Resiliency in Graphic Novels

By Kat Kan, MLS

The word “resiliency” can refer to emotional resilience, mental resilience, or physical resilience. A school counselor at my local school district said that students who have good resilience are better able to handle emotional stresses, environmental stresses (in our area, we suffered from a Category 5 hurricane in October 2018), and all the problems so many have faced with COVID-19—not to mention poverty, food insecurity, racism, and many other problems.

When I was young, I dealt a lot with feelings of being an outsider. I’m mixed Japanese/White, and I didn’t feel that I belonged anywhere, even though my parents loved my siblings and me. When we lived in Japan, my Japanese grandparents’ neighbors would stare at me, because I didn’t look very much like them. Back in the United States, in the town where we lived, we kids were double outsiders: mixed race and not locals. My classmates didn’t like the fact that I “passed” as White, and at least one older student in our small school called my mother horrible names.

Image of chalkboard illustrations demonstrating resilience

To cope, I basically escaped into books, mostly adventures, mysteries, and science fiction. A lot of the books I enjoyed featured outsider characters who overcame their circumstances and saved themselves, their friends, their town—sometimes even a whole world. Andre Norton, in particular, created fascinating worlds and portrayed strong female characters who took action and did cool things. I know that these books, and certain television series, especially “Star Trek” (the original 1960s series), helped me see more of myself in the characters and recognize that I wasn’t just some weirdo kid.

A colleague and I, both librarians at Bay County Public Library in Panama City, Florida, were guests on a podcast done by Alignment Bay County, a nonprofit agency focusing on helping youth with stress and mental health issues. For our podcast recorded on May 4, 2021, we chose a number of books, both fiction and nonfiction. I, of course, selected graphic novels and graphic memoirs. We provided our lists to the podcast host and her co-host for this particular episode, a school counselor. They researched the books so they could discuss how the books demonstrated certain types of resilient behavior.

I brought Jarrett Krosoczka’s “Hey, Kiddo”—his memoir of growing up raised mostly by his grandparents because his drug-abusing mother couldn’t take care of him. Teens who read his book know that Krosoczka managed to grow up and enjoy a happy life, simply by virtue of the fact that he created it. His graphic memoir takes readers through his youth to witness how his imperfect but loving grandparents gave him some stability.

Jerry Craft’s “New Kid” tells the story of Jordan Banks, a Black 12-year-old whose parents send him to a private school where he’s one of the few non-White kids; he also doesn’t fit most people’s idea of a Black boy, because he’d much prefer to draw comics. Anyone who feels alone and out of place can relate to Jordan. If this book had been published when I was that age, I would have loved it at least as much I love it now.

Raina Telgemeier, in my opinion, started something special with her book, “Smile.” When this book first came out in 2010, it grabbed the attention of many kids. I was working in a school library at the time. Scholastic sent me a review copy of the book, and I shared it with my lunch time book club students. That copy made the rounds at the school, and some of the students even wrote fan letters to Raina, which I sent to her via Scholastic. Her account of the dental trauma she suffered in sixth grade, plus dealing with friends who weren’t really great friends, and a massive earthquake, grabbed the kids’ attention. They’d never seen anything like this in comic book format before, and they loved it. When they saw that our Spring Scholastic Book Fair included “Smile,” lots of them bought it. This book sold out THREE times, something that had never happened before. Each student who talked to me about the book said they felt a deep connection to Raina, that they loved how she portrayed her feelings.

Each of Raina’s original books, including “Drama,” “Sisters,” “Ghosts,” and “Guts,” depict characters (sometimes Raina and her family, sometimes fictional characters) experiencing all kinds of challenging situations. These include family relationship troubles, dealing with school, and trying to find one’s place in the social order, while dealing with long-term health issues. Raina’s art makes the stories approachable, understandable, and young readers love them. I think it’s fantastic that so many other creators have published their own comics over the past 11 years, comics that also help young readers see how kids like them are learning to overcome difficulties that make them stronger.

When I was young, I didn’t want to read self-help kinds of books. I didn’t want didactic books that just told me what was wrong and how to fix myself. I wanted mostly to escape, but I ended up finding help by reading stories that helped me experience struggle and adventure vicariously through characters I liked. I have loved superhero stories since I could read, and many of those heroes also dealt with problems. Gene Luen Yang’s “Superman Smashes the Klan” is adapted from a 1940s radio drama. Yes, Superman is a superhero, but Yang portrays his struggle with his identity as an alien: an immigrant to Earth. This story focuses on a Chinese immigrant family facing racism in Metropolis, but also shows the reader how a young White boy starts coming to terms with his racist relatives. This book is also highly relevant to current racism and the attacks so many people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have suffered for the past year or so (and for over a century). Yang’s young Superman doesn’t fully come into his powers until he accepts his alien nature. Tommy and Roberta Lee have to learn who they can trust to treat them with respect and friendship, while Chuck has to decide who and what he really wants to be.

I think that almost any book can be a source of inspiration that touches a young reader and helps them feel more a part of their world. It might be the main character, or the society depicted in the story, or the family relationships—anything could be the critical factor that helps readers build more resilience in whatever form they need to feel stronger and better about themselves. And we at Brodart help librarians find more of those books to put onto their shelves for their patrons.

If you’re looking for a graphic novel guru, you’re looking for Kat Kan. Kat looks like the stereotypical librarian with glasses and a bun, until you see the hair sticks and notice her earrings may be tiny books, TARDISes from Doctor Who, or LEGO Batgirls. Click here for more.

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