I write with the idea that teachers will read my scholarship. That includes peer reviewed articles, invited pieces, and this blog. So, when I write, I am always talking to teachers who are the influencers on what gets read in the classroom. Now, don’t get me wrong there are others who read my scholarship — librarians, parents, other scholars — and that’s great but I’m in teacher education for a reason.
They (who are THEY anyway?) say numbers don’t lie – but I’d say they only tell part of the story. The numbers on the teacher representation are undeniable …. it is a White world in teacher education. The latest statistics show a little over 80% of teachers are White, and 77% are women (Taie and Goldring, 2018) and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon. At the same time, 51% of students are non-White and that number is increasing in every state. Here is what we also know, teacher expectation is a huge predictor of student outcomes, and White teachers expect less of Black and Latinx students (Boser, Wilhelm, and Hanna 2014).
What can we do? Each of us must think about how we can change education to best serve all students. For me that means I spend a lot of time developing ways to help teachers shift their ideas about literature in the classroom. One area I spend a LOT of time thinking and writing about is graphic novels – novel length narratives (both non-fiction and fiction) created in comics form. I think of graphic novels as the grandchild of comic strips, and the child of comic books.
It is important to think about the form and the history of the form. Comics, at least here in the United States of America, have a long history of being by and for White, straight men. But, the readership has changed in the last 25 years. Although the leading comic book publishers (DC and Marvel) don’t want to face the fact that the readership has grown beyond White, straight guys, that is exactly what has happened. But, publishing is a conservative business, so changing it is like steering a cruise ship in an ocean of Jello. It is slow to change direction and takes a hell of a lot of work.
I recently saw a tweet from National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) that featured this image ….
I was excited at first and then disappointed. This is the kind of emotional roller coaster I am all too familiar with and it goes something like this ….
- Hey! Look! Graphic novels in my Twitter feed!
- Wow – from NCTE. Big dealio! Getting some traction here!
- That’s a really White list of books.
- That’s a really male list of books.
- Ugh … now everyone is re-tweeting.
- Ugh …. Dammit
Let me explain. I have been keeping a database of graphic novels published for k-12 readers. It started with a focus on books with protagonists that were women and girls, but it has grown. It is this huge pile of data that I wade into every once in a while and muck around in. I have added all sort of items – such as the race and gender of authors and illustrations; the total number of identifiable characters by gender, race, and if they speak. I’m trying to develop a way to measure the quality of representations (this is still a work in progress). It’s a lot … and I’m not sure what the data is showing me yet.
Measure for Measure – Representation
When I saw the Tweet from Matt (no last name found) who originally posted the list on Upper Elementary Snapshots, I took a quick scan of the titles and groaned. I groaned outloud and probably grabbed my head. Why, you may ask, because the post is all about using graphic novels in all the right ways. But … But … the actual list of recommended books is just soooooooooo White, male centric …. just monolithic and typical. All I could think about was the students in the classrooms of the teachers who read the Tweet and see that NCTE tag and think, “hey, that looks like a great list!”
The Bechdel Test (Sarkeesian, 2009) is a really low bar to measure the representation of women in media – it isn’t about quality, it is only focused on the mere presence of women in media (films, TV, and in this case, books). It goes something like this:
- Are there at least 2 named female characters who;
- speak to each other;
- about something other than a man.
It is a really, really, really low bar. Sometimes that is what we are dealing with – the lowest of low bars and I think we really need to be doing better than this. I mean, think about the ABSOLUTE minimum you are willing to provide for your students, and then look at this list another way.
Graphic Novel Series Creators in This Classroom
Corinne Duyvis came up with the idea of #OwnVoices in 2015. She suggested the hashtag “to recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” The idea that marginalized people are better equipped to tell those stories has become much more contentious then I think anyone expected. But, when we see lists like this, it is important to look at who the authors and illustrators are, who’s voices are being heard, and who’s are not.
I waded into my database and pulled the titles Matt listed as “series” and “single story” graphic novels and created some charts.
Graphic Novel Authors – Series and Single Stories
Take a look at who is writing the graphic novels that Matt uses in his classroom.
Out of the 33 creators – some books had an author and illustrator(s) – 27 are White, one Black* and three Asians. No Latinx, Indigenous, or Middle Eastern.
In addition to the authors being overwhelmingly White, these books are primarily written and illustrated by
men. This monochromatic selection is not a reflection of what is available in graphic novels. It is a reflection of what this teacher chose for his students.
Protagonists – Series
The protagonists in these graphic novel series that Matt selected for his class and recommended for your classes, the results were just as disappointing. The vast majority of the characters were either White or NOT HUMAN. That’s right, you have a better chance of seeing yourself reflected in these books if you are a talking rabbit or a Yeti, rather than Latinx, Black, Asian, Indigenous/Native American, or Middle Eastern person.
Additionally, looking at these protagonists I found they were overwhelmingly male. There were no gender non-conforming characters, and no LGBTQ protagonists to be had across these series.
Just … ugh.
Protagonists – Single Story
The “single story” graphic novels on the list were a bit different when it came to gender. Here there are more female protagonists. There were still no no gender non-conforming characters, and the 2 LGBTQ characters (both male) were written by a straight woman.
There were no non-humans in these books. But, the clear majority of these protagonists are, once again, overwhelmingly White. The 3 Latinx protagonists were from the same, hugely problematic graphic novel – Ghosts. You can read about the issues here on my blog, and here on Dr. Debbie Reese’s blog.
Matt, the teacher who posted the list, is trying to provide interesting, engaging, and complex literature for his students. He is trying to open space for his students. But, he forgot that all literature, including graphic novels, are not culturally neutral.
Students need to read a wide range of authentic representations of genders, sexual orientations, abilities, races, and ethnicities. That needs to be non-negotiable because our students deserve no less.
* Thank you for the careful read Mary Reilley Clark, @SEMSLibraryLady, and the catch. I mistakenly wrote that there were 3 Black authors, there is only 1.
Boser, U., Wilhelm, M., & Hanna, R. (n.d.). The Power of the Pygmalion Effect. Retrieved July 29, 2018, from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2014/10/06/96806/the-power-of-the-pygmalion-effect/
Sarkeesian, A. (2009, December 7). The Bechdel test for women in movies. Retrieved August 1, 2010, from http://www.feministfrequency.com/2009/12/the-bechdel-test-for-women-in-movies/
Taie, S., and Goldring, R. (2018). Characteristics of Public Elementary and Secondary School Teachers in the United States: Results From the 2015–16 National Teacher and Principal Survey First Look (NCES 2017-072rev). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved July 2018 from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.ap?pubid=2017072rev.