleman says. “Librarians have really learned the ins and outs of Zoom, and some have even learned the ins and outs of Twitch and Discord.”

Even with conferences coming back, Coleman believes some GNCRT members would like to eventually see a more focused standalone event bringing together librarians and comics publishers in dialogue about how to more “practically work together,” she says.

For all the progress being made, as librarians gather in 2022, the main topic will undoubtedly remain censorship and challenges. Coleman is hopeful that librarians are up to the task of uniting readers, and standing up for books and the right to read them. “Knowing the librarians whom I work with, the members of the roundtable, and the people at the ALA, I trust them implicitly to work on this,” she says. “They are up to this fight.”