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Find more Notes from the Field
Graphic novels today are hotter than ever, offering immense possibilities for enriching classroom curriculum. However, there are still plenty of naysayers who fail to see their value. Two Louisiana librarians, who have presented on graphic novels at conferences and book festivals, are passionate advocates for this form of visual storytelling: Soline Holmes is a librarian at the Academy of the Sacred Heart Lower School, and Alicia Schwarzenbach is a librarian and instructor at Delgado Community College. Both are based in New Orleans.
BOOKLIST: Why do educators shy away from using graphic novels in their classrooms?
HOLMES: There are a lot of misconceptions about graphic novels. The format has a storied history (pun intended), and graphic novels hold a stigma for some teachers. I have seen teachers turn their noses up at graphic novels because they think they are just comic books, and others shy away from them because they think that they are actually graphic—containing gore, violence, or sexual innuendos.
SCHWARZENBACH: Working in a community college environment, the responses I have heard show that educators aren’t aware that graphic novels can be used to teach medicine (also known as graphic medicine), business, psychology, chemistry, law, and especially the social sciences—such as history, current events, and social justice. Most people think of comics as superheroes or a traditional comic book. They aren’t aware of the amazing art, storytelling, and research that can be conveyed through the form of graphic novels.
HOLMES: The main issue is that educators are not familiar with the format. Graphic novels are a format, not a genre. In reality, graphic novels and comics are used in all areas of life. The “Wash Your Hands” sign in the elementary bathroom is in a comic format. Comics are everywhere, and people respond to them positively, even though they may not realize it.
SCHWARZENBACH: Visualize the airline emergency information card that provides vital information in the shortest, most universal way. There are no language barriers. Comics and graphic novels take the power of images and combine them with short, direct text.
HOLMES: I have had parents question the use of graphic novels, which may be one of the other reasons that educators do not use them much in the classroom. Even if educators are aware of the benefits of graphic novels, many parents or caregivers might not be. By recommending a couple of graphic titles (see the “Recommended Books” section), we can usually hook educators and parents into reading more of them. We would encourage teachers to organize a family book club with graphic novels to help families see their value.
SCHWARZENBACH: Graphic novels were winners in almost every category of this year’s Youth Media Awards. This was the first year that a graphic novel won the Newbery medal. We think that having an award sticker on the front cover of Jerry Craft’s New Kid (2019) will help promote graphic novels and make them more acceptable in the classroom.
BOOKLIST: What makes graphic novels so powerful?
SCHWARZENBACH: Graphic novels are incredibly effective because of their multimodality. They contain symbols, graphs, sounds, and movements, and readers use multiple areas of the brain, reinforcing comprehension and learning. Essentially, graphic novels are accessible to all readers, including those who are learning English and those with learning differences. When readers put image and text together, they are subconsciously practicing abstract thinking and building cognitive thinking. If a reader is unsure of a word in the text, they can use the pictures to decipher the word. In addition, graphic novels can increase vocabulary skills.
HOLMES: Graphic novels have all of the literary elements found in regular narrative text, from plot, characterization, setting, theme, and point of view to foreshadowing and mood. Graphic novels also contain visual elements, such as line, shape, color, form, texture, perspective, layout, and unique fonts, to help build the visual literacy skills that are required in today’s world.
BOOKLIST: What do you think is the appeal for readers? Is it the visuals, simplified text, or something else?
HOLMES: It is the combination of visuals and text. Graphic novels are laid out in panels with space in between called the gutter. It’s different from narrative text, where readers enjoy the story word by word; in graphic novels, readers make connections between each panel. Readers are using their imaginations as they view the images and make sense of the story, even though they may not be conscious of this. Additionally, the creators of graphic novels use framing, deciding which images readers will see and which they will not. Framing forces readers to fill in the blanks, complete the pictures, and create their own interpretations of the story.
SCHWARZENBACH: When working with anything multimodal, the reader comprehends the information presented more quickly. Students who do not believe they are good readers feel accomplished by finishing a thick graphic text. Even accomplished readers absorb the emotional impact of the visual and text, such as in The Unwanted: Stories of Syrian Refugees (2018) or learn historical and biographical information in Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography (2010).
BOOKLIST: Have the circulation rates for graphic novels increased, indicating their popularity over the past five years? Why?
HOLMES: I can’t keep graphic novels on the shelves. I have several students who have read almost every graphic novel we have, so I am always looking for new ones to add to the collection. There are times when there are holds on the graphic novels because they are so popular. And there has definitely been an increase in circulation over the past few years, as titles are usually spread by word of mouth. One child reads a book, such as Roller Girl (2015), and recommends it to another child.
SCHWARZENBACH: At the college level, there are courses about graphic novels spanning every discipline, such as art and history. My community college library has a wide offering of print and online graphic novels. Part of the popularity stems from graphic novels and comics being made into movies and TV series and a greater acceptance of these texts as an art form.
BOOKLIST: How might educators use graphic novels in the classroom?
HOLMES: We encourage educators to “feast on graphic novels” by using them as appetizers, main courses, and desserts in their classrooms. For example, graphic novels could be an appetizer or introduction to a narrative text where students read the graphic novel version of Hamlet and then Shakespeare’s original work. Students could read graphic novels that are thematically similar to a classic, such as Jeff Smith’s Bone series as an introduction to Homer’s The Odyssey. When graphic novels are used as the main course in the curriculum, students could read Gareth Hinds’ Beowulf (2007) instead of the original Anglo-Saxon version. Another idea is for students to read the graphic novel and existing prose text simultaneously, encouraging students to look for differences between the texts—what did one author choose to stress? How did the images change the story? How did your job change as the reader?
SCHWARZENBACH: Then, we get to our favorite part of the meal—dessert. After reading the original narrative text or a graphic novel, students create their own graphic novels. Not only do students enjoy this process, different learners are often more successful with this format than they are with writing a paper. Students must decide what are the most important points that need to be conveyed and in which way: text, words, or design. This encourages students to present their own views and think about the unique perspectives each storyteller brings.
BOOKLIST: How might a science teacher use graphic novels?
HOLMES: There are some great science graphic novels, such as the Graphic Prehistoric Animal series with titles such as Giant Sloth (2017) and Mega Shark (2017); the Science Comics series including topics about weather, robots and drones, and volcanoes; and, one of our favorites, the Monster Science series with titles such as Bigfoot and Adaptation (2011) and Werewolves and States of Matter (2012).
SCHWARZENBACH: There are also some fabulous stand-alone graphic novels that can be used to teach science, including Human Body Theater (2015) which starts off at the cellular level of our bodies as a skeleton proceeds to get “dressed” by adding organs and eventually putting on his skin. In addition to a plot and characterizations, Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction (2014) includes experiments and design-thinking challenges throughout.
HOLMES: Science graphic novels not only teach the scientific method and the facts that students would learn in a textbook, but they provide visual cues, characterizations, and plotlines that enhance students’ memory recall without rote memorization. For example, many students would be more likely to remember that sound travels in waves from remembering the humorous picture of a mummy riding in an inflatable dinghy on the ocean from Mummies and Sound (2013) than from reading about it in a textbook.
BOOKLIST: What about social studies?
SCHWARZENBACH: Teachers can use graphic novels to teach about history, cultures, and different points of view. There are so many amazing individual titles as well as series. For example, the Show Me History series includes biographies on Amelia Earhart, Alexander Hamilton, and Martin Luther King with Harriet Tubman and other titles coming out soon that could complement a social studies or history textbook.
HOLMES: There are also graphic novels that teach historical points of view and biases. The Resistance series, by Carla Jablonski and illustrated by Leland Purvis, about the French Resistance shows a different side of WWII. An educator could pair this series with Maus (1986) or Gaijin: American Prisoner of War (2014) to teach different points of view as students look at that time period through different lenses and learn about what was happening in different countries. The graphic novels could also be paired with primary sources.
Another idea is for teachers to choose one panel and ask students to analyze and respond. We read about a Title I teacher who asked students to write a poem from one character’s point of view using Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel (2009). Some students chose to tell the story of background characters who did not have any dialogue in the panel. The students stepped into those characters’ shoes to tell those individual stories.
BOOKLIST: What about an ELA teacher?
HOLMES: Almost any graphic novel can be used by an ELA teacher to teach the literary elements of plot, characterization, foreshadowing, motif, imagery, and point of view. Some great graphic novels that emphasize these elements include the Berrybrook Middle School series, American Born Chinese (2006), and Smile (2010).
SCHWARZENBACH: As a different format from standard textbooks or novels, graphic novels also fit in to the CCSS to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.”
BOOKLIST: What changes in design, color, and topics have you noted recently in graphic novels? What topics remain to be explored through them?
SCHWARZENBACH: Recently, most graphic novels are in full color. When graphic novels were gaining mainstream popularity, many were in black and white or in only two or three colors, such as the Babymouse series, by Jennifer and Matthew Holm, or the Lunch Lady series, by Jarrett Krosoczka. There are also now more graphic novel series encouraging younger readers who are just starting to read chapter books, providing the familiarity of characters and other literary elements.
HOLMES: Whatever the field or subject area, there are nonfiction graphic novels that match every discipline. Of course, there are still untouched topics in biographies and events in history. As librarians and fans of Carole Boston Weatherford and her son, Jeffery Weatherford, who is an illustrator, we’re hoping for a collaboration on a graphic novel about the desegregation of libraries in the south.
BOOKLIST: Are enough graphic novels addressing diversity? What is missing or what do we need more of?
SCHWARZENBACH: While graphic novels across all subjects and age ranges are expanding, there still need to be more featuring diverse main characters. This includes POC, LGBTQ people, people of different religious affiliations, and just wider backgrounds. While there is representation in graphic novels, this genre is facing the same issues as the wider publishing industry.
HOLMES: While I think there are more diverse voices in graphic novels than in the rest of the publishing industry, there are still many that need to be heard. There are not many Native American graphic novels. There are also not a lot of graphic novels by or about people with disabilities.
BOOKLIST: If you were writing and illustrating your own graphic novel, what would the topic be?
HOLMES: Right now we need a graphic novel about COVID-19 to help explain everything and help us work through our emotions, anxieties, and the role that politics has played. But Don Brown would do a much better job with this subject because he conducts detailed research to unearth the truths and find the story to be told.
I have also read about the benefits of creating your own graphic novel and how it works as a form of art therapy. I would write one about illness and grief. After the loss of my mom and some close family friends, I think it would be beneficial for me to write and illustrate my own graphic novel.
SCHWARZENBACH: My graphic novel would be about issues such as hoarding, gambling, or compulsive buying and how this affects the individual as well as the people around them. These mental illness manifestations should be addressed just like Hey, Kiddo (2018) addresses alcoholism and drug abuse or Stitches: A Memoir (2019) addresses physical, emotional, and mental abuse. Portraying mental health issues in graphic novels brings them to light and makes them acceptable to talk about which can help others experiencing similar situations work through their own feelings and emotions.
There is no doubt about it—the combination of pictures and text in graphic novels allows readers to see through the lens of others and experience worlds and situations they would never encounter otherwise. Creating more shared experiences is one of the goals of reading, and graphic novels offer unique and appealing ways to enhance the traditional classroom curriculum in an appealing way.
Selected Works Cited and Additional Recommended Titles
Young and Emerging Readers
Little Robot. By Ben Hatke. Illus. by the author. 2015. First Second, $16.99 (9781626720800). Gr. 1–4. (See also: Hatke’s Julia’s House for Lost Creatures, 2014.)
Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths. By Graham Annable. Illus. by the author. 2018. First Second, $17.99 (9781626725614). Gr. 1–4. (See also: other books in the Peter & Ernesto series.)
We Dig Worms! By Kevin McCloskey. Illus. by the author. 2015. TOON, $12.95 (9781935179801). K–Gr. 3. (See also: other books published by TOON.)
Where’s Halmoni? By Julie Kim. Illus. by the author. 2017. Sasquatch/Little Bigfoot, $19.99 (9781632170774). Gr. 1–4.
Early Middle Readers
Cici’s Journal: The Adventures of a Writer-in-Training. By Joris Chamblain. Illus. by Aurélie Neyret. Tr. by Carol Klio Burrell. 2017. First Second, $17.99 (9781626722484). Gr. 3–6.
Catherine’s War. By Julia Billet. Illus. by Claire Fauvel. Tr. by Ivanka Hahnenberger. 2020. Harper, $21.99 (9780062915603). Gr. 4–7.
El Deafo. By Cece Bell. Illus. by the author. 2014. Abrams/Amulet, $21.95 (9781419710209). Gr. 4–7.
Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel. By C. M. Butzer. Illus. by the author. 2009. HarperCollins/Bowen, $16.99 (9780061561764). Gr. 4–8.
Howtoons: Tools of Mass Construction. By Saul Griffith and others. Illus. by Nick Dragotta. 2014. Image Comics, $17.99 (9781632151018). Gr. 4–8.
The Misadventures of Salem Hyde, v.1: Spelling Trouble. By Frank Cammuso. Illus. by the author. 2013. Abrams/Amulet, $14.95 (9781419708039). Gr. 3–5. (See also: other books in The Misadventures of Salem Hyde series.)
New Kid. By Jerry Craft. Illus. by the author. 2019. Harper, $12.99 (9780062691194). Gr. 4–7.
Roller Girl. By Victoria Jamieson. Illus. by the author. 2015. Dial, $12.99 (9780803740167). Gr. 4–8.
Secret Coders. By Gene Luen Yang. Illus. by Mike Holmes. 2015. First Second, $9.99 (9781626720756). Gr. 3–6. (See also: other books in the Secret Coders series.)
Squish, v.1: Super Amoeba. By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. Illus. by the authors. 2011. Random, $6.99 (9780375843891). Gr. 3–5. (See also: other books in the Squish series.)
Unicorn on a Roll: Another Phoebe and Her Unicorn Adventure. By Dana Simpson. Illus. by the author. 2015. Andrews McMeel/AMP!, $9.99 (9781449470760). Gr. 3–5. (See also: other books in the Phoebe and Her Unicorn Adventures series.)
The Witch Boy. By Molly Knox Ostertag. Illus. by the author. 2017. Scholastic/Graphix, $24.99 (9781338089523). Gr. 3–7. (See also: other books in the Witch Boy series.)
Upper Middle Readers
The Crossover. By Kwame Alexander. Illus. by Dawud Anyabwile. 2019. HMH, $22.99 (9781328960016). Gr. 5–8.
Fish Girl. By Donna Jo Napoli and David Wiesner. Illus. by David Wiesner. 2017. Clarion, $25 (9780544815124). Gr. 4–8.
Ghosts. By Raina Telgemeier. Illus. by the author. 2016. Scholastic/Graphix, $24.99 (9780545540612). Gr. 4–7. (See also: other books by Raina Telgemeier, including Smile, 2010.)
Human Body Theater. By Maris Wicks. Illus. by the author. 2015. 240p. First Second, $14.99 (9781626722774). Gr. 5–8.
To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel. By Siena Cherson Siegel. Illus. by Mark Siegel. 2006. Atheneum, $17.95 (9781416926870). Gr. 5–8.
Zeus: King of the Gods. By George O’Connor. Illus. by the author. 2010. First Second, $16.99 (9781596434318). Gr. 5–9. (See also: other books in The Olympians series.)
American Born Chinese. By Gene Luen Yang. Illus. by the author. 2006. First Second, $16.95 (9781596431522). Gr. 10–12.
Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography. By Sid Jacobson. Illus. by Ernie Colón. 2010. Hill & Wang, $30 (9780809026845). Adult.
Beowulf. By Gareth Hinds. Illus. by the author. 2007. Candlewick, $21.99 (9780763630232). Gr. 6–9.
Gaijin: American Prisoner of War. By Matt Faulkner. Illus. by the author. 2014. Little, Brown, $19.99 (9781423137351). Gr. 6–10.
Hey, Kiddo. By Jarrett J. Krosoczka. Illus. by the author. 2018. Scholastic/Graphix, $24.99 (9780545902472). Gr. 8–12.
March: Book One. By John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. Illus. by Nate Powell. 2013. Top Shelf, $14.95 (9781603093002). Gr. 7–12. (See also: the rest of the March trilogy.)
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. By Art Spiegelman. Illus. by the author. 1986. Pantheon, $8.95 (9780394747231). Adult.
The Prince and the Dressmaker. By Jen Wang. Illus. by the author. 2018. First Second, $24.99 (9781250159854). Gr. 7–12.
Speak: The Graphic Novel. By Laurie Halse Anderson. Illus. by Emily Carroll. 2018. 384p. Farrar, $19.99 (9780374300289). Gr. 8–12.
Spill Zone: The Broken Vow. By Scott Westerfeld. Illus. by Alex Puvilland. 2018. First Second, $22.99 (9781626721500). Gr. 9–12. (See also: other books in the Spill Zone series.)
Tetris: The Games People Play. By Box Brown. Illus. by the author. 2016. First Second, $19.99 (9781626723153). Gr. 9–12.
Trickster: Native American Tales. Ed. by Matt Dembicki. 2010. 232p. Fulcrum, $22.95 (9781555917241). Gr. 8–12.
The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees. By Don Brown. Illus. by the author. 2018. HMH, $18.99 (9781328810151). Gr. 9–12. (See also: other books by Don Brown.)
Deanna Day teaches literacy and technology courses at Washington State University, Vancouver. Terrell A. Young teaches children’s literature courses at Brigham Young University, UT. Barbara A. Ward teaches literacy and children’s literature courses at Washington State University, in Pullman, WA.
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