28 October 2008

Flight into Adulthood

I'm determined to finish discussing all the graphic novels I read as a judge for the 2007 Cybils Awards before I have to start reading middle-grade novels for the 2008 awards. So today's entry is about Flight, volume 4, an anthology of short stories in comics form edited by Kazu Kibuishi.

With well over 300 pages of color comics, this book offers a sampling of many styles and sensibilities from up-and-coming author-illustrators. Most of the stories have some fantastic element, but not all do.

If I had to pick out a favorite, I'd choose Ryan Estrada's "Mystical Monkey." It's a summer-camp story with a difference, since this camp involves meditating to meet one's "power animal." Tyrone discovers his animal guardian "is a jerk."

A close second is Lark Pien's "Story of Binny," another tale of a troublesome animal. The binny even has the audacity to insist, "You read too many books."

In the Cybils judging of Graphic Novels for Young Adults, I think Flight, volume 4, suffered from being an anthology up against long unified stories (i.e., novels), which had more room to spread out. It also suffered, in my mind, from not really being a book for Young Adults.

Kibuishi's own story, "The Window Makers," is about working your first full-time job and seeing your future in an older co-worker.
J. P. Ahonen's "And Hope for the Best" is about a couple wondering about whether to become parents. Pascal Campion's "The Storm" follows a drunken lover, Neil Babra's "The Blue Guitar" shows a musician attempting suicide with a gas stove, and Clio Chang's "To Grandma's" is a meditation on Little Red Riding Hood in the context of child-molestation fears.

I'm not saying that Young Adult literature can't consider suicide, sex, alcohol, and other "edgy" topics. Books written for teenagers have been handling those topics since before the term "Young Adult" was invented. But they do so from a teenager's perspective.

Those stories and others in Flight, volume 4, clearly reflect the interests and development of twentysomething adults, not teens. And while other stories, such as "Mystical Monkey" and Raina Telgemeier's "Dinosaur Egg" speak to the sensibility of pre-teens, I don't think we can just average them all out and call the result "Young Adult."

I suspect that if Flight were an anthology of prose stories with the same plots, instead of being an anthology of comics, no one would even consider labeling it Young Adult literature. But our culture still associates comics with kids, so that skews the expected readership of Flight down a few years.


Ryan said...

Thanks a lot, I'm honored you liked my comic!

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you here. I have two teenagers, one just 13, the other 16, and both dive into the entire Flight series with gusto -- the 13-year old especially (she started reading the series when she was 12). She loved Flight 4. And when I brought Flight 5 home from the library, the order of enjoyment went by age -- the younger the family member, the more he/she enjoyed it.

The series is shelved in the teen section of our library, among the graphic novels. (There's a separate graphics novel section for adults.) All the books in the series are constantly circulating, i.e., I have yet to see more than one or two volumes from the series on the shelves at the same time because they are constantly checked out.

It's not just the subject matter, it's the presentation. And based on my limited anecdotal evidence, the presentation seems to hit the right tone for teens.

J. L. Bell said...

Teenagers read a wide range of things, from classic novels to books created en masse for younger kids. So I think that classifying some work as “Young Adult literature” means more than saying that teens like it.

I first read War and Peace in high school and loved it, but it’s not Young Adult literature. I read The Lord of the Rings in those same years, along with millions of other young teenagers, but I think its fans would resist the idea that Tolkien wrote for teenagers.

On the other hand, I first read The Great Gatsby in junior high and didn’t get it because it’s not Young Adult literature, and I wasn’t ready. And finally there are books like The Outsiders which I found very affecting then and sort of distant now.

Some authors truly write stories for teens, with their interests, sensibilities, development, and perspective in mind. Those I think justify the label of “Young Adult literature.” Adults can get a lot out of them, but then all adults have been Young Adults at some point. So when I was evaluating the Cybils nominees in a “Young Adult” category, I was looking for that approach.

If “the presentation” is what makes the Flight books appeal to young teens, then perhaps the “comics are for kids” dictum makes some sense. But I suspect that the variety of stories in each volume makes it possible for readers of many different ages to find some that speak most strongly to them.

Anonymous said...

Presentation is more than font and pictures. It's voice, tone, perspective.

There's no question that some graphic novels are aimed for adults, and I read them and do not pass them along to my kids. And some are written for adults, and at a certain point kids can relate to them. (Like the novels you describe.) But the Flight series has segments that are really aimed for kids -- this is probably why my kids like the series more than I do. The subject matter covered may be complex, but it's approached in a kid-friendly way.

I think Flight is mischaracterized as a graphic novel. It's more of a compilation of graphic short stories. [Aside: we use to call them comics. . . :)] And maybe some of these short stories really are adult both in content and tone. But overall, the feel, to me anyway, is teen.

J. L. Bell said...

I certainly agree on the inadequacy of the "graphic novel" label. Novels aren't collections of short stories. Novels aren't nonfiction memoirs. Novels aren't anthologies of work by different people that happen to share a character.

Except in comics publishing, where anything with enough pages to have a spine gets called a "graphic novel."

J. L. Bell said...

I just realized that another, perhaps better way to put my conclusion is that if the disparate group of stories in Flight, volume 4, were in prose form, few people would think of assembling them in a single volume.

Folks would sort them into a pile for adults, a pile for teens, and a pile for younger readers.

But since those stories are all in comics form, our culture sees them as sharing an audience. And since they're all in one volume, that turns out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.