At a time when graphic novels in libraries are under fire like never before, Shira Pilarski has chosen to focus on the positive. Pilarski, the incoming president of the American Library Association’s Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table (GNCRT), is focusing their President’s Program on “queer joy in comics.”

“We have so many conversations about bans, let’s remind ourselves why we’re doing this in the first place,” Pilarski says. “I’m particularly thinking about uplifting the celebrations, the things that make us feel good.” As chair of the ALA’s Stonewall Book Awards Committee, they spent the past year reading comics and manga by and about LGBTQ people. They found that the comics publishing industry has produced “so much good stuff by queer and trans people, and about queer and trans characters” in recent years. “Then looking at the news, I thought, we need to talk about the good stuff.”

Graphic novels continue to be among the most popular titles in libraries. When Pilarski was assistant manager of the Detroit Public Library, from 2022 to 2023, they found that graphic novels had a higher circulation rate than prose; Dog Man is a perennial favorite among middle grade readers, and teens have a voracious appetite for manga.

But the visual aspect that makes graphic novels so popular with readers also makes them popular with pressure groups, says Daniel Patton, cochair of the GNCRT’s Addressing Challenges Committee. “You can just look at a page,” he says. “You don’t have to read a bunch of words.”

Indeed, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer was again the most challenged book in libraries in 2023, according to the ALA, and two other graphic novels were also in the top 10: Mike Curato’s Flamer and Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan’s Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human. And, Patton notes, not all challenges are through official channels. He cites a librarian who has been forced to repurchase numerous copies of Gender Queer because they keep disappearing.

Additionally, it is often the case that challenges are issued by people who have not even read the book they’re targeting. When Daviess County Citizens for Decency in Daviess County, Ky., demanded that Ryan Estrada and Hyun Sook Kim’s Banned Book Club be removed from the YA section of the local public library, Estrada attended the meeting of the Daviess County Fiscal Court and learned that same group had also tried to remove P.D. Eastman’s picture book Are You My Mother?, which the group’s members had confused with Alison Bechdel’s adult graphic memoir Are You My Mother?. Similarly, a county official insisted Let’s Talk About It, a teen sex-ed book, was found in the children’s section of the library. It wasn’t; the book shelved in the children’s section was Let’s Talk About It: A Sesame Street Guide to Resolving Conflict. (No sex, just diplomatic Elmo.)

Patton points to the Addressing Challenges Committee’s resources for librarians on the GNCRT website, which include a toolkit to aid comics librarians in preparing for and dealing with challenges. The committee also recently launched a zine project, inviting comics creators, readers, and library workers to create zines about the importance of libraries and the freedom to read. The committee plans to display the zines digitally and physically at the ALA Annual 2024 and is hoping to publish an anthology.

Defensive strategy

One strategy libraries can use to minimize problems is carefully curating their collections, according to Jeff Trexler, interim director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Publishers target graphic novels to specific ages, but libraries often shelve them in broader age categories, such as YA, which the ALA defines as ages 12–18. “The people who are challenging the books,” Trexler says, “will come in and say, ‘Oh, look, there’s this thing with sex in it. I can’t believe that my 12-year-old has access to this because it’s shelved in the same section.’ ” The answer, he says, is to shelve books in a way that corresponds with the age groups to which publishers market books. This could require adding a teen or tween section or rearranging current categories.

“The first library I ever worked at had adult and teen graphic novels intermingled,” Pilarski says. “That’s problematic. Books that are intended for adults should not be in the teen section.”

When Pilarski arrived at the Landsdale, Pa., public library, where they are currently the director, all graphic novels were in a single section: “Everything from Sandman to The Baby-Sitters Club,” they say. The library is now working on shelving graphic novels by age group, and Pilarski often checks where other libraries have placed titles, adding that expansion is needed when titles are likely to spark controversy simply because branches “don’t have an adult graphics collection in their library” to place adult comics in, or they end up on the teen shelf by default.

“As a librarian, I want things to be in the right place where they’re going to hit the right audience,” Patton says. A patron once challenged an adult graphic novel, which was shelved in the adult section, because their child had looked through it. “We didn’t even have to follow through on it,” Patton notes. “We had it in the right place, and it fit our collection policy.” In a case like that, it is up to the adult to monitor the child’s behavior.

Publishers are resolute

With so many challenges, there is a concern that publishers are scaling back on acquiring and developing graphic novels that fall into categories most likely to be banned. Trexler suspects this is likely. “You have challenged books that have sold in the stratosphere, like Gender Queer, but there are a lot of books where sales are smaller, and that’s where a wave of librarians across the state deciding it’s not worth stocking such books can make the difference between profitability and running at a loss,” he says. “And that can make a difference in terms of whether an author is going to be picked up, or the next book.”

It’s difficult to track whether there’s been a chilling effect from bans on general library buying—because statistics on library sales are not available to the public—but the publishers PW spoke with countered that scaling back is not their agenda.

“We are not changing what we do,” says Sean Tulien, editorial director of Lerner’s Graphic Universe imprint. Lerner’s sales are split near evenly between school libraries, public libraries, and general trade, so legislation restricting library purchases would have an inordinate effect on its business. “It’s obviously meant to target and harass book publishers and make it hard for us to put out stuff that kids need,” he adds, “but we have to continue to do that.”

Tulien cites Melanie Gillman’s Stage Dreams, a backlist title from 2019, as an example of the success of publishing controversial topics against censorship pressures. A Western adventure with LGBTQ characters, the graphic novel still consistently sells 50–100 copies a month. “It’s very obvious that it fits the criteria to be banned by conservative districts, and still, there’s demand for it,” he says. “That should be the single driving factor as to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

Liz Francis, founder of Street Noise Books, publishes exactly the kind of books any publisher would expect to be challenged. “We have a clear mission to provide a platform for the voices of marginalized people,” she says, “and to create books that are unapologetic, authentic, and politically relevant.” The publisher’s list is geared toward readers in their late teens and early 20s; upcoming titles include Djuna: The Extraordinary Life of Djuna Barnes by Jon Macy (Oct.), a biography of the lesbian novelist. “We haven’t had a problem,” she says, “because I think the librarians always know what they’re getting with our books.”

The answer is always resoundingly ‘Yes, we obviously need these books.’

Andrea Colvin, editorial director of LB Ink, the graphic novel imprint of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, agrees that pushing back and championing projects by marginalized creators is of paramount importance. “I’m always going to bring in these projects,” Colvin says. “The queer stuff, and the stuff with non-cis-white-male leads, about all sorts of different experiences.” In acquisitions meetings, she adds, “the question will be, ‘This puts librarians in a tough position. Is this what we want to do?’ And the answer is always resoundingly, ‘Yes, we obviously need these books.’ ” Colvin also says she would never tone down the content of a book because of potential challenges. But she does talk to librarians about books’ content to make sure they are reaching readers of the intended age level.

Books like Flamer or Stage Dreams are particularly important for LGBTQ young people living in communities where they are not supported, Colvin notes. “They give you a window into another world that’s not your own,” she says. “In a way, each one is like a little It Gets Better campaign.” And for readers who have comfortable lives, graphic novels can serve as a valuable reminder that not everyone is so fortunate. “It’s important to open your mind to what other people might be feeling,” Colvin says, “and I think books are the best way that that happens.”

Brigid Alverson is a regular comics contributor to PW, a columnist for SLJ, a contributing editor at ICv2, and editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog.

Read more from our Graphic Novels in Libraries feature:

Comics Thrive in Libraries Through Digital Lending
Comics Plus and other digital lending platforms are a growing area for the discovery and circulation of graphic novels in libraries.

Why Would A Comic About Censorship Get Banned?
When a graphic novel about censorship was challenged in libraries and schools, creators Ryan Estrada and Hyun Sook Kim fought back. Now they’re releasing a sequel.

In Defense of Comic Books: PW Talks with Jeff Trexler
The interim director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund offers an update on the challenges libraries are facing in keeping comics on the shelf.