A Guide to Using Graphic Novels With Children and Teens
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
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Graphic Novels are Everywhere!
No longer an underground movement appealing to a small following of enthusiasts, graphic novels have emerged as a growing segment of book publishing, and have become accepted by librarians and educators as mainstream literature for children and young adults — literature that powerfully motivates kids to read. Are graphic novels for you? Should you be taking a more serious look at this format? How might graphic novels fit into your library collection, your curriculum, and your classroom? Want to know more? If so, this guide is for you.
What are Graphic Novels?
In this context, the word “graphic” does not mean “adult” or “explicit.” Graphic novels are books written and illustrated in the style of a comic book. To be considered a graphic novel, rather than a picture book or illustrated novel, the story is told using a combination of words and pictures in a sequence across the page. Graphic novels can be any genre, and tell any kind of story, just like their prose counterparts. The format is what makes the story a graphic novel, and usually includes text, images, word balloons, sound effects, and panels.
This basic way of storytelling has been used in various forms for centuries—early cave drawings, hieroglyphics, and medieval tapestries like the famous Bayeux Tapestry can be thought of as stories told in pictures.
The term “graphic novel” is generally used to describe any book in a comic format that resembles a novel in length and narrative development. Graphic novels are a subgenre of “comics,” which is a word you may also hear people use when referring to this style of book.
Are Graphic Novels Suitable for the Young, and How Do I Evaluate Them?
Some parents, educators, and librarians may associate the term “graphic novel” with content that is not suitable for young readers. Today there is a wide range of titles and, though not all graphic novels are intended for children, there are more titles published expressly for kids coming out every month.
Reviews and round-ups of new graphic novels appear regularly in School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Voice of Youth Advocates, Library Media Connection, Publishers Weekly, and other journals. By reading these reviews, seeking the advice of trusted colleagues and vendors, and previewing materials prior to circulation, you can build a collection that is suited to your audience.
How Do Graphic Novels Promote Literacy?
Graphic novels powerfully attract and motivate kids to read. Many librarians have built up graphic novel collections and have seen circulation figures soar. School librarians and educators have reported outstanding success getting kids to read with graphic novels, citing particularly their popularity with reluctant readers, especially boys—a group traditionally difficult to reach. At the same time, graphic novels with rich, complex plots and narrative structures can also be satisfying to advanced readers. In fact, graphic novels are flexible enough that often the same titles can be equally appealing to both reluctant and advanced readers. Providing young people of all abilities with diverse reading materials, including graphic novels, can help them become lifelong readers.
Graphic novels can be a way in for students who are difficult to reach through traditional texts. Even those deemed poor readers willingly and enthusiastically gravitate toward these books. Readers who are not interested in reading or who, despite being capable of reading, prefer gaming or watching media, can be pulled into a story by the visual elements of graphic novels.
Benefits to Struggling Readers, Special-needs Students, and English-language Learners
Graphic novels can dramatically help improve reading development for students struggling with language acquisition, including special-needs students, as the illustrations provide contextual clues to the meaning of the written narrative. They can provide autistic students with clues to emotional context that they might miss when reading traditional text. English-language learners will be more motivated by graphic novels, and will more readily acquire new vocabulary and increase English proficiency.
But are Graphic Novels "Real Books"? Are They "Literature"? Do They Count as "Reading"?
Some parents and educators may feel that graphic novels are not the “type of reading material” that will help young people grow as readers. They may cling to the belief that graphic novels are somehow a bad influence that undermines “real reading”—or they may dismiss graphic novels as inferior literature, or as “not real books.” At best, they may regard them as something to be tolerated as a means of motivating the most reluctant readers, who, they hope, will eventually “move on” to more “quality literature.”
Acceptance by Librarians and Educators
Graphic novels have come to be accepted by librarians and educators as a method of storytelling on a par with novels, picture books, movies, or audiobooks.
The American Library Association has recognized this in establishing its annual list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens, and in 2011 they added the annually updated Core Collection of Graphic Novels for young readers in grades K through 8. In 2007, the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (First Second) won the Michael L. Printz Award for best young adult book of the year. The same year, To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin) was named a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book (for informational book), and in 2010 Little Mouse Gets Ready (Toon Books) won a Theodor Seuss Geisel honor.
In 2014, the American Library Association showed their continued support of the format in offering the Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants for Libraries, two grants awarded annually to support libraries and librarians in building the best collections and presenting educational programming on the format for their communities.
Fostering Acquisition of Critical Reading Skills
The notion that graphic novels are too simplistic to be regarded as serious reading is outdated. The excellent graphic novels available today are linguistically appropriate reading material demanding many of the same skills that are needed to understand traditional works of prose fiction. Often they actually contain more advanced vocabulary than traditional books at the same age/grade/interest level. They require readers to be actively engaged in the process of decoding and comprehending a range of literary devices, including narrative structures, metaphor and symbolism, point of view, and the use of puns and alliteration, intertextuality, and inference. Reading graphic novels can help students develop the critical skills necessary to read more challenging works, including the classics.
On top of the connections to analyzing text, graphic novels inspire readers to understand and interpret information differently from how readers process prose. In a world where young people are growing up navigating narratives presented through websites, video games, television, films, and increasingly interactive media, learning and maintaining visual literacy is a necessary skill. Today’s world of stories contains far more than just prose, and readers who are skilled at understanding and being critical of multiple formats will excel.
Do Graphic Novels Have a Place in the Curriculum?
Many educators have reported great success when they have integrated graphic novels into their curriculum, especially in the areas of English, science, social studies, and art. Teachers are discovering that graphic novels—just like traditional forms of literature—can be useful tools for helping students critically examine aspects of history, science, literature, and art. Graphic novels can be integral parts to implementing any curriculum standards, including the Common Core and others.
What are the Literary Themes in Graphic Novels?
Graphic novels contain all of the same literary themes used in classic literature. Some, like Jeff Smith’s BONE, are works of epic adventure with many parallels to mythology, such as the quests in The Iliad and The Odyssey. Other classic archetypes in BONE include the reluctant hero, the unknown destiny, and the mentor-wizard figure.
Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi, The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth, and Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel all deal, in different ways, with characters who have traveled into a different, alternative world.
Doug TenNapel’s Nnewts centers on a hero who starts off physically weak and discovers his own strength to win the day. Sidekicks by Dan Santat explores self-esteem and the importance of loyalty through the adventures of a group of animal superhero sidekicks.
Smile, Drama, and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier and Jimmy Gownley’s The Dumbest Idea Ever! are autobiographical stories of struggling to fit in and find one’s place, while The Arrival by Shaun Tan is about the universal search for belonging.
Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox shows the dramatic effects of armed conflict through the eyes of canine heroes, bringing history to life while showing the costs of war on an individual scale.
Using graphic novels in this way, as “something different” to compare with traditional works of literature, can motivate students who may have had little interest in studying literature and history.
What are the Benefits of Studying Graphic Novels as a Format?
Students can learn much by studying how graphic novels work, and comparing them to other forms of storytelling.
A Unique Art Form—The Combination of Elements in Graphic Novels
Novels speak to us usually in a linear written narrative; picture books tell a story with text accompanied by illustrations; film does so with moving images and dialogue; and poetry can communicate on levels that no other storytelling can.
Graphic novels combine all these elements in their own unique way. They are like prose in that they are a written printed format, but they are also like film in that they tell a story through dialogue, and through visual images that give the impression of movement.
Graphic novels do not and aren’t intended to replace other kinds of reading—it’s not an either/or choice. Reading all kinds of formats encourages readers to think critically about how stories work across the different formats.
Learning From the Unique Format of Graphic Novels
Students can compare the different experiences of receiving information through written narrative, versus receiving it visually without words. They can analyze how information about character is derived from facial and bodily expressions, and about meaning and foreshadowing from the pictures’ composition and viewpoint. You can invite students to find examples of where the viewpoint of the picture is critical to the reader’s experience of the story.
Students can also discuss how in graphic novels, as in movies, readers can often deduce what happened—but was not explicitly stated—in the interval between one image and the next.
Students hopefully know what it’s like to be so engrossed in a riveting novel that they feel as if they’re watching a movie of the story in their imagination. Graphic novels are literature that is actually in a cinematic format. You can discuss with students the similarities and differences between these experiences.
Some graphic novels can be compared to works of poetry in the way they convey intangible feelings through allusion rather than direct description.
Graphic novels can be a springboard to many creative writing projects. Students can write their own alternative endings, or accounts of what happened before or after the story. They can fill in an interval in the story that is not depicted, or only depicted visually. Another great exercise is to take a prose passage from a traditional novel and rewrite it as dialogue in a graphic novel, then create the pictures to go with it. Of course students can also create their own original graphic novels, and even have them published online on the Comic Book Project.
Resources in Print
- Graphic Novels: A Genre Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More by Michael Pawuk. Published by Libraries Unlimited.
- Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries edited by Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper. Published by Libraries Unlimited.
- Graphic Novels for Young Readers: A Genre Guide for Ages 4–14 by Nathan Herald. Published by Libraries Unlimited.
- Graphic Novels Now: Building, Managing and Marketing a Dynamic Collection by Francisca Goldsmith. Published by the American Library Association.
- The Librarian’s Guide to Graphic Novels for Children and Tweens by David Serchay. Published by Neal-Schuman.
- The 101 Best Graphic Novels by Stephen Weiner. Published by NBM.
- A Parent’s Guide to the Best Kids’ Comics: Choosing Titles Your Children Will Love by Scott Robins and Snow Wildsmith. Published by Krause Publications.
- Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Published by Harper Paperbacks.
- Bookshelf from Diamond Comics — A great start for using comics and graphic novels in schools, including articles, lesson plans, and core lists.
- Graphic Novel Trends at School Library Journal — Browsing this tag on the SLJ.com site leads to a treasure trove of features and articles on the format.
- PW Comics World
- No Flying, No Tights: A Graphic Novel Review Website — This website, created by Robin Brenner, holds a phenomenal number of reviews and features on current and classic graphic novels.
- The Secret Origin of Good Readers, by Robyn A. Hill — This terrific collection of articles, links, teaching tips, and lesson plans can be downloaded for free.
- The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund — This website has great resources for librarians and educators, with articles on everything from using specific graphic novels in the classroom to building a library collection, as well as resources on the benefits of reading graphic novels and comics.
- The American Library Association Graphic Novels Reading List—The Quicklists Consulting Committee of ALA created this list of graphic novels for those interested in creating or continuing a collection for their library. The current list was updated in 2013.
- Good Comics for Kids (hosted by School Library Journal)
Sites for Fans of Comics and Graphic Novels
- The Comics Journal
- “Best Practice” article about Comics and Graphic Novels, Instructor Magazine, May/June 2008
- “The Case for Graphic Novels in Education” from American Libraries
- “Cataloging Graphic Novels” from Diamond Bookshelf
- “Graphic Novels 101: Reading Lessons” from The Horn Book Magazine, March 2006
- “Can the X-Men Make You Smarter?” from Parents’ Choice
- “Kids Graphic Novels Get Their Own Section in Libraries” from ICv2
- “Teaching Tips: More Ways to Pitch Graphic Novels” from Reading Today Online and the International Reading Association
Thinking Through the Format
When considering a graphic novel in a classroom or educational setting, it’s important to encourage readers to look at all of the elements that make up a graphic novel. Here are discussion prompts and visual examples to get discussions started.
Panels and Gutters
Consider the size and shape of panels. How do they fit together? Do they interrupt or overlap with each other? Are there any images without any panel borders at all? The spaces in between the panels—the gutters—indicate a change: in how time is passing, in where you are, or in whom you’re looking at or talking to. What do the gutters add to how you understand the story?
Description and Word Balloons
Think about how the dialogue appears. Are the words different colors? Written with thicker or thinner lines? How would that sound? How about the silence when no one is speaking? Is there any narration or description (words in boxes, but not spoken)? How is that important to how the story unfolds?
Sound Effects and Motion Lines
Sounds set the scene, signal something off scene, and add another layer to each story. Motion lines indicate how characters or objects are moving. What sounds do you see? How are each of the sounds written—does the way it’s written reflect what it actually sounds like? What gestures do you see?
Every creator has their own style. Is the art realistic? Cartoony? What can you tell from the expressions on faces? The gestures and movement of characters? The background and its details? If there is color, how does that change over the course of a page? Each chapter?
Discussion Questions for Any Graphic Novel
Discussions can and should shift to address the specifics of each particular graphic novel, especially in the story content, but here is a list of starter questions that should work for any graphic novel you present for analysis.
- Can you find all the elements that make up graphic novels: panels, word balloons, sound effects, motion lines, narration, and background colors? If you take out any one of these, what do you lose? Can you still understand the story?
- How do you read a graphic novel? Do you look at the images and words together, panel by panel? Do you read all the text on the page and then go back and look at the pictures? Do you look at the pictures first and then go back and read the words? There’s no right way to read a graphic novel, and many readers go through them differently. Compare how you read an assigned graphic novel with how your neighbor does, and see if how you read it is different or the same.
- Graphic novels use both words and images. Pick a page or a sequence from a graphic novel and think through what you learn from just the words. Then think about what you learn from just the images. Are they telling you the same information, or are they giving you different information? How do they work together?
- Expressions and gestures are important to how we understand characters. Can you find an example of a particular expression or movement that you think shows a significant character trait?
- Literary devices frequently featured in graphic novels include point of view, flashbacks, foreshadowing, and metaphor. Choose a graphic novel and see if you can find examples of a traditional literary device within its pages.
- Many elements of graphic novels are similar to what you see in movies. A graphic novel creator can be the director in deciding what each panel and page shows. Think about the frame of each panel. What are you seeing? What are you not seeing? What about the camera angle? The distance from the subject of the panel? Are there any sound effects? Why did the creator make those choices?
- On top of being a director, graphic novel creators are also editors. The action in comics happens “in the gutters,” or in the spaces between each panel. Sometimes big things happen in the time it takes to turn the page. Looking through a graphic novel, can you find a specific sequence of panels or a page turn that you think is dramatic or exciting? Why do you think the creator chose that sequence of images or that page turn to emphasize that moment?
- The pace at which panels change, and how much time seems to pass, is carefully presented. Time, in how fast or slowly it seems to pass, is important in how panels change. Can you find a sequence where the pacing is slow, observing a character or scene? How about a sequence when everything speeds up?
- In prose works, details are given to the reader in the descriptions. In graphic novels, details are in the images in the background, character design, clothing, and objects. Take a look at this graphic novel and see if you can find five details in the way a person or object is drawn. What does each detail tell you about the characters? The place? The world?
Many of the websites, articles, and print titles listed on the following page offer lesson plans, worksheets, and guides for how to best use graphic novels in a classroom.
A few examples of these activities are below—see the Educational Resources section for lesson plans and guides that provide more details and specific step-by-step instructions.
Highlight the Visuals:
Hand out examples of comic sequences with the text removed and have students fill in what they think the characters might be saying. See what they can gather from the visual context, and finally reveal the actual panels with text to see how everyone’s brainstormed ideas compare to what the author intended.
Mix it Up:
Give each student, or group of students, a selection of panels featuring around ten different scenes or images, each on their own sheet of paper. Have each group move the images around, like tiles in a word game, to create a story out of six of the given panels. Once they’ve recorded their created story, ask them to swap out one image with one not yet used. What is the story now?
Introduce the concept of onomatopoeia using the sound effects from graphic novel panels as examples. Hand out pages from graphic novels that use onomatopoeia, and have the students create their own three- to four-panel comic strips using similar words. (Grades 6–8)
Provide students with a collection of images and portraits of the various heroes and villains from an array of graphic novels. Discuss the trademarks of how each character is designed: their body type, their expressions, their clothing, and the colors used in each illustration. Investigate if students can tell who is a hero and who is a villain from only visual clues.
Graphic Novel Book Reports:
Instead of writing up a traditional book report, have your students present their book reports in graphic novel format. Encourage the students to think carefully about which scenes they will feature, what the dialogue would be, and what details are necessary to get across the important parts of the story. Students may create their own art or use online comics creators, like ReadWriteThink’s Comics Creator, to illustrate their chosen scenes. (Grades 6–8)
Graphic Novel Creation:
For older students, through a few basic story prompts and an investigation of how graphic novels and comics are created, each can try their hand at writing a script and then see how an artist might adapt their script. (Grades 9–12)
Remember that many publishers and creators have title- or series-specific reading guides and classroom activities available online. Many of the print resources listed also have discussion guides for specific titles and creators as well. Take advantage of what is available and was created with schools and libraries in mind! Visit www.scholastic.com/discussionguides for available discussion guides to Scholastic books.
Resources in Print
- Building Literacy Connections with Graphic Novels: Page by Page, Panel by Panel by James Bucky Carter. Published by the National Council of Teachers for English.
- Getting Graphic! Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy with Preteens and Teens by Michele Gorman. Published by Linworth Publishing.
- The Graphic Novel Classroom: POWerful Teaching and Learning with Images by Maureen Bakis. Published by Skyhorse Publishing.
- Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom: Essays on the Educational Power of Sequential Art edited by Carrye Kay Syma and Robert Weiner. Published by McFarland.
- Graphic Novels for Young Readers: A Genre Guide for Ages 4–14 by Nathan Herald. Published by Libraries Unlimited.
- Graphic Novels in Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide by Allyson A.W. Lyga and Barry Lyga. Published by Libraries Unlimited.
- Graphic Novels in Your School Library by Jesse Karp. Published by the American Library Association.
- Graphic Novels 101: Selecting and Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy for Children and Young Adults—A Resource Guide for School Librarians and Educators by Philip Crawford. Published by Hi Willow Publishing.
- Reading with Pictures: Comics That Make Kids Smarter edited by Josh Elder. Published by Andrews McNeel.
- Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels by Katie Monnin. Published by Maupin House.
- Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom by Katie Monnin. Published by Maupin House.
- Teaching Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Building Literacy and Comprehension by Ryan Novak. Published by Prufrock Press.
- Wham! Teaching with Graphic Novels Across the Curriculum by William G. Brozo, Gary Moorman, and Carla Meyer. Published by Teachers College Press.
- “Best Practice” article about Comics and Graphic Novels. Published in Instructor Magazine, May/June 2008.
- The Comic Book Project—This site helps children forge an alternative pathway to literacy by writing, designing, and publishing original comic books.
- Comics Curriculum & Lesson Plans—Do a keyword search for comics at ReadWriteThink, and you will find a treasure trove of lesson plans and guides from trusted comics educators.
- Comics in the Classroom—An excellent resource for using comics and graphic novels in the classroom—including lesson plans!
- Teaching with Comics—From one of the leaders in Maryland’s Comic Book Initiative of the Maryland State Department of Education, a collection of templates and advice on teaching comics in school.
- “Comic Books, the Common Core Standards, and the Literary Age” from Diamond Bookshelf
- The “Comics in the Classroom” feature series from Teach.com and Reading with Pictures
- “Creating Effective Reading Guides for Graphic Novels” from Diamond Bookshelf
- “Eek! Comics in the Classroom!” from Education World
- “It’s Elementary! Graphic Novels for the K–6 Classroom” from Book Links
- “Using Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom” from Edutopia
Recommended Books and Series
- BONE by Jeff Smith
- Sisters, Drama, Smile, and the Baby-sitters Club by Raina Telgemeier
- Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi
- Nnewts, Tommysaurus Rex, Cardboard, Bad Island, and Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel
- Missile Mouse by Jake Parker
- The Silver Six by AJ Lieberman and Darren Rawlings
- Cleopatra in Space by Mike Maihack
- The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth
- Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan, illustrated by Nathan Fox
- Captain Underpants, Super Diaper Baby, and The Adventures of Ook and Gluk by Dav Pilkey
- Bird & Squirrel by James Burks
- Sidekicks by Dan Santat
- Knights of the Lunch Table by Frank Cammuso
- The Dumbest Idea Ever by Jimmy Gownley
Watch Jeff Smith, Kazu Kibuishi, and Raina Telgemeier talk about graphic novels in the Graphix Webcast: Words Are Only Half the Story.
See the PDF for all this content and more, including a graph to show the themes addressed in each book, which will help to pair readers with graphic novels. Download this guide as a PDF.
In 2005 Scholastic launched Graphix with the publication of the full-color edition of BONE #1: Out From Boneville. Graphix is dedicated to publishing engaging, age-appropriate graphic novels for children and teens. Supported by librarians, teachers, and most important, kids, Graphix totles have become bestsellers around the globe and continue to receive awards and critical acclaim, including multiple Eisner Award wins and nominations, a Stonewall Book Award (Drama), a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor (Smile), an Edgar Allen Poe nomination (The Lost Boy), eight New York Times bestsellers to date (Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi; BONE #1: Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith; Dogs of War by Sheila Keenan and Nathan Fox; Smile, Drama, and Sisters by Raina Telgemeier; The Lost Boy by Greg Ruth; and Rose by Jeff Smith and Charles Vess), and three USA Today bestsellers (BONE #9, Sisters, and Amulet #6.)
About This Guide
This guide was adapted by Robin Brenner from a previous Scholastic guide written by two highly regarded experts in the field of graphic novels for youth librarians and teachers: Philip Crawford, Library Director of Essex High School in Vermont, author of Graphic Novels 101: Selecting and Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy for Children and Young Adults; and Stephen Weiner, Director of the Maynard Public Library in Maynard, Massachusetts, author of many books and articles on graphic novels.
Robin Brenner is the Reference & Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library. As the Editor-in-Chief of No Flying, No Tights, author of the Eisner Award–nominated Understanding Manga and Anime, and an active member of YALSA, she has been working with and advocating for comics in libraries for over twelve years. She has served on a wide range of awards committees including Great Graphic Novels for Teens, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, the Michael L. Printz Award, and Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards.
This edition of this guide was published in January 2015.