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When it comes to graphic books for kids, it's no longer just manga. Beowulf, anyone?

Indeed, with several big-name launches set for this spring and a swarm of new titles, it is clear that the landscape has changed dramatically. A market once dominated by manga has, over the past few years, seen the gradual entry of the graphic novel—typically a format used for adult titles.

Anice bit of validation recently came when Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese (Roaring Brook/First Second) became the first book in this genre to win the Printz Award. "There really is a high level of inspiration among publishers," said Mark Siegel, editorial director of First Second. "If you're a kid growing up in America right now, there are some really exciting authors and creators. It'll be obvious in hindsight, when we look back on these years, that something special was happening."

Siegel said his company has 11 titles planned for 2007, roughly two-thirds of which are aimed at all ages or young readers. Like most publishers entering the space, he believes that reader demand is driving the new wealth of titles. "Librarians have been saying for 10 years now that comics are always off the shelves," he said. "That's real reader demand. There's more of that than publishers think."

Kerry Hunter, who oversees the comics and graphic novel collections for the Louisville (Ky.) Free Public Library, shares Siegel's sentiment. "I think that readership is driving the output," she said. "Kids just can't seem to get enough of graphic novels. Shelving them separately or within the collection does not seem to have any effect on circulation—patrons are finding them easily."

A Sea of Change

Most publishers point to the changing face of the modern world as a prime mover behind the trend. Today's children are the first generation to grow up more accustomed to digital screens than the printed page; as wireless devices proliferate, kids increasingly understand and appreciate data that is transmitted to them in visual form.

"We live in a visual society, and providing illustration to support storytelling is extremely appealing to young readers," said Marlaine Maddux, editor-in-chief of Penny-Farthing Press, which publishes the all-ages trilogy The Loch and several YA adventures, in addition to titles aimed at adults. "In our attempt to attract new readers, we shouldn't forget that we are competing with the most visual medium of them all—television."

One of the most successful titles in this emerging space, and one held up by many as an example of what happens when everything goes right, is Jeff Smith's Bone. Originally published in comic-book form beginning in 1991, Bone's 1,300-page epic journey is currently being reissued in nine installments by Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic dedicated to graphic novels. "I constantly have to restock Bone," said Jon Newman, manager of Ultimate Comics in Durham, N.C. "That's a book that the schools are driving—if they don't have it at a school book fair, the kids come into the store in masses to get it."

Bone, which has received 10 Eisner Awards and 11 Harvey Awards, is an example of the kind of book publishers are increasingly seeking out, as it appeals to readers of all ages. It's the kind of book a child might borrow from the library, only to find he has to arm-wrestle Dad to get some time with it. It is also sophisticated enough to rise above the widely held perception that much illustrated fiction for kids is "junk food." David Saylor, editorial director of Graphix, said of the series, "We wanted a property that defined what a graphic novel is, and Bone represented the kind of book we wanted to publish."

Bone deserves some, but certainly not all, of the credit for what some see as a renaissance mood in comics publishing for young readers. Librarians used to turn up their noses at the segment; now, they see just how much those titles are moving out the doors—and how much better the books are, as well.

"Bookstores and libraries seem to be moving these books," said Deb Wayshak, editor of the new graphic-novel version of Beowulf by Gareth Hinds, the first graphic novel published by Candlewick Press. "The form isn't new, but it has found a new energy after years of being overlooked. So it's evolving fast and it feels new, in that there aren't hard-and-fast rules yet. There's room for innovation, which has to appeal to artists."

Graphix is arguably the first imprint dedicated exclusively to graphic novels for kids, but it is certainly no longer the only one. A year ago Roaring Brook released the first title from First Second, its graphic novel imprint. Diamond Book Distributors recently started Diamond Kids, a business development unit that assists publishers in developing and improving graphic novel programs, and last November Hachette announced it will be launching Yen Press, a graphic-novel imprint for adults and young readers. Big publishers like Hyperion, HarperCollins, S&S and DK are moving into the space, too, with a growing number of graphic releases; meanwhile, smaller houses like Penny-Farthing and Top Shelf Productions are carving out a piece of the niche for themselves.

From a content perspective, the books that are on the way are all over the topical map. Many houses are leveraging existing brands (Time Warp Trio, Amazon High and Warriors from HarperCollins; Baby-sitters Club and Goosebumps from Graphix; Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys from S&S's Papercutz), while others are using the medium to tell stories from classic literature (Barron's Graphic Classics line, which includes Kidnapped, Moby Dick and Oliver Twist) and history (DK's Graphic Readers line delves into ancient Greece, Rome and China, while School Specialty Publishing tackles the Civil War and the story of Anne Frank). Lerner is also getting in the game with its new Graphic Universe line, which focuses on myths and legends from around the world.

On the Shelves

While publishers have responded quickly to this new market, have bookstores and other specialty retailers? "The comic book direct market retailers have really gotten behind the all-ages graphic novels," said Chris Staros, president of Marietta, Ga.—based Top Shelf, which boasts titles for young readers like Owly, Korgi, and Pinky & Stinky. "And even though the book trade's big players, like Borders and Barnes & Noble, haven't quite gotten behind them yet, as soon as they do, there's going to be a huge upswing in this area of the market."

The problem may simply be where to shelve the books. Do they go in the kids' section, or with the comics, or in a new category of their own? What do you do with a book like American Born Chinese, which could do just as well in the memoir section as in kids'? Siegel said he's seen bookstores create two dedicated sections for graphic novels—one for young readers, one for mature. Even more telling, he's seen comic book shops emphasize the all-ages books—including one shop in Austin, Tex., where they enjoyed a place of prominence at the very front of the store.

Even comic shops that don't do a lot of business in this segment are seeing growing demand. Chuck Cagle, manager of Outer Limits Comics in Murfreesboro, Tenn., said most of his store's business comes from Star Wars books and products. Even so, he's seeing a growing number of girls with "hold boxes" for new titles they want—and he's especially excited about the new Minx imprint from DC Comics, aimed at teenage girls.

Not everyone is quite so bullish on the future of all-ages graphic novels. Penguin imprint Philomel recently launched its graphic initiative with a series of Alex Rider titles and a forthcoming visual interpretation of Brian Jacques's Redwall. But publisher Michael Green is not ready to put all (or even most) of his eggs in this new basket. "My sense is that it's having its time and its day, and I think there is a lot more attention being paid to it on our end than is translating into sales," he said. "That's just a hunch. The books from the major publishers, I don't see them competing all that strongly with manga. Manga is still where it's at now, and we're trying to grab pieces of that."

Manga indeed remains a force to be reckoned with, but if fans find themselves wanting something more substantial, the new wave of titles will be waiting for them. Siegel said the design aesthetic and quality control at First Second is consciously aimed at rising above the quality bar set by manga. "We want children in the young section of graphic novels to be able to reach for something that isn't just junk food," he said. "A lot of the manga is just that, and it does very well, but it's disposable. Our books are meant to be for keeps."

Despite being bearish on the all-ages graphic novel market, Philomel's Green does see longterm consequences created by the current crop of titles. "This style of illustration, and even the format, is starting to skew a little bit younger," he said. "Younger and younger kids are growing used to this format and looking for it at a younger age. I think you may even see this trickle down to the picture-book market—you'll see picture books that use more panel layouts, less classic picture book layouts."

Author Information
Bickers is a writer, radio announcer and Web programmer in Louisville, Ky.