Need a Book Recommendation? Turn to the Comics

Each Sunday, library-themed comic Unshelved recommends a different book, describing it in comic form. We talked to the creators about choosing reading material, using comics to promote books, and getting fan mail from the authors.


Six days a week, Unshelved chronicles the daily lives and antics of a crew of librarians. Each Sunday, the focus shifts to the books themselves with the Unshelved Book Club. They cover a wide range of books and graphic novels, aimed at a wide range of audiences — with a particular leaning toward science fiction and fantasy. Here's just a small sampling of books the Book Club has covered:

We talked to Unshelved's creators, cartoonist Bill Barnes and pseudonymous librarian Gene Ambaum, via email about the inspirations behind the Book Club and the unexpected perks of doing comics about books:

Unshelved usually chronicles the daily lives of librarians. What inspired you to do the Sunday Unshelved Book Club strips?

We are both opinionated readers, so recommending books comes naturally. And given its setting, the strip felt weirdly empty without books - the hard part was figuring out how to talk about them without making fun of the books or their authors.

How do you go about selecting the books? You often revisit old classics, but do you try to keep up with the latest releases in the strip?

It's really just whichever books we're reading that are good enough to recommend. Over time we have forced ourselves to forage farther afield than we otherwise would have, which has yielded a few pleasant surprises. We do feature some new releases, but we are just as happy to pull an underrated classic from the backlist.

Have you gotten a lot of feedback from people who have read a book because of the strip who probably wouldn't have otherwise?

A daunting number of people have told us that the Unshelved Book Club is their reading list. We hope that's not literally true, but it makes sense that someone who enjoys our comic strip would also match well to our taste in books. But the best moment is when these same readers recommend books to us that we've never heard of — their recommendations are usually dead-on.


Do librarians ever use the individual Book Club strips to try to recommend certain books to patrons?

It's quite common for libraries, bookstores, and stores to post our strips in a display. They reportedly make books "fly off the shelves", especially for younger patrons.


What has the feedback been like from the authors?

Getting email from authors like Ursula K. LeGuin and Dan Simmons is one of the perks of the job. Bill keeps waiting for someone to tell him he drew their main character wrong, but it hasn't happened yet. We have, however, spelled an author's name wrong on more than one occasion.


Have any reactions from readers surprised you?

A few tell us it's their favorite part of the strip, a few tell us they can't stand it, and the rest seem to take it in stride. As you'd expect, most of our readers are pretty book-positive, so they're generally receptive to new titles (or a new take on a classic).


Do authors ever ask you to do a strip on their book?

Yes, in that we get a lot of review copies from authors. These days an author really needs to be their own P.R. department, so I love seeing them take the initiative to promote their work like that. Sadly we only do one a week, so the odds are kind of rough.


A lot of the books in your strips are science fiction, fantasy, or graphic novels. Are those particular favorites, or do you feel they translate particularly well in the comics medium?

Mostly that reflects our immense nerditude, but it is true that they tend to yield good illustrations.


You occasional have guest cartoonists do their own Book Club strips. Do you approach other cartoonists about doing a possible guest strip, or do people approach you with books they're dying to write about?

A little from column A, a little from column B. We love love love seeing cartoonists do their own take on a book. And if it saves us little work, well that's nice too.


What upcoming books are you looking forward to tackling in the Book Club?

That would be telling.

[Unshelved Book Club]




brilliant! found a new favorite quote:

"Does the future always have to be post-apocalyptic?

-No, but it helps."