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Graphic Novels in the Classroom
In decades past, graphic novels were considered a sort of counter-culture. They were thought of as inferior, non-academic alternatives to “serious” literature. Over time, however, they have gained more and more acceptance. Librarians keep them at hand and teachers are even utilizing them in the classroom. In fact, it has been shown that graphic novels actually encourage reading rather than detract from it. Graphic novels sometimes feature powerful narratives and imagery and can therefore be adapted to any collection, classroom or curriculum.
What are Graphic Novels?
The simplest way to explain a graphic novel is to say that it is a big comic book. Comparatively, a comic book is a short story while a graphic novel is, as its name suggests, a novel. They are written and read in the same manner: pages are divided into panels with illustrations and speech bubbles inside. This form is known as sequential art, a term defined by Will Eisner when describing his book A Contract with God. Sequential art has been used for storytelling for centuries and it is proven by cave drawings. However, the graphic novel as we know it today dates back only a few decades.
Who are Graphic Novels Written for?
There are graphic novels for everyone, but that does not mean that every graphic novel is appropriate for every audience. Contrary to the original perception, graphic novels are not exclusively written for young readers. In fact, there are many that are written specifically for adults. These books may feature adult concepts, mature language, excessive depictions of violence or sexual content. Fortunately, with resources such as online reviews as well as internet and non-digital vendors, it is very easy to determine which graphic novels are acceptable for children and which are not. Some publications that review graphic novels regularly include Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, Voice of Youth Advocates, Library Media Connection, School Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly.
How do Graphic Novels Encourage Kids to Read?
Kids, young boys in particular, tend to be resistant to reading for one reason or another. For decades, these children avoided the books in their school’s curriculum and spent their time with comics and graphic novels instead. Critics once had a negative view of graphic novels, often taking the stance that picture books are made for young children and graphic novels are books with pictures, therefore, they must be for young children. After actually reading some quality examples, most critics are reasonably convinced otherwise. Picture books have very simplistic plots and basic language. Graphic novels often utilize more complex, layered story arcs with advanced language. Reading them requires the same effort as a chapter book with no images. Students absorb the same quality lessons from one as the other, so if a child prefers the graphic novel, they should not be discouraged.
Some students reject traditional books because they have difficulty comprehending what they read. Though they see the words, they cannot process them into an image inside their head. Any emotional context lost to a student with a learning disability or autism can have it displayed in front of them as a detailed illustration. Likewise, graphic novels can teach children new words and how to properly associate them. If a character thinks or speaks a word, the corresponding panel might give a depiction of that word whether it represents an object or a feeling. Therefore, a student becomes more proficient in the English language as a result of reading a graphic novel.
Tell Me More about These “Quality Examples”
The shift in a critic’s perception must occur naturally. However, there were several major steps that led to the overall acceptance of graphic novels. 2007 was a hugely important year because it marked the first annual Great Graphic Novels for Teens list published by the American Library Association. That same year, the excellent American Born Chinese title won Young Adult Book of the Year and was given the Michael L. Printz Award. Also in 2007, To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel was recognized for its quality and named a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book. Both of these titles use literary devices, deep narrative structure and even some intertextuality that can only be appreciated by reading specific other works. They also require the reader to progress through the story as they would any work of prose fiction.
- No Flying, No Tights
- Do Graphic Novels Belong in Libraries?
- Eek! Comics in the Classroom
- Comics in Education
- Can the X-Men Make You Smarter?
- The Comic Book Project
- The Librarian’s Guide to Manga (Japanese Graphic Novels)
- Great Graphic Novels for Teens (from the ALA)
- Graphic Novel Reviews
- Graphic Literature Library
- National Association of Comics Art Educators
- Expanding Literacies through Graphic Novels (PDF)
- Comics Worth Reading
- What Parents, Teens, Teachers and Librarians Want to Know about Graphic Novels
- Once-Banned Comic Books Now a Teaching Tool
- The Comics Journal
- A History of Comics
- Copyright-free Comics from the Golden Age
- Teaching Maus
- NPR interview with Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis