When I worked as a bookseller I found that parents are a lot more sensitive about the content of kids comics and graphic novels than prose books. I don’t really know why that is, but I think it has something to do with, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ or more accurately: ‘A picture is worth a thousand words I don’t have to pre-read to make sure it’s suitable for my kid’. Its a lot easier to flip through a comic then read a hole prose book. The consequence of this in my opinion is that comics, particularly kids comics are getting called out on content to an unfortunate degree. So I came up with a system to help me talk to people about the content of comics.
I’ve found five things that parents and educators have their eyes out for, vice, violence, bigotry, nudity and language. I personally don’t agree with the notion that any of these things should eliminate a book as a possibility for young people. In fact most of the time I think the opposite. All that said I’m a big fan of information so here’s my five finger system.
There are five things I look out for when reading comics, again not to scare people off of the comic, but to make them aware of them, so if they want to they can have a conversation about it.
Smoking, drinking, drugs. Any time one of these show up in a story I make a note. Now as i say the protagonist doesn't need to necessary be participating in this behaviour but if its something that appears it gets a finger.
The poignant and beautiful Skim by Mariko Tamaki & Jillian Tamaki has a character who smokes. READ THIS BOOK, Let your teens read this book, but be ready to talk about some of the content.
Does this book have swears? If yes you get a finger. Swearing and use of language is an interesting question. Different people have different opinions on what counts as a curse. But honestly I’m of the opinion that the word isn’t the problem, the problem is using a word to hurt someone else. And it’s pretty easy to do that without swearing.
One of my favourite books of all time is Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol this book is amazing, there is a curse word. Read this book!! But know that there is a swear.
This is the one I tend to pay the most attention to. Does someone hurt someone else on purpose? Is there a car accident or fall? I try to base it on how upsetting the violence is, and does that violence interact with the plot. It often surprises me how ok some people are with violence but not at all ok with swearing? Swearing is something every person will experience in their lives, it’s an aspect of language and self expression to hide that, but to be ok with someone getting their head ripped off? that seems crazy to me. but I digress.
An example of this is Age of Reptiles by Ricardo Delgado. This is a wonderful book, its huge deep and wordless, if you love dinosaurs you will love this book. But make no mistake, it is violent little babies Brachiosaurus get eaten by the big bad T-rex (who’s not so bad, T-rex has to eat too! oh man this is a good book). The book is still valuable and worth reading. But it gets a finger for violence
It is not a fiscal possibility for me to care less about nudity. I think it's a real failing in our culture that violence is so often thought of as fine and nudity is bad. One is a thing EVERYONE WILL SEE AT SOME POINT! PEOPLE HAVE BODIES! the other is a tragedy. I think the wrong one is taboo. but if there's a nipple that book gets a finger.
A great book to illustrate this is Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa there is some non-sexual nudity at the beginning and some sexual discussions towards the end, but if you let that stop you from reading this moving and beautiful book you are missing out.
Bigotry is a big idea, and a lot of books want to tackle this issue, Sexism, racism, homophobia and islamophobia are all real aspects of life in the modern western world, but the reality of this stuff is heavy and hard. So when that stuff shows up in the story it gets a finger. No matter what the context is.
Princeless, by Jeremy Whitley is an excellent example of this, this book is incredible, its funny its fast, the art is out of this world and the protagonist kicks butt. That said, the world she lives in is super oppressive. Sexism is intense her socially acceptable options are incredibly limited. Should you read this book? Yes, (OMG YES) but would it get a finger for bigotry? Yes, even though the presence of the bigotry is so important to the story.
I guess my real point is this, I use this as a metric to communicate about a book, its a short hand. the finger system has nothing to do with quality, but only about the content. Some of these things are wanted, even needed to make a story interesting, (or even worth reading). Having a finger, even all five fingers doesn't mean the book is bad, or that you shouldn't give it a shot, it just means that these things are presented in the story and I want to give you a heads up about that. The finger system is really just there to help parents and educators guide conversations, with their kids or students after they read the book.