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Genre Guide: Graphic Memoirs

persepolisDefinition

Graphic memoirs are comics or sequential art that tell an autobiographical or semi-autobiographical story. Because they are a sub-genre of graphic novels and comics in general they may sometimes be referred to more generally as “nonfiction graphic novels.”

Characteristics

Most graphic memoirs do not cover the same wide scope a print memoir would. Typically what they lack in breath, the make up for in depth. Since graphic memoirs are instead more focused, they often afford the author the opportunity to focus on one particular event, span of years, or relationship with someone or something and their feelings surrounding it.  A key advantage of using the comics medium is the ability to show rather than merely tell. Everything from the font used for a particular character’s speech, to the size and position of each panel helps to tell the story.  In memoir, this can help the author to communicate a feeling or situation from their past more immediately and, and perhaps more effectively, than if they were relying on text alone. 

Appeal

Graphic memoirs appeal to traditional memoir readers and traditional comics readers. They can serve as a great entry point into comics and graphic novels because they tend to be stand alone works. Readers looking to get into the comics genre may often feel intimidated by “where to start” especially when considering superhero comics or manga. Furthermore, readers of nonfiction or realistic fiction may not think comics are for them, as they perceive comics to be centered on superheroes, science fiction and fantasy.  Graphic memoirs are, by nature, realistic and may be more accessible. Similarly, they can serve as a great entry point into memoirs, as they are typically less of a time commitment than print memoirs.

Titles to Know

Following the death of her father Bechdel looks back on their relationship. Both highly intellectual, but also sentimental, this memoir focuses on Bechdel’s coping with the possibility that her father’s death may have been suicide, and examining his life as a closeted homosexual, just as she begins to accept her own sexuality and comes out to her family. Bechdel’s memoir is the first graphic novel I read and what made me to a comics reader. It is not a young adult title, but could be a meaningful read for older, mature teens.

Spiegelman uses the comics medium to tell his father’s story of survival through the Holocaust. By drawing his characters as mice and cats, he can use art as well as text to depict racial profiling. Recently, at my library we have moved Maus to the “school readers” section (where we put books that are often required reading in local high schools) as many teachers have realized that comics may be a more engaging choice for reluctant readers who want a change of pace.

Satrapi chronicles her coming of age during the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  Originally published in four volumes and later compiled into two volumes and translated into English, her memoirs begin with Persepolis, The Story of a Childhood, but I recommend checking out The Complete Persepolis to get the whole story of Satrapi’s childhood in Iran and return to Iran following high school in Vienna.  Satrapi’s memoirs were also adapted into the animated film Persepolis. 2009 Fabulous Films for Young Adults

Bell’s memoir focuses on her hearing loss following meningitis at age four.  She learns to lip read, and uses a phonic ear at school that gives her the power to hear her teacher wherever she is throughout the school. Though Bell imagines herself as the amazing superhero, “El Deafo”, she still has trouble dealing with various new friends’ reactions to her deafness. Bell uses the comics medium to portray herself and her family and friends as rabbits. This helps her to emphasize her ears and the self-consciousness she felt about her hearing aids.  Though Bell’s memoir El Deafo swings toward middle grade rather than young adult in terms of the protagonist’s age, this memoir is a worthwhile read for all who can related to the trials and tribulations of making new friends, and all who want to learn more about “various ways to be deaf” as Bell says in her author’s note.  El Deafo recently a Newbery Honor Award for 2015, a huge victory for graphic novels!

Congressman John Lewis tells his story of growing up in segregated Alabama, his relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his work through nonviolent protest in the Civil Rights Movement. Book One is framed as a flashback, as Congressman Lewis recounts his activism to two young boys whose mother takes them to meet him, hoping he can convey to them the continued importance of the Civil Rights Movement. March is a trilogy with Book Two having just been released on January 27th.

These are just a small sample of all the great graphic memoirs out there! Tell me your favorites in the comments!

-Emily Childress-Campbell, Currently reading Laughing at my Nightmare by Shane Burcaw

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Emily Childress-Campbell

Emily Childress-Campbell is a Youth Services Librarian with Wake County Libraries in North Carolina. She is fond of comics, crafting, British television and social media.

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3 Comments

  1. Amy Amy

    I loved Relish by Lucy Knisley, which is one of the Outstanding Books for the College Bound.

    • Bridget Bridget

      Agreed! I have loved everything I’ve read from Lucy Knisley.

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