What Is a Graphic Memoir?

Female artist
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Although the term “graphic novel” is broadly used, the term “graphic memoir” is relatively new and has not had wide usage. Hearing the phrase “graphic memoir” is partially self-explanatory in that a memoir is an author’s account of personal experiences. 

However, when you consider the word “graphic,” you may not think of “graphic novel,” -- your mind may think instead in terms of those movie ratings that warn of  “graphic violence or “graphic sex scenes.”  It may be confusing to understand how a “graphic memoir” could be for children.

What "Graphic Memoir" Means

However, there are other definitions for “graphic,” including “of or relating to the pictorial arts” (pictorial: “having or using pictures”)  that better describe what the term “graphic” means in the context of “graphic memoir.” 

If you are familiar with graphic novels and comic books, you know they use panels of sequential art with the text generally embedded as dialogue or just under the panel as a description. One of the easiest ways to describe a graphic memoir is to say it is a memoir written and illustrated using the same general format found in a graphic novel. In short, both the words and the pictures are crucial to telling the story.

Another term that publishers are using more frequently to describe nonfiction books that use a graphic novel format is “graphic nonfiction.” A graphic memoir would be considered a subcategory of graphic nonfiction.

Good Examples of Graphic Memoirs

There are much more graphic novels, such as Rapunzel’s Revenge, for kids than there are graphic memoirs.

 One excellent graphic memoir for middle-grade readers (ages 9 to 12) is Little White Duck: A Childhood in China, written by Na Liu and illustrated by Andres’ Vera Martinez. The combination of words and pictures tends to make graphic memoirs appealing to even reluctant readers and this book is particularly well done.

To learn more, read the book review of Little White Duck: A Childhood in China. 

One of the most well-known graphic memoirs is Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Mariane Satrapi. It is on YALSA’s Ultimate Teen Bookshelf, which is a list of “must-have” teen materials for libraries and includes 50 books. Persepolis tends to be recommended for teens and adults. Another graphic memoir that has received a great deal of positive press and a number of starred reviews is March (Book One) by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. The publisher, Top Shelf Productions, describes Lewis's memoir as a "graphic novel memoir."

No Standard Terms Yet

Since there is, as of the beginning of 2014, no widely accepted term to describe nonfiction that combines words and pictures like graphic novels do, much less memoirs that do so, it can be quite confusing. Some sites still refer to such books as “nonfiction graphic novels,” which is, of course, an oxymoron since a novel is fiction.

Tween City, a site for librarians, has an excellent list of graphic nonfiction for tweens under the heading “Nonfiction Graphic Novels.”  So, what does this mean for readers? At least for now, if you are looking for graphic nonfiction or graphic memoirs, you may need to use a variety of search terms, but it is becoming easier to find titles within the genre.

Sources: Merriam-Webster, dictionary.com