Thursday, May 12, 2016

Graphic Novel Scorn and 5 Ways You Can Help Reverse It

 Robot Dreams (Sara Varon)

One of the great things about living in China is how random it can be. A couple of weeks ago, I went to Shanghai's famous Pearl Tower. It's the tall thin building you see in photos of the Shanghai skyline, the one with a ball in the middle and a ball at the top. Anyway, we are all sitting there eating lunch, when the Christmas song "Silver Bells" comes on. Not so weird in December, but it was APRIL.

Then a few days ago, I'm on the bus riding to school, and I hear the theme song to The Neverending Story, which is my absolute favorite movie from my childhood. I have seen it at least 487 times, and it is still one of my favorite movies ever.

So though I haven't seen the movie in maybe 10 years, it was fresh on my mind today. There is a scene where the main character, a young boy named Bastian, takes refuge in a cluttered bookshop. The bookshop owner tells Bastian that Bastian needs to leave, that they have real books there, nothing for him.

Check it out:

The part where the bookshop owner says, "Psh, comic books!" dismissively, that's what I encounter from time to time from teachers and parents. I've seen this attitude a bit more than usual lately because I have been promoting graphic novels heavily in my school for the past few weeks. I recently got a huge order from Follett that included 117 new graphic novels for our shelves. I've been teaching classes in the library about the differences between graphic novels and manga, and how to read each. We've got displays up, and we are constantly replacing the books that get checked out. I've booktalked with students and teachers. I also taught a teacher workshop after school on the benefits of graphic novels.

Through all of this, I have encountered lots of positive feedback from students and teachers. Really, it's mostly very positive, and I do try hard to revel in that fact. But when I have a graphic novel naysayer, it really weighs heavily on my mind. Despite my efforts to legitimize graphic novels as "real reading" (because they ARE real reading!), I still encounter a small number of teachers and parents who do not want their students reading graphic novels.

So how do we change minds about the benefits of graphic novels? Well, it starts with education. Before hearts can change, graphic novel proponents need to help spread awareness among teachers, parents, and students. While we may read graphic novels differently, they are still "real reading."

I may not be able to change everyone's opinion, but I can suggest some starting points for teachers and librarians looking to increase graphic novel acceptance among the adults in a school.


My own boys love reading comics and graphic novels. They love going to the comic book store with their Dad. But graphic novels are not the same as what many adults think of as comic books.

Unlike comic books, which tend to look more like thin magazines, graphic novels are in book format, and those books can vary greatly in physical size, length, and shape. They may be large (like Bad Machinery, Moomin, and The Arrival) or small (like Ariol). They may be long and complex, like Persepolis and Maus. Or they may look more like picture books, like Azzi In Between or Child Soldier.

Comic books are often serialized, with lots and lots of episodes that span many years and issues. Graphic novels can also be in a series, but with the exception of manga, they tend to be either a stand-alone or part of a relatively short series.


(Palestine, early 1990s)
(2009 Iranian elections)
(Bosnia, early 1990s)
Point out ways teachers can use graphic novels to teach the curriculum. Today's graphic novels encompass a huge variety of teachable moments and classroom applications. For example, science teachers might use Cunningham's How to Fake A Moon Landing to teach support conversations about global warming, fracking, and evolution. English teachers can use Graphic Shakespeare to teach plays like Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. History teachers can find lots of historical references in series like Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales (various titles--Texas teachers, there's even one for the Alamo!), Yang's Boxers & Saints (to teach The Boxer Rebellion), or Brown's The Great American Dustbowl.

For an extra oomph, design displays that spotlight graphic novel curriculum tie-ins. Include graphic novels in booklists and bookmarks. When creating bibliographies for teachers, in the library catalog, or on the library webpage, always highlight graphic novels that support classroom instruction.

Teaching History Through Graphic Novels (Goodreads list currently includes 327 titles!)


Back in January, I challenged myself to read one graphic novel each week for the year 2016. It is now mid-May, and I am on graphic novel #16. I share this challenge with my students and teachers every time a class comes into the library. I tell them about what I am reading and encourage them to do their own graphic novel challenge along with me. Students love helping me pick my next graphic novel, too! Chances are good that many adults in your school have not actually read a graphic novel. Or, maybe they read comic books a long time ago, but not now that they are adults. Challenge your staff to pick up a graphic novel and give it a try. It's not all that hard to encourage graphic novel reading when there are so many fantastic choices available!


Research overwhelmingly supports the use of graphic novels in school, particularly with resistant readers, struggling readers, and students learning English. According to Brigid Alverson from School Library Journal, "Publishers often provide lesson plans, information on curricula, and tie-ins to the Common Core State Standards...Educators agree that graphic novels are useful for teaching new vocabulary, visual literacy, and reading skills." (Alverson). Scholastic asserts that "The notion that graphic novels are too simplistic to be regarded as serious reading is outdated...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," ("Using Graphic Novels With Children and Teens"). Graphic novels can help teachers differentiate instruction for struggling readers or those students learning English as a second language. Studying complex texts and literary elements in graphic novels can help develop students' higher-order thinking and critical reading skills as well (Miller).


Some seeds take awhile to take root and grow. Some will not take root at all. Ultimately, the teacher is in charge of his or her classroom, and though you or I may disagree, it is the teacher's right to say "No graphic novels during DEAR." In these cases, keeping the peace is better than starting a war with a teacher over student book choices. Use honey to catch those flies, and maybe they will come around eventually. Or maybe not. Focus on your triumphs, and don't dwell on things you cannot change.


Alverson, Brigid. "Teaching with Graphic Novels." School Library Journal. 8 Sept 2014.

Miller, Andrew. "Using Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom." Edutopia. 11 Jan 2012.

"Using Comics and Graphic Novels in the Classroom." The Council Chronicle. National Council for Teachers of English. Sept 2005.

"Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens: A Guide for Teachers and Librarians." Scholastic. 2012.


(since I added several history titles above...)

1 comment:

  1. So true! I really appreciate all the ideas to help teachers "see the light" in graphic novels.


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