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Graphic Medicine and Public Libraries: A Tool for Health Literacy

by Sarah Levin-Lederer, MPH, Outreach and Education Coordinator, NNLM Region 7 on November 5, 2023

From the long tradition of superhero comics and comic strips to graphic novel adaptations of classics to webcomics and more, comics and graphic novels are surging in popularity. Comics are finding a wider  readership among kids, teens, and adults, appealing to all kinds of readers. And, unfortunately, graphic novels are also making news because of book bans, with titles like Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (the most challenged book in 2022 according to ALA), Flamer by Mike Curato (#4 on the ALA list), Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka and more being targeted. With this surge in interest in comics for new and established readers, it’s a good time to look at comics as a way to introduce, teach, and engage audiences around all kinds of topics including health, wellness, disease, and medicine.

So, what is graphic medicine? Why comics for health information and literacy? And how can public libraries get involved? Before answering these questions, a note about the word “comics” as an umbrella term. Graphic novels are comics, webcomics are comics, weekly/biweekly floppy issues of a comic are comics. In this case, we’re talking about—to paraphrase Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art—pictures and words used to communicate information.

What is Graphic Medicine?

Health and disease are a part of human experience, so as long as people have been making comics, they’ve told stories about health and disease. In 2007, Ian Williams, a medical doctor and author/illustrator of The Bad Doctor, brought the idea together under the umbrella term of “graphic medicine,” defining it as “the intersection between the medium of comics and the discourse of healthcare.” In other words, graphic medicine is comics that have a health, wellness, or disease theme or storyline that can help us think and talk about health topics that may be complex or stigmatized.

Why Graphic Medicine?

Graphic medicine helps people recall information by pairing complex information with the cause-and-effect structure of a story, providing context clues about meaning in both words and pictures, and introducing characters that the reader identifies with. It’s easier to remember the progression of events in a story where one thing leads to another, jogging the reader’s memory, rather than dry facts.

Additionally, presenting information in comics form appeals to a wider audience than traditionally presented science or health information. People who are reluctant to pick up a prose or reference book on a health topic may find a comic more appealing. More readers mean more people getting the information. Comics can also be a safe way to introduce sometimes complex or contentious topics. Reading someone else’s story can give the reader some distance from very personal subjects while also putting a human face on the issue.

Who Is Graphic Medicine For?

Since comics are for everyone, graphic medicine is also for everyone including kids, teens, adults, medical professionals and students, patients and their families, and the public.

Medical Professionals and Students: Reading graphic medicine can help this audience think about patients not as a set of symptoms but as whole people with lived experiences outside of the doctor’s office. Engaging with graphic medicine can also help improve observational skills since much of the action in comics happens non-verbally or “off-screen,” between panels. In a clinical setting, there are times when patients can’t or won’t give a full history requiring clinicians to “fill in the gaps.”

Patients: Comics can help connect patients with stories of people who had similar experiences, helping to reduce feelings of stigma and isolation. Comics can help facilitate patient/provider conversations by helping patients understand what they could expect and helping patients generate questions to ask providers.

Family and Friends: Comics can help family and friends learn more about what a loved one is going through to further reduce stigma and isolation. Learning more can help strengthen a patient’s support system.

General Public: Comics can help reduce stigma by presenting complex and difficult health topics in approachable and even personal ways that create an emotional bond with characters and situations that people may not often be exposed to.​ Graphic medicine for the general public can also address misconceptions, promote public awareness, and enhance understanding.

Graphic Medicine for Public Libraries: Collection Development

The first place to look for graphic medicine titles is in your existing collection. You may already have the aforementioned Hey, Kiddo since it was a finalist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2018 or Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast, which was a New York Times’ Bestseller.

Resources to find titles in your existing collection or grow your collection include:

Graphic Medicine Programming

Some public libraries working in graphic medicine have created separate collections either on their shelves or in their catalogues. But incorporating and using graphic medicine can take many forms big and small.

  • Include comics in book displays for health observances. For example, titles like Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown or A Fire Story by Brian Fies can be included on a display for National Preparedness Month in September.
  • Include graphic medicine titles for book clubs. Whether it’s a graphic novel book club or not, there are graphic medicine books that appeal to book groups interested in many different genres from memoirs to non-fiction to history.
  • Put on programming that encourages people to make their own comics. Making comics promotes comics reading skills. And it reminds people that they don’t have to be a world-class artist to enjoy drawing or to communicate with pictures.

Learn More with NLM and NNLM Resources

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