Be the change, being a teacher, Reading, Reading Identity

Why Graphic Novels Belong in All of Our Libraries

Look at that; an incredible graphic novel is shortlisted for the National Book Award.  Image from School Library Journal.

Our oldest daughter, Thea, has been in intense reading intervention since she was in Kindergarten.  This creative, vivacious, book-loving child just could not seem to find the right words when she looked at the letters.  And yet she persisted through it all, continually going back to books even if the words proved to be elusive.  Like many parents whose children do not come naturally to reading, we have seemingly tried it all.  More read aloud, more quiet reading, more strategies, more conversation, more intervention, more of anything we could think of and yet, I will never forget that day in 2nd grade when Thea came home and declared, “Mom, I don’t think I am a reader  because reading is just too hard….”

I think you could have heard my heart break a mile away.

Because here was a child who had grown up surrounded by books.  A child who had grown up being read to. A child who had grown up being surrounded by readers.  A child who had seemingly been given every opportunity to be a reader and yet, the foundational skills of reading, the decoding of actual letters to form words, that seemed like it would never happen for her.

So we did the only thing we knew how; we handed her more books, more reading for pleasure, less pressure, more time.  And so did her teachers.

A few months later, Thea once again had a declaration to make.  “Mom, I’m a reader because I can read this book!”  I came to the front door where she stood clutching a book to her chest.  She said, “I can’t read all the words but the pictures help me figure it out.  I have to go read it now to Ida and Oskar…” and she did, and they sat together huddled around this book that had shown my daughter that she was a reader despite her struggles, and she repeated her reading, and she carried that book hugging it to her chest.  She placed that under her pillow at night, every day checking to see if it was still there so she could read it one more time.  Carried it back and forth to school as she got braver and found more books just like it that also made her believe she was a reader.  We still have that book; it is Dogman by Dav Pilkey.  Her teacher recommended it to her and our daughter’s reading life has never been the same since then.

So when I hear teacher’s tell students that graphic novels are too easy.  That comic books are not real reading.  That it is time to pick a “real” book.  That they can read books like that for fun but not for learning, I tend to get a bit upset.  You see, comics are what kept me reading long into the night as a child when books seemed like too much work.  Graphic novels are what make my students who declare they hate reading actually give it a try.  Dog Man and all of the other books by Dav Pilkey are what made Thea believe she was a reader.  How can we just dismiss that?

You think graphic novels are easy?  Read March by Senator John Lewis.  You think comics are just for fun?  Read Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates. You think graphic novels don’t have substance?  Read Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka.  And then tell me that graphic novels don’t belong in our classrooms.  That they don’t count as real books.  That they are just dessert books, or filler, or vacation books or whatever other terms we use to tell kids that that book they just selected is simply “too easy” for them despite their obvious excitement.

Because when you tell a child that the book they have chosen is too easy you may be dismissing the first book they have ever connected with.

You may be dismissing the first book they have ever actually enjoyed.

You may be dismissing the first book they have ever seen themselves in.

You may be dismissing the first book that made them finally believe that they, too, are a reader.

Because you see when we tell kids that a book is too easy we are dismissing their entire reading journey.  We are dismissing who they are as readers and just how much work it may have been to get there.  We are telling them that their reading journey only has value if they read books that we deem appropriate and that is never okay.  Have we gotten so lost in our reading instruction that we cannot see the harm we can do?

So it is time for us all to realize that while comic books, graphic novels, or any other medium that has pictures in it may seem “easy” at first glance, I think the word we are really looking for is enticing, not easy.  Is inviting, not fluff.  Gives courage, not a cop out of reading.  And that these masterful pieces of literature are, indeed, full-fledged members of the book family.  Are, indeed, full-fledged literary components that deserve not just to be placed into the hands of our students, but also taught alongside other books.  To be held up as shining examples of literary greatness that we should appreciate, promote, and celebrate alongside all of the other books we have.

Thea is still a reader and she still loves Dog Man.  She loves Captain Underpants – Tralala!  She loves Bad Kitty, Smile, Lunch Lady, Baby Mouse, Bad Guys, Cleopatra in Space, Lowriders in Space, and any graphic novel that comes her way.  But she also loves Wishtree, The One and Only Ivan, Aru Shah and the End of Time, George and all of the other books she has read since then.  Books she would have never had the courage or gumption to try if she had not found Dog Man.  If Dav Pilkey had not had the heart and courage to continue to write books that kids would love even if the adults didn’t.  I owe our daughter’s reading life to him and to her teacher that saw a child who desperately needed to feel like a reader and was smart enough to hand her a graphic novel.  Not because she thought it would be easy for her, but because she thought that it was just what Thea needed.  And boy, was she ever right.

If you need more information or ideas of why graphic novels and comics belong in  our libraries and schools, here are just a few resources shared with me:

Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words? Determining the Criteria for Graphic Novels with Literary Merit

NCTE Diversity in Graphic Novels

Exploring Literary Devices in Graphic Novels

A Printable Educator’s Guide to Graphic Novels 

Ted Talk:  Jarret J. Krosoczka How a Boy Became an Artist 

Raising a Reader

Graphic Novels in the Classroom by Gene Luen Yang

Why Comics Belong in the Classroom – Gene Luen Yang TedX

A Place on the BookShelf for Graphic Novels by Jarret J Krosoczka

The Research Behind Graphic Novels and Young Learners

Comics Used for Therapy Database

Facebook group for teachers using comics

Dr. Debbie Reese’s Resource for Graphic Novels by Native Writers

Research: Graphic Novels in the Secondary Classroom and School Libraries

The Power of Manga, Comics, and Graphic Novel Through the Lens of AASL Standards

CBLDF Panel Power

Diversity in Graphic Novels via NCTE – fantastic compilation of links, sites, and resources
Graphic Novels to Keep by Dr. Laura Jimenez (Thank you also to Dr. Jimenez for the continued push to highlight more diverse titles)
Equally as important – Graphic Novels to Toss by Dr. Laura Jimenez (in fact, her whole blog is focused on critical work)

Professional Titles:
The Graphic Novel Classroom: Powerful Teaching & Learning with Images by Maureen Bakis

Class, Please Open Your Comics: Essays on Teaching with Graphic Narratives by Matthew L. Miller

Graphic Novels and Comics in the Classroom: Essays on the Educational Power of Sequential Art by Carrye Kay Syma

Understanding Comics:  The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

22 thoughts on “Why Graphic Novels Belong in All of Our Libraries”

  1. Thank you for these resources! I have a vast collection of graphic novels in my class library that kids all over my school borrow and I teach a unit on graphic novels, but hadn’t found all of these resources yet, so I’m thrilled!

    On a totally separate note, I had asked you if I could use your story about your name as a mentor text with my class, and it sparked some great conversations. And when I told them I had met you (at the LA Scholastic Reading Conference), you would have thought I had told them I met a rock star. Their reactions were wonderful. I hope your daughter’s reading journey is continuing to go well.

  2. Amen!!! I read Classic Comics as a kid…I now call it scaffolding, because I read Macbeth, Hamlet, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer etc in comic form…..reading is reading!!

  3. And for the parents who resist, just tell them to read Sabrina, the first graphic novel listed for the National Book Award. It will rock their world and quickly confirm that there is depth to the genre.

  4. Oh I love this, thank you! My daughter is into Amulet at the moment and can’t stop reading – it’s enticing her in a way no other book has done yet.

  5. BRAVO! You said here what Ihave been fighting for for years in my district! I am the reading specialist whose own classroom library is made up mostly of graphic novels, purchased mostly with my own funds, because these books reach children who never loved a book until they opened “Smile” or “Brave” or “Amulet.” I fight the battle daily with teachers who tell students that “comics” are not real books and don’t “count” — you are so right and I hope we can keep spreading this truth. I only wish there were more graphic novels written. Most of mine have been bought and then re-bought because they are worn thin, covers falling off, tattered pages. “Cardboard” and “Ghostopolis” and “Smile” probably have been read hundreds of times each!

  6. I am so thrilled to read this post(and all the others). I’d love to talk with you about programs for conferences and comic cons where your voice would be so great to have. Would it be possible to set up a call to discuss?

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