Diverse Comics for Classrooms and Libraries: Gender

September 30, 2016
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Happy Banned Books Week! In this series, we compile a list of comics that have diverse content and creators for which we have developed resources. For this column, we take a look at comics that reflect gender diversity.

The gender of the creators and characters of books isn’t always considered a diversity issue, but when it comes to comics, it’s an important consideration. Women, transgender, and non-binary creators and characters are still underrepresented in the comics industry. While that’s changing, the depiction of female nudity, sexuality, and coming of age are frequent targets of would-be censors, as is the depiction of transgender and non-binary characters. Of the eight comics that have been included in ALA’s ten frequently challenged books lists since 2011, six featured a female central character and four were created or co-created by a woman. While gender likely does not play a direct role in the challenges, censorship attempts disproportionately impact comics created by women and featuring female primary characters.

Elementary School*

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Amulet by Kazu Kibushi

Amulet is the fantastic story of a young girl, Emily, and her younger brother, Navin, and the adventures they have and the challenges they face when they discover a alternate world hidden behind a locked door in their grandfather’s basement. An award-winning series that spans six volumes, Kibushi depicits and fun coming of age tale and presents to readers a world teeming with a cast of diverse characters. Teaching readers acceptance and understanding as well as the importance of working with others, Amulet continues to be applauded for the value and enrichment that it brings to young readers.

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Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Smile is a coming-of-age story that recounts with humor and honesty one girls experiences growing up through her teen years. From boys and friendship, to changing bodies and braces, the multiple award-winning semi-autobiographical memoir has redefined comics for young readers and has helped bridge the gap between the comics and mainstream children’s book publishing industries in a way never done before.

Middle School

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Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves and Other Female Villians by Jane Yolen & Heidi Stemple

Everyone is familiar with the story of history’s famous good girls, but what about the infamous bad girls. This is the subject of Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple’s beautifully illustrated graphic novel Bad Girls. From Jezebel herself to Bonnie Parker, Yolen and Stemple bring together the illustrated stories of women through history who have left their mark for all the wrong reasons. Through fun facts, speculations, and historical perspective, Bad Girls has become a valuable graphic novel in library and classroom collections for the unique approach it takes to some of history’s greatest figures.

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Chiggers by Hope Larsen

Hope Larsen’s Chiggers takes readers back to summer camp and the adventures of being away from home and finding oneself. Recognized by both the Junior Library Guild and YALSA, Chiggers as a great graphic novel for teens, the coming of age graphic novel tackles topics like cultural diversity, civic responsibilities, and dealing with teen social issues.

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Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier’s Drama, a graphic novel about the joys and tribulations of a middle school drama troupe, received universal critical praise upon its publication in 2012. The book received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Media, Booklist, and School Library Journal. It also made “best of the year” or Editors’ Choice lists in Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post, the New York TimesBooklist, and School Library Journal. Finally, it was nominated for a Harvey Award and was a Stonewall Honor Book. Although most readers of all ages found Drama to be just as endearing and authentic as Telgemeier’s other books Smile and Sisters, a small but vocal minority have objected to the inclusion of two gay characters, one of whom shares a chaste on-stage kiss with another boy.

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Lily Renee, Escape Artist by Trina Robbins, Anne Timmons, & Mo Oh

Lily Renee was one of the fortunate youth to escape the Nazis through a rescue operation called Kindertransport (Children’s Transport). She was supposed to go live with a family in England and to try to find employment for her parents. The family she lived with abused her, and she couldn’t secure work for her parents. Lily eventually found her way to the United States and reunited with her parents. She subsequently became an accomplished comic book artist, drawing comics of strong, daring, beautiful women who had high adventures while battling the Nazis.

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Lumberjanes by Noel Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, & Shannon Waters

Lumberjanes is an ongoing coming-of-age series about friendship and girl-power in the great outdoors. It is filled with humor and adventure as a lovably quirky diverse group of friends tackle wild, mystical mysteries using anagrams, astronomy, and Fibonacci series’ strategies, mixed in with brain power and pure brawn. Lumberjanes is a New York Times bestseller; won the 2015 Eisner Awards for Best Series and Best Publication for Teens (13-17); received 2015 Diamond Gem Awards for Best All-Ages Series and Best All-Ages Graphic Novel; was nominated for Harvey Awards for Best Letterer, for Best New Series, and for Best Original Graphic Publication for Younger Readers; and is a nominee for GLAAD’s Outstanding Comic Book for 2016.

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Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona

In this Marvel reboot, Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Muslim girl from Jersey City, New Jersey, becomes the new Ms. Marvel. Wilson, Alphona, and the Marvel team create a modern twist offering fun and diversity for tween readers and beyond. Ms. Marvel is a finalist for the first Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity (nominees range from independent to mainstream comic books) and one of YALSA’s Top Ten 2015 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. It is also one of YALSA’s 2015 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers.

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Nimona by Noel Stevenson

If fantasy is your cup of tea, Noel Stevenson’s award-winning graphic novel Nimona is for you. Following the epic adventures of the confident and quirky shape-shifter, Nimona, the newly appointed sidekick supervillian Lord Ballister proves that not everything is what it seems and good versus evil isn’t quite black and white. From battles with knights to magic and mad science, Stevenson’s artistic experiment turned webcomic turned graphic novel has become a beloved addition to many school and library collections. Not just a simply fun story, Nimona has been recognized by the academic and library community for the literary and educational value it can bring to the classroom.

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Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong by Prudence Shen & Faith Erin Hicks

Adapted from the young adult novel Voted Most Likely by Prudence Shen, Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong is your quintessential story of the trials and tribulations of high school. From overcoming stereotypes to dealing with issues like divorce and heartbreak, Shen and Hicks graphic novel challenges numerous conventional assumptions of high school wrapped up in the fun story of a group of unlikely friends just trying to find out who they are and make it out of high school in one piece.

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis is the story of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood and coming of age within a loving, educated family that lived in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution and Iran-Iraq War. It is drawn in simple, stark, black and white ink with style, poignancy, and elegant detail as well as occasional flourishes (usually in the dream sequences) traditionally found in Eastern art. Despite the book’s critical acclaim, some parents and even educators or school administrators react to the few profanities and scenes of torture by trying to get it removed from schools.

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The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci & Jim Rugg

After barely surviving a terror attack, Jane decides that high school life is too short to pretend to be someone you aren’t. Making the decision to leave the popular table, Jane finds an all-girl group of coincidentally other Janes that is just right for her–the People Loving Art in Neighborhoods, or the P.L.A.I.N. Janes. The unlikely group of Janes include an athlete, an artist, a theater geek, and a science nerd, and it is in this group that our Jane finds out who she is and ultimately what makes her truly happy.

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This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki & Julian Tamaki

Told in warm prose and exquisite monochromatic blue images, This One Summer delicately balances the nostalgic power of summer traditions with the often harsh and intruding lessons of life. It embraces readers of all ages as two tween girls, local townie teens, and one set of parents all tangle in the delicate balances of friendships and relationships, grapple with the pains of growing up, deal with the torments of depression and of wanted and unwanted pregnancies, and cope with the heartbreaks and hopes of life. This One Summer has received outstanding praise and unprecedented honors for its stunning art and thoughtful, sensitive content.

High School

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Aya: Life in Yop City by Marguerite Abouet & Clement Oubrerie

Aya: Life in Yop City takes place in the working class suburb of Abidjan on the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. Following the life of 19-year old Aya, Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s graphic novel is one of growing into adulthood and an exploration of the class and gender politics of a recent past. The winner of the Best First Album award at the Angouleme International Comics Festival as well as the Children’s Africana Book Award and Glyph Award, Aya: Life in Yop City may be about a young African woman, but the themes and touched upon topics resonate with readers of any cultural background.

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The Color of Earth by Dong Hwa Kim

When initially translated into English, the beautiful Korean manwha was met with some opposition for its depiction of a young girl coming into her sexuality, but since, it has been embraced by schools and libraries for the unique cultural perspective that it brings to the subject of young women coming of age. Taking place in a small rural town in Korea, The Color of Earth trilogy tells the story of a young Ehwa and her mother who faces social challenges of her own as a single parent in a quite country village.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner

Artist and comics creator Phoebe Gloeckner has never been afraid to show the raw and gritty bits of reality in her work — something that possibly stems from her unique background in medical illustration. For that reason, Gloekner’s work is a frequent target of censors. The Diary of a Teenage Girl combines prose and illustration to continue the story of some of the characters from her previous book A Child’s Life. While Gloeckner is reticent to describe just how closely the books correlate to her own life, many consider them semi-autobiographical.

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Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic novel memoir of the author’s childhood, particularly focused on her relationship with her closeted gay father Bruce. As Alison grows older and realizes that she is a lesbian, she and Bruce are both forced to confront how his repression may have affected her own self-image and the way that she dealt with her sexuality. Loaded with literary references and appropriately gothic-tinged (“fun home” is the Bechdel children’s abbreviation for funeral home), the book was included on numerous “best of the year” lists, including Publishers Weekly, Time, Amazon.com, and The New York Times. It was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award (memoir/autobiography category) and won an Eisner Award (best reality-based work), the Stonewall Book Award (non-fiction), the GLAAD Media Award (outstanding comic book), and the Lambda Literary Award (lesbian memoir and biography).

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Pretty in Ink: North American Cartoonists 1896-2013 by Trina Robbins

A real gem in comics history, author and comics creator Trina Robbins profiles some of the most important and influential female comics creators from 1896 to 2013. From the queens of cute to chicks and womyn, Robbins chronicles the history of comics and those who made them in a way never done before. Whether you are reading it for pure enjoyment or for academic research, Robbins smooth and story-like narrative brings the history of women in comics to a whole new light.

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The Sandman by Neil Gaiman & various artists

The Sandman is a 75 issue series launched in 1989 that chronicles the misadventures, struggles and complex relationships among seven mystical siblings. The series earned nine Eisner awards, three Harvey awards, and was the first graphic novel to win a literary award, the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story. Since its release as a comic book, the series has experienced ongoing popularity in the graphic novel format, including the oversized and recolored Absolute edition.

Mature

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Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

This sci-fi epic adventure has literally taken the comic and mainstream publishing industry by storm. The multiple award winning series has been lauded as a modern classic and with its tackling of subjects like racial diversity and segregation in an alien universe has been embraced by the academic community for the value it adds to comic library collections. Despite its critical acclaim though the book has been challenged by would-be censors for its alleged “anti-family” and “age-inappropriate” content, holding the number six spot on the ALA’s 2014 Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books.

*Please note: Books are organized by approximate grade category based on publisher and creator recommendations as much as possible. A book that is listed as appropriate for one group is often appropriate for others, so please do your own research on the title to determine suitability for your students or patrons.

As you’re planning your events or developing your library and classroom curricula, be sure to check out these other valuable CBLDF resources:

CBLDF is an official sponsor of Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week is also sponsored by American Booksellers for Free Expression, American Library Association, Association of American Publishers, Association of American University Presses, The Authors Guild, Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, Freedom to Read Foundation, National Council for Teachers of English, and People for the American Way Foundation. Contributors include American Society of Journalists and Authors, National Coalition Against Censorship, PEN America, and Project Censored. Banned Books Week is endorsed by the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.

CBLDF’s education program is made possible with the support of the Gaiman Foundation and CBLDF’s Corporate Members — ABRAMS, Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, BOOM! Studios, comiXology, DCBS, Diamond Comic Distributors, Dark Horse Comics, DC Entertainment, IDW Publishing, Image Comics, Half Price Books, Oni Press, Penguin Random House, ReedPop, TFAW.com, Scholastic, SPX, Valiant, the Will & Ann Eisner Family Foundation — and members like you. Thank you!

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