This past weekend, the American Library Association kicked off 2023 with a new version of their midwinter conference: a four-day hybrid online/in-person event, LibLearnX 2023. After a few years of virtual/online-only gatherings, LibLearnX 2023 was billed as ALA’s first in-person event, welcoming library professionals, publishers, authors and educators to the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, Louisiana from January 27-30.
As the first in-person event held in a while, the crowds were modest, and the exhibit hall was smaller than years past, and definitely much quieter than usual. But the people who did come were happy to reconnect with each other in person again, and several mentioned that they appreciated the opportunity to have conversations and collaborate in a setting that was more intimate and low-key than ALA’s annual gathering held later in the year (traditionally in mid-late June. This year’s ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition will be held in Chicago, from June 22-27, 2023).
Traditionally, the ALA Midwinter conference is a time when the various award committees finalize their picks and celebrate winners of the Youth Media Awards, including the hotly anticipated winners of the prestigious Newbery and Caldecott Medals, celebrating the “author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” and the “artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children,” respectively. But it’s also a chance for library professionals to see what’s new, talk about what’s working and what’s not in libraries across the United States, and get a chance to meet the creators of the books that they’ll hopefully be adding to their library shelves in the months to come.
While it’s not a comics/graphic novels-focused show, LibLearnX did have lots to see for a graphic novels/comics/manga-focused readers, including a bunch of new and notable graphic novels and picture books worth pre-ordering.
Everyone I talked to agreed that graphic novels and manga are very popular in both school and public libraries, but given that this is the first in-person ALA show in a while, there were only a smattering of publishers showcasing new graphic novel titles on the floor, including VIZ Media, Oni Press, Scholastic Graphix, RH Graphic (at the Penguin Random House booth), TokyoPop and NBM (at the Independent Publishers Group booth), and First Second (at the Macmillan booth).
Buzz-worthy graphic novels and creators showcased at LibLearnX included featured guest speaker Brian Selznick (pictured above at his book signing for his upcoming Scholastic Press release, Big Tree), The Moth Keeper by K. O’Neill, a single-volume, full-color fantasy story from RH Graphic, by the creator of the Tea Dragon Society books from Oni Press). Set in a fantasy world where Anya, the Moth Keeper is responsible for the lunar moths that allow a magical flower that her village depends on to thrive, makes a fateful decision to take a break from her nocturnal job duties to fulfill a simple wish: to see the sun.
Memoirs, or stories from new voices and perspectives were also a popular theme for graphic novels featured at LibLearnX ’23. Parachute Kids, by Betty C. Tang from Scholastic Graphix is about three siblings from Taiwan who come to Southern California and find themselves adapting to a new life, new school and a whole new language and culture unexpectedly. Look for this to hit shelves in early April 2023.
Thien Pham’s food and family memoir, Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam was also previewed at the Macmillan booth ahead of its June 2023 release from First Second, and was a popular ARC (advanced reader copy) to snag amongst the graphic novel librarians I spoke with at the show. Serialized online via his Instagram account as he was creating this book, Family Style tells Pham’s memories, from his childhood on a boat escaping Vietnam to his teen days in San Jose, California and his adult life as a high school teacher and comics creator, with a significant meal or favorite food anchoring each event that shaped his life.
Maybe an Artist, a graphic memoir by New Yorker cartoonist Liz Montague (from Random House Studio) and Holding Her Own: The Exceptional Life of Jackie Ormes, a picture book biography of the ‘first Black woman cartoonist to be nationally syndicated in the United States’ by Traci N. Todd and Shannon Wright (from Scholastic) offer two books dedicated to two trailblazing female comics creators to inspire future generations of visual storytellers.
Other popular graphic novel trends included the ‘two oddball pals who get into misadventures together, sometimes with food themes,’ like Pizza and Taco by Stephan Shaskan (from Penguin Random House) and Weenie, a series featuring a dog and cat named Frank and Beans by Maureen Fergus and Alexandra Bye (from Tundra Books) to name just a few examples.
While the mood was largely positive at the show, there were definite signs that things are tough out there for school and public librarians. If you’ve been following the news, you know that these are challenging times for librarians across the United States. At the “Inclusivity in Entertainment: Uplifting Black Voices” panel on Saturday, a librarian told the authors about ‘colleagues who had to go on medical leave because they were being harassed by parents and community members.’ She continued, “We are doing our best to fight censors, but we are getting to the point where we are very tired and scared and starting to self-censor.”
Other panels at the conference included hot topics like “No More Neutral: Use Marketing to Position Your Library in Challenging Times” and “Book Bans, Libraries, and the Law: Standing Up to Library Censorship in Louisiana and Beyond,” which kind of give you an idea of what front line librarians are dealing with nowadays.
I eavesdropped on some conversations librarians had with publishers about graphic novels, which was interesting. One woman said that while comics and manga were hugely popular with kids at her school library, she still had to deal with teachers who tell kids that they had to pick “real books,” not graphic novels for their classwork/book reports. Another librarian told me that she has to make some tough choices about what books to buy for her library, given her current budget constraints, including not being able to purchase more than 1-2 first volumes of a graphic novel or manga series, even if the series has many more volumes than that available.
But there are reasons to feel hopeful for graphic novels, comics and manga in libraries. The Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table offers education and resources for librarians who want to include more comics in their collections, including recommended reading lists to make it easier to find great reads for all kinds of readers.
VIZ Media was there, offering resources just for librarians, including their guide to adding manga to book club programming and their catalog of current titles broken down into five groups: Kids, Tweens (age 10+), Teen (age 13+), Older Teen (age 16+) and Mature (age 18+). Given how popular manga is in libraries, it was surprising to see that only VIZ had a significant presence on the show floor, although a handful of TokyoPop titles were showcased at the Independent Publishers Group table, and it was noted, that since joining IPG, their sales into the various library and retail channels that IPG services easily doubled their initial marketing plan for the Los Angeles-based publisher.
Also noteworthy is the upcoming release of Manga in Libraries: A Guide for Teen Librarians, a resource guide written by librarian and manga advocate Jillian Rudes, coming in Spring 2023 from ALA Editions.
The other reason for hope for the vitality and popularity of graphic novels in libraries was apparent at the Youth Media Awards presentation on Monday morning, where numerous graphic novels won in several categories, including multiple nods for Victory, Stand! Raising My Fist for Justice by Tommie Smith and Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile (Norton Young Readers) for Excellence in Non-Fiction and two Coretta Scott King Awards, honoring both the authors and the illustrator of this graphic memoir of Tommie Smith, the gold medal winner and John Carlos, the bronze medal winner in the 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, who stood on the podium in black socks and raised their black-gloved fists to protest racial injustice.
“We’ve come a long way, as far as the acceptance of graphic novels in libraries,” remarked Robin Brenner, president elect of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table and Teen Librarian at the Public Library of Brookline in Massachusetts. “10 years ago, if any graphic novel got an award at the YMAs, it was big news. Now, there are so many, it maybe feels less extraordinary, but it’s still great to see.”
See the full list of Youth Media Awards 2023 winners from LibLearnX 2023, including standout graphic novels worth picking up.
I am glad to hear that the event seemed to go over well. Every industry and sector of society has had its stresses and breaking points the last few years. Hopefully the return of events like this will restore optimism and solidarity to the library community as they try to restore normal order in their slice of the world.
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