Traditionally, the world of comics has been a heavily male-dominated industry, Hale notes, "at every level, from publishers and creators to readers." This reality no doubt contributed to the perception that something about the form inherently appealed more to boys than to girls. That perception began to shift, Hicks says, in the 2000s as manga became more widely accessible to Western audiences.
Manga is the term for Japanese comics, which have been in existence for many years in Japan where illustrated stories are an important art form for readers of all ages. As a result of the manga invasion, Hicks notes, "there was a huge boom of young female readers … and as a result, North American publishers noticed the vitality of that market. Which is great," she adds, "because if that hadn't happened, I might not have the career that I currently have."
Hicks and Hales agree that the appearance of "Smile" by Raina Telgemeier in 2010 further changed the landscape of children's publishing. Essentially a memoir, "Smile" chronicles Telgemeier's experiences as a teenager as she navigated her way through the typical ups and downs of adolescence, as well as a series of painful orthodontic procedures that complicated her life.
"You can't talk about comics for girls without mentioning Raina Telgemeier," Hicks says. Among other things, "Smile" made it "very clear that there was a young, very hungry audience for girl-friendly comics." Not only that, but Telgemeier's subject matter also made it clear that the graphic novel format could be used to create authentic stories about real girls facing real problems.
Hale concurs. " 'Smile' pretty much shattered everyone's expectations about what a graphic novel is and who it is for."
Telgemeier's breakout graphic novel's impact is still being felt. "We're now seeing the influence of 'Smile' spilling into the comics industry, as the number of graphic novels starring girls dealing with everyday issues has grown," Hicks says. She points to "Roller Girl" by Victoria Jamieson and "Awkward" by Svetlana Chmakova, as well as her book "Friends with Boys," as examples. "Roller Girl" examines the nature of female friendships and how they change, while "Awkward" tells the story of a girl who has a hard time fitting into her new school because of her raging social anxiety. Hale's forthcoming book, "Real Friends," fits into this category as well. Due out in May, "Real Friends" explores the subject of bullying and the different forms it takes, at school and at home.
As encouraging as the news is that more comics exist for young female readers today than when she was growing up, Hicks maintains that publishers can and should do more. "There's a need for more books and more diverse voices writing and drawing those books."
Hale has her concerns, as well. She laments the way that adult gatekeepers such as teachers, librarians, parents and even publishers are sometimes too quick to label certain titles as gender-appropriate. "It's wonderful that there are more graphic novels featuring female characters than ever before, but I don't consider those to be 'for' female readers. I think it's just as important for boys to read about female characters as it is for girls to read about male characters."
She continues: "We all have the desire to see ourselves reflected in stories, and we also grow and increase our empathy by reading about characters different from us. Reading about and having empathy for characters in fiction has real-life consequences in how we think about and treat other people."
When asked to recommend titles featuring female characters, both authors are quick to respond. For the 12-and-under crowd, Hicks recommends "Smile,", "Zita the Space Girl" by Ben Hatke, "Roller Girl" and "Newsprints" by Ru Xu. Hale also recommends "Roller Girl," as well as "El Deafo" by Cece Bell and "The Lumberjanes" series created by Shannon Walters, Grace Ellis, Brooke A. Allen and Noelle Stevenson. For teenagers, Hicks recommends "This One Summer" by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, "Princess Jellyfish" by Akiko Higashimura and "Step Aside Pops" by Kate Beaton.
Hicks and Hale remain enthusiastic about the graphic novel form for readers — male and female — of all ages. As Hale says, "Graphic novels are a fun, engaging and often challenging addition to any reader's library."