Picture Book vs. Graphic Novel

I remember when I first learned to read avidly pulling down from every library shelf an assortment of Dr.Seuss books, equally excited over both the stories and the pictures. While books like Watchmen and Fun Home may be a far cry from those more innocent stories, there are some similarities. Namely, both sets of books follow a narrative with the aid of pictures and text. Yet, we never seem consider anything meant for the ages of 4-9 to be ‘graphic novels’. Why not?

(c)2006 Alison Bechdel
(c)2006 Alison Bechdel
(c) 1961 Dr. Seuss
(c) 1961 Dr. Seuss


The obvious aside, being that the graphic novels tend to deal with far more mature material and are of course targeted towards an older audience, what qualifies one as literature and the other as the diminutive texts for beginning readers? One argument could be that the vocabulary and diction of graphic novels are far more sophisticated than that of ‘picture books’. However, there a quite a few graphic novels without any words at all, many of which are considered to be ground breaking and highly intelligent by the academic community. Take a look at Sshhhh! by Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Sæterøy.

(c) John Arne Sæterøy.
(c) John Arne Sæterøy.

Which leaves one thing as the distinction; the presence and use of panels to aid in the telling of the story. Panels are often the means by which an artist shows the progression of time or the movement of characters and events, while ‘picture books’ rely almost entirely on the turning of pages to create this same feeling. While in no way trying to attack graphic novels, or question their place in academic literature, I do find it compelling that the biggest difference between these two genres was the use of panels. Panels are often used quite ingeniously, and an entire blog post could be dedicated to how panels often make give even more depth to a narrative, but this answer hardly seems to be definite and constant.

I think it might be beneficial to argue that some of these picture books are in fact graphic novels. While these stories are often targeted at a younger audience and do not focus on very heavy material, the use of pictures and imagery can be creatively done and often aid the telling of the narrative. If Oldbuck can be considered a graphic novel, I see no problem in including Dr.Seuss and other similar books, under this label. In the future the limits of what can and cannot be considered as a graphic novel may be better defined, but until then I would like to argue that we have all been reading graphic novels since kindergarten.

To see what other people have said on this you can check out this discussion thread: http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?177459-Graphic-novel-vs-Picture-book


  4 comments for “Picture Book vs. Graphic Novel

  1. Dr.KennethNoiseWater
    September 17, 2015 at 9:41 am

    While I enjoyed reading your post, I have to disagree with you. Children’s books, like Dr. Suess are not considered graphic novels for a reason. Books, such as these, usually convey a very sweet and innocent message featuring endearing characters, and are used by parents to read to their children as a way to entertain and introduce books to them. Additionally, they are very short as it takes no time at all to get through a Suess book. And that is by design, as they are meant to be reread to foster a love of reading in a young child. Additionally, the illustration provides a sense safety and security. There’s never going to be a “Red Wedding” moment lurking at the end of Dr. Suess. Graphic novels, however, are of a completely different ilk. Not only are they much longer, but let us consider the usage of the word, “graphic.” While I am familiar with the dictionary’s definition of the word, and how it is properly used in the context of this genre of literature, to me it goes a bit further. It also denoted the graphic, or violent nature found within the pages, i.e. significant amount of blood splattering, rape, mutilation, and so on. While I freely admit that I stopped reading comics on a consistent basis years ago, I do not believe I would be completely wrong when I say, more often than not graphic novels are significantly edgier than your typical comic story line. To that end, that is why children’s books are a genre unto themselves. Hence the children’s section at your local Barnes and Noble. While it might be hilarious, albeit impossible at this point, we would never see a panel discussion featuring Dr. Suess and Frank Miller. Zero common ground.

  2. September 17, 2015 at 5:18 pm

    I get what you’re saying, Dr. Kenneth, but I hesitate to use qualitative measures of content in order to distinguish a medium one from another. To the question in the post, I do think there’s a fundamental similarity between the two forms, and it’s useful to compare and contrast the two. I just think the differences are more formal.

    I read a lot of children’s books (because I have children), and they actually can be surprisingly complex. I Want my Hat Back has a sinister vibe, for example, and there are some weird moments in some of those Margaret Wise Brown books. Nothing hyper-violent, of course, but then what counts as violent? How violent does it have to be qualify as a different kind of thing?

  3. alainazitzmann
    September 22, 2015 at 6:33 pm

    I appreciate your feedback, and I agree that there are many differences in the content of some graphic novels and ‘picture’ books. However, I would argue that there are many, many graphic novels that do not display the ‘graphic’ nature you spoke of. One example is Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Graphic in the sense of graphic novel, I believe, relates more to the use of imagery than what you take to mean violent, shocking imagery. And there are plenty of children’s books that display disturbing and thought provoking scenes, one of which can be found in Dr. Seuss’ (sorry, I couldn’t help it) Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose. If you google the title and look for one of the last pages, you will understand. Thank you for the feedback!

  4. Dr.KennethNoiseWater
    September 25, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    As I am a father myself, I am quite familiar with many different children’s books. Each of my four kids is exactly thirteen months apart, meaning that for a five or six-year period, I was primarily reading that genre of book. I agree with both of you, that often times there can be “disturbing” subtext or a moment in children’s literature. I will go so far as to point out the obvious example of Grimm’s Fairy Tales…frightening children since 1812! I’ll even throw in the classic children’s lullaby of “Rock a Bye Baby,” and we all know how that ends. But, on the whole, and what my point still is, children’s literature are predominately written to, as I said originally, to “usually convey a very sweet and innocent message featuring endearing characters, and are used by parents to read to their children as a way to entertain and introduce books to them.” To go even further, and to hopefully to make my point clearer about what I said in my original post; which was that I understood perfectly what the term “graphic” meant when referring to graphic novels. When looking up the definition, Merriam-Webster’s only provides a very broad definition, it states simply “a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and presented as a book.” Generally, graphic novels are books that are read by more advanced readers. You have your intermediate school level reader perhaps enjoying “Smile,” which originated as a web comic, by Raina Telgemeier or “El Deafo,” by Cece Bell. Then you have your more advanced graphic novels, which we have already discussed. These books are adult level reading and most likely not appropriate for children. Therefore, children’s books cannot be compared to graphic novels except in the fact that they are books. I just finished reading a post on this blog page entitled “The Killing Joke,” as it is referencing the graphic novel of the same name. While I have to admit that I never read this book, based on what was written on that posting, and after Goggling it, that is the type, or style, or brand, or nature of violence that I am referring to, and a parent/person would never find in, for the sake of reference, a Dr. Seuss book. The point blank shooting of Barbara Gordon, witnessed by her father before he is abducted, and then she is stripped naked and then photographed by the Joker to show her father? Uh…is it me? Am I seriously missing something? Listen; go into Books-A-Million in Central Park. They have everything arranged there by genre. On the right, with the magazines, you will find your comic books. Go to the main walkway, and on the right, you’ll find all the Manga books, and in a separate bookshelf, kind of close, will be some graphic novels. However, the majority of graphic novels are found in the center of the store with all the merchandise. It is a huge bookshelf that offers some really, good choices on either side. However, in the back of the store, and in the right hand corner is a section purely dedicated to children’s literature. Again, in a different location. Set apart unto itself. Because each of the styles that I just listed, is its own a genre. Conversely, if you go to the comic book store located in Southpoint, I can pretty much guarantee you will not find “The Hungry Caterpillar,” or for that matter “I Want my Hat Back.” Coincidentally, I purchased the graphic novel memoirs “Smile” and “El Deafo” today. Would you like to know in which section I found them in? Children’s Fiction! If every source I have looked at considers these books graphic novels, but are sold in the Children’s Fiction section, then there really must be a difference.

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