KANSAS CITY, Mo. - When Amy Crump took over as director of the Marshall Public Library in central Missouri two years ago, she decided to build up the library's offerings for young adults by buying the literary world's hot new thing - graphic novels.
"The bulk of our graphic novels are for young adults, and they're very popular," Ms. Crump said; she estimated the library's collection has gone from only a handful to around 75.
Among the new acquisitions was Blankets, by Craig Thompson, and Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, two semiautobiographical accounts of the authors' turbulent childhoods that include, respectively, ruminations on strict religious upbringing and homosexuality.
The two novels touched off what Ms. Crump said was the first challenge of library materials in Marshall's 16-year history as parents complained that the books, which include pictures of a naked couple, could be read by children attracted by the comic booklike drawings.
"My concern does not lie with the content of the novels. Rather my concern is with the illustrations and their availability to children and the community," said one resident, Louise Mills, during a public hearing reported in the Marshall Democrat-News. "Does this community want our public library to continue to use tax dollars to purchase pornography?"
The library board has since removed the two books from circulation while it develops a policy governing how it collects materials, a policy that would determine the novels' eventual fates.
Libraries across the country are increasingly buying graphic novels as they seek to reconnect with younger patrons and respond to popular trends.
The novels, using the pictures and dialogue balloons of comic books to tell sometimes sophisticated stories in book form, are one of the fastest-growing sectors of the publishing industry, selling $250 million last year, according to market research firm ICV2 Publishing.
Milton Griepp, the chief executive of ICV2, which tracks pop-culture retail, estimated that libraries add 5 percent to 10 percent to retail sales of graphic novels, which totaled only $75 million in 2001.
"The last two or three years, growth has been pretty rapid in libraries, and that's because graphic novels have started to be respected as legitimate literature," Mr. Griepp said.
Maus, a Holocaust memoir by Art Spiegelman, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, while Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese this year became the first graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award.
The books are also gaining more visibility among parents and other community members who might have never heard of graphic novels but are alarmed to see "cartoon" characters doing and saying very adult things.
"I think there's still a perception in the general public that comics are just for kids, which isn't true and hasn't been true for years," Mr. Griepp said.
The Chicago-based American Library Association said it knows of at least 14 graphic novel challenges in U.S. libraries over the past two to three years, which they said reflect the increasing popularity of the genre with librarians and patrons.
Among the titles were The Watchmen, by Alan Moore, which was challenged in Florida and Virginia as unsuitable for younger readers; Akira, Volume 2, by Katsuhiro Otomo, challenged in Texas for offensive language; and New X-Men Imperial, by Grant Morrison, challenged in Maryland for nudity, offensive language and violence.
Sometimes the challenges are successful.
In April, county officials in Victorville, Calif., removed from their library Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics because the book included nudity and sexuality.
"Some people find graphical depictions of things more offensive than text," said Carrie Gardner, a spokeswoman for the library association's Committee for Intellectual Freedom and a professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
The issue has become prevalent enough that the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund earlier this year put out a set of recommendations for librarians looking to begin their own graphic novel collections but wanting to avoid controversy.