Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens: A Guide for Teachers and Librarians
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
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About this book
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Graphic Novels Are Hot!
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. The term graphic novel was first popularized by Will Eisner to distinguish his book A Contract with God (1978) from collections of newspaper comic strips. He described graphic novels as consisting of “sequential art” — a series of illustrations which, when viewed in order, tell a story. Although today’s graphic novels are a recent phenomenon, 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 now generally used to describe any book in a comic format that resembles a novel in length and narrative development.
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. They may not yet be familiar with the growing body of graphic novels that are suitable for all ages, including children. 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 text. Even those deemed poor readers willingly and enthusiastically gravitate towards these books.
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 book"? 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
However, the quality graphic novels now being published have increasingly 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. In 2007, the graphic novel American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (Roaring Brook/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).
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.
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.
What are the literary themes in graphic novels?
Graphic novels contain many 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, with many parallels in other literature, include the reluctant hero, the unknown destiny, and the mentor wizard figure.
Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi, The Good Neighbors by Holly Black, Malice by Chris Wooding, and Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel all deal, in different ways, with characters who have traveled into a different, alternative world.
Magic Pickle by Scott Morse and Missile Mouse by Jake Parker both feature, in a humorous way, heroes that are small in size (a pickle, a mouse) who courageously tackle larger enemies. Smile by Raina Telgemeier and Queen Bee by Chynna Clugston are both classic stories of struggling to fit in, while The Arrival by Shaun Tan is about the universal search for belonging.
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.
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.
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 on the “Comic Book Project” (see under Web sites).
For Younger Readers
The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby by Dav Pilkey
Super Diaper Baby 2: The Invasion of the Potty Snatchers by Dav Pilkey
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future by Dav Pilkey
Magic Pickle series by Scott Morse
Pilot and Huxley series by Dan McGuiness
Bird & Squirrel On the Run! by James Burks
Detective Blue by Steve Metzger, illustrated by Tedd Arnold
For Middle Grade Readers
Bone Prequel: Tall Tales
Bone: The Quest for the Spark #1
Bone: The Quest for the Spark #2
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
The Baby-Sitters Club Graphix series by Ann M. Martin; adapted and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
Sidekicks by Dan Santat
Knights of the Lunch Table series by Frank Cammuso
Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi
Copper by Kazu Kibuishi
Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel
Bad Island by Doug TenNapel
Cardboard by Doug TenNapel
Into the Volcano by Don Wood
Goosebumps Graphix series by R.L. Stine
Missile Mouse series by Jake Parker
Queen Bee by Chynna Clugston
Malice by Chris Wooding
For Young Adult Readers
The Good Neighbors series by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh
The Arrival by Shaun Tan
Drawing from Memory by Allen Say
Graphic Novel Resources
Here are some excellent websites with more information about using graphic novels in the library and classroom.
No Flying, No Tights: A Website Reviewing Graphic Novels for Teens, by Robin Brenner
Sidekicks: Robin Brenner’s website reviewing graphic novels for younger readers
SUNY Buffalo Graphic Novel Resources for Teachers and Librarians
Classical Comics: this site has many useful links
Education World—article titled “Eek! Comics in the Classroom!”
Parents’ Choice—article on how comics make kids smarter
Discussions of articles about comics in the classroom and in libraries
The Secret Origin of Good Readers, by Robyn A. Hill—a terrific collection of articles, links, teaching tips, and lesson plans can be downloaded free from
The Comic Book Project — helps children forge an alternative pathway to literacy by writing, designing, and publishing original comic books.
Sites for fans of comics and graphic novels
The Comics Journal (www.tcj.com)
ComicsWorthReading.com | www.ICV2.com
Good Comics for Kids — hosted by School Library Journal — click on “blogs” at
PW Comics Week — subscribe at www.publishersweekly.com
Here are some excellent books about graphic novels for youth librarians and teachers.
Getting Graphic! Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy with Preteens and Teens, by Michele Gorman
Published by Linworth Publishing.
The Public Librarian’s Guide to Graphic Novels
Published by Book Wholesalers, Inc.
The 101 Best Graphic Novels, by Stephen Weiner
Published by NBM.
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.
Graphic Novels in Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide, by Allyson A.W. Lyga and Barry Lyga
Published by Libraries Unlimited.
Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
The essential guide for anyone who wants to understand the structure of comics.
Published by Harper Paperbacks.
Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries, Ed. Martha Cornog and Timothy Perper
A collection of essays with practical advice on building a graphic novels collection.
Published by Libraries Unlimited.
“Best Practice” article about Comics and Graphic Novels
Instructor Magazine, May/June 2008
“It’s Elementary! Graphic Novels for the K–6 Classroom”
Book Links, May 2008
This guide is adapted from a previous Scholastic guide written by two highly regarded experts in the field of graphic novels for youth librarians and teachers: Phillip 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. This edition of this guide was published in January, 2012.