Since March, we’ve had the great fortune of partnering with the New York City School Library System in order to organize “TOON In…A Comics in the Schools Initiative.” The initiative is designed to increase students’ visual literacy by giving teachers free TOON Books and encouraging them to design lesson plans. Once teachers began filling out our response form, we were intrigued by the comments they volunteered. One teacher suggested:
We can also call them- Graphic Novels-the title “comics” @ this stage would not go well (once again-@ this Early stage in the initiative).
This suggestion came on the heels on a Washington Post review of Benny and Penny in The Toy Breaker in an article on “remarkable new kids’ graphic novels.” We were fascinated by these comments on categorization. On one hand, we value educators’ insights enormously; every book we make is is carefully vetted throughout its conception to ensure that it meets teachers’ standards. We will never, therefore, disregard feedback from a teacher or parent who knows what best supports their children.
On the other hand, the TOON books are clearly not graphic novels. Our longest books are 40 pages. All our titles employ vocabulary appropriate for children younger than nine years old. Indeed, since our publishing house’s founding in 2008, we’ve struggled to lift our titles out of the “graphic novels” section of bookstores and libraries and into the “easy readers” section where we believe they belong.
Perhaps the disconnect between the categories of “comics” and “graphic novels” arises from our unwillingness, as readers, to assign a book we love deeply to a category we may find shallow. Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman have worked tirelessly since starting RAW in 1980 to establish comics as a worthwhile medium in its own right. The term “graphic novel” may have been a useful euphemism 30 years ago (it didn’t hurt when if was applied to MAUS, first published in book form in 1986), but we may have reached a point where it confuses rather than clarifies.