KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Amy Crump took over as director of the Marshall Public Library in central Missouri two years ago, she decided to build up the library's offerings for young adults by buying the literary world's hot new thing — graphic novels.
The novels, using the pictures and dialogue balloons of comic books to tell sometimes sophisticated stories in book form, are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the publishing industry, selling $250 million last year, according to market research firm ICV2 Publishing. But they're also leading to challenges to libraries from some parents, who complain that the books with adult content could be read by children attracted to the comic book-like drawings.
"The bulk of our graphic novels are for young adults and they're very popular," Crump said, estimating the library's collection has gone from only a handful to around 75.
Among Crump's new acquisitions are Blankets by Craig Thompson and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, two semi-autobiographical accounts of the respective authors' turbulent childhoods that include ruminations on a strict religious upbringing and homosexuality.
Those two novels touched off what Crump said was the first challenge of library materials in the library's 16-year history. Parents complained that the books, which include pictures of a naked couple, could be read by children.
"My concern does not lie with the content of the novels, rather my concern is with the illustrations and their availability to children and the community," said Marshall resident Louise Mills during a recent public hearing reported in The Marshall Democrat-News. "Does this community want our public library to continue to use tax dollars to purchase pornography?"
The library board has since removed the two books from circulation while it develops a policy governing how it collects materials in the future, a policy that would determine the novels' eventual fates.
Sales of graphic novels have more than tripled from $75 million in 2001. Milton Griepp, chief executive of ICV2, which tracks pop-culture retail, estimated libraries add 5% to 10% to those retail sales.
"The last two or three years' growth has been pretty rapid in libraries, and that's because graphic novels have started to be respected as legitimate literature," Griepp said.
Maus, a Holocaust memoir by Art Spiegelman, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, while Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese this year became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award.
But some people who may have never heard of graphic novels are alarmed to see cartoon characters doing and saying very adult things.
"I think there's still a perception in the general public that comics are just for kids, which isn't true and hasn't been true for years," Griepp said.
The Chicago-based American Library Association said it knows of at least 14 graphic novel challenges in U.S. libraries over the past two to three years. Among the titles were The Watchmen by Alan Moore, which was challenged in Florida and Virginia as unsuitable for younger readers; Akira, Volume 2 by Katsuhiro Otomo, challenged in Texas for offensive language; and New X-Men Imperial by Grant Morrison, challenged in Maryland for nudity, offensive language and violence.
Even Maus and its sequel, Maus II, were challenged last year in Oregon as anti-ethnic and unsuitable for younger readers.
Sometimes the challenges are successful. In April, county officials in Victorville, Calif., removed from their library Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics, because the book included nudity and sexuality.
"Some people find graphical depictions of things more offensive than text," said Carrie Gardner, a spokeswoman for the ALA's Committee for Intellectual Freedom and a professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
The issue has become prevalent enough that the ALA, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund earlier this year put out a set of recommendations for librarians looking to begin their own graphic novel collections but wanting to avoid controversy.
The recommendations largely explain how to deal with challenges, but also suggest shelving graphic novels in their own section or keeping those aimed at adults separate from those for youngsters.
Gardner said discussions around graphic novels are similar to what happened when libraries began carrying videotapes and providing access to the Internet.
"Librarians are trained to conduct reference interviews and guide patrons to the resources most appropriate for them," Gardner said. "They should be making those decisions."