Authored by Stephanie Hilfiker
Recently there have been inclusivity movements throughout multiple industries, but how is representation fairing in literary circles, specifically in graphic novels? There is not always as much diversity in books as there is in real life. There is still a lack of representation of different genders, races, and abilities in young adult and children’s literature.
Graphic novels, sometimes described as long comic books, have been a growing medium for years. Graphic novel sales have been on the rise, “up 17.2 percent in 2015-2016” (Batten 2018, 64). With increasing sales numbers, it is certainly expected that there should be more diverse representation within the medium.
Looking at this year’s School Library Journal’s “Top 10 graphic Novels”, seven of the ten include minority characters, underrepresented populations, or characters dealing with serious issues that were once seen as taboo subjects. Even though this is a step in the right direction, there are other ways in which the medium could use proper representation (Alverson et al. 2018, 40-44).
One great example of representation is in Katie O’Neill’s Princess Princess Ever After, cover pictured above. It is a story about two princesses, each different in attitude and expression. One chooses to be a tough yet compassionate warrior and one chooses to be effeminate and perky. As the story goes on and the princesses solve problems together, they fall in love. The characters embody diverse gender expressions, body types, races, and sexual orientation in positive ways that are typically underrepre-sented in children’s literature. According to the Kirkus Review (2016), the author, “challenges conventions with every twist of the plot but doesn’t veer into heavy-handed preachiness that pulls readers out of the story,” showing that we can have diversity without trying too hard to represent everyone. Diversity can be done naturally because it is natural.
While representation in this specific graphic novel is diverse, there is still one specific area of representation under scrutiny: inclusion of people with disabilities. In a study done by the American Association of School Libraries, the authors looked at a sample of 30 graphic novels and noticed only twelve graphic novels contained characters with disabilities. Of those 16 characters, only three were seen as “inclusive members of their communities” (Irwin and Moeller 2010, 8-9). In their conclusion, Irwin and Moeller say that even though people with disabilities are represented, they are not represented well.
This sentiment is also expressed in Queer Media Images: LGBT Perspectives. The authors, Guthrie, Kunkel, and Hladky, point out that, when it comes to people who identify as LGBT in media, people need to see themselves in the characters, and if they do not, then the representation is not of good quality. When it comes to representation, we need characters who are positively complex and do not perpetuate stereotypes that harm the images of underrepresented communities (2013, 21). There is still work to be done in the realm of representation, but we as a society are working on it, and that is encouraging.
Alverson, Brigid, Robin Brenner, Johanna Draper Carlson, Lori Henderson, Esther Keller, Mike Pawuk, and Scott Robins. 2018. “Top 10 Graphic Novels.” School Library Journal 64, no. 12: 40-42. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=tfh&AN=133354601&site=ehost-live
Batten, Tom. 2018. “Graphic Novels Survey 2018,” Library Journal 143, no. 20: 64. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=133516363&site=ehost-live
Guthrie, Jennifer A., Adrienne Kunkel, and K. Nicole Hladky. 2013. “The Complex Relationship Between (and Within) the Oppressed and the Empowered: Contradiction and LGBT Portrayals on The L Word“ In Queer Media Images: Lgbt Perspectives, edited by Jane Campbell and Theresa Carilli, 19-29. Lanham: Lexington Books. PDF.
Irwin, Marilyn and Robin Moeller. 2010. “Seeing Different: Portrayals of Disability in Young Adult Graphic Novels,” School Library Media Research 13. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ888377.pdf
Kirkus Reviews. 2016. Review of Princess Princess Ever After, by Katie O’Neill. https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/katie-oneill/princess-princess-ever-after/