I've met a lot of teachers who have expressed this same problem. At it's heart the issue is one of generalization- Almost all graphic novels at a bookstore or library are often times lumped together in one section. Like any other genre of literature, there is a rich diversity in comic book content, and until booksellers catch on to the fact that educators (and the general population) would appreciate a more elaborate organization system, it is up to parents and teachers to preview comics and deem content acceptable (or not) for their children and students.
That said, there is some good news. Many sites dedicated to comic books offer age-appropriate suggestions. Aside from those sites listed in the link section on the right hand side of this page, I would also encourage parents and educators to check out Lyga & Lyga's book Graphic Novels in Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide (Greenwood, 2004) as a great "road map" to the world of comic books in education.
If you find yourself still struggling over a particular book, take a look at these selection tips from the University of Buffalo's Library site (link on right):
- To avoid unpleasant surprises, preview all comics before putting them out for the public. Many titles popular with older teens may be inappropriate for younger readers.
- Be particularly wary of publishers with a reputation for controversial materials (e.g., DC's Vertigo imprint).
- Learn to recognize authors known for using mature themes and language (e.g., Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis).
- Learn as much about the comics industry as you can by reading comics journals, visiting Web sites, and participating in online SIGs and discussion groups.
- Once again, get to know a local comics retailer you can trust. Most retailers are extremely sensitive to age-appropriate concerns and will be happy to share their views.
- Include a statement about comics and graphic novels in your collection development policy, specifying what types of materials will be considered off-limits for your library.
- Be prepared to address censorship challenges, should they arise.
-Hope this helps Sarah!