being a teacher, books, choices, Reading Identity, student choice

In Defense of Graphic Novels…Again

Our graphic novel room awaits

Every few months, this notion of graphic novels as being something we need to push children out of comes into my life. Whether it is through the words of a teacher who tells a student to “pick something harder,” a home adult who tells their child they can’t read graphic novels anymore, or even the disdain that entire schools or districts offer up at the mention of expanding their collection; misplaced attacks on graphic novels continue.

And I see its effects on the readers I teach. The stories they share of the books they used to read or the books they loved but were restricted from. The way they marvel at the entire room we have full of them. At the relief that they can read anything they want. At the desire to read more of them and more often, as quickly as they can in case the adults in charge change their mind. And while so many of them have been given full access to graphic novels, some haven’t, and so for the sake of all of the other educators who perhaps find themself in the same boat as I do once again, I am pulling together a list of research, resources, and discussion of why graphic novels are “real” books and why they, of course, belong not just on our shelves but also in the hands of any reader who desires to read them.

I have written about this topic before, after all, the introduction of Dog Man by Dav Pilkey singlehandedly changed the reading life of one of my own children who now devours manga at a rapid pace. I could tell you story upon story of kids who told us they hated reading and completely changed their reading identity after having devoured a year of reading graphic novels. Of kids who fell back in love with reading because of graphic novels. Of home adults who marvel at how many books their child now reads because of graphic novels. Of the kids who have finally seen themselves as superheroes, as regular heroes, or who have finally seen themselves period.

And yet they get little respect in some reading circles. They are shared as lesser versions of reading, as something we only offer kids who have less developed skills or who are younger as a way to bridge them into “real reading.” As something you do on breaks from school but not as a part of the reading experiences we co-create. Yet, the beauty of graphic novels is in the difference from more traditional print media. That they offer their own unique reading experience that is different from reading a traditional text that offers no visual component. Often those who oppose the use of graphic novels with students or even a steady reading diet of it, compare the two experiences and find one lacking rather than see them for the unique experiences they are. Of course, stamina is developed differently in a text that relies only on decoding to create the full story, however, that doesn’t dismiss the reading of graphic novels. It simply reminds me of why it is important that children are surrounded by many different formats and text complexities in their reading choices. Not so we can limit them as readers but, instead, so we can continue to offer choices as they broaden their reading experiences.

The complexity of reading skills that it requires to fully comprehend a graphic novel has been well-documented. Children need to read at a slower pace in order to interpret the pictures and also decode the words, then synthesize the two components together, while also having spatial awareness and training in order to piece the images together correctly. That is not easy by any mile, which is why I often have to remind or even teach children how to read graphic literature correctly when they do not understand a story. These are reading skills that we use often as visual literacy becomes a larger part of how we communicate and express ourselves. Graphic novels, comic books, and other visual components are on the rise, because so is the use of visual literacy in everyday life, not because we are lazier but because we continue to evolve in our communication style and needs.

But for me, the biggest reason why I am an avid supporter of protecting, and highlighting the reading of graphic novels is the readers themselves. We, the adults in charge of reading instruction, have got to stop limiting and shaming the choices that our readers make. I hear so many complain about how the kids aren’t reading anymore and yet within those complaints, I don’t often see a reflection of which practices we have implemented that may have pushed kids out or away from reading. I get the need for longer text with more words. I get the need for continual growth of readers in order to reach whichever “level” someone has decided will mean they are fully developed at their age group, but what I don’t understand is our gatekeeping of reading materials and experiences. It should be common sense that if we want children to develop their own reading identities then we put them in charge of at least part of that identity, why not book choice? Why not invite them to reflect on the choices of reading materials they make and then ask them how they plan to challenge themselves within those choices? When a child only reads graphic novels, why not honor that and introduce them to further choices that embrace further complexities in storytelling, vocabulary, and visual literacy components? Why not feed their fire rather than douse it with our well-meaning intentions?

If we want children to see reading as something that enrichens their lives beyond the confinement of school, then we must accept where they are in their reading journey and then help them develop and nurture that identity. That starts with honoring their choices because these choices are an extension of who they are. So when we tell them it is time to move on prematurely from something they love, instead of seeing it as a worthy challenge, it creates yet another obstacle and poor experience with reading.

Resources for Expanding your Collection:

How to teach using comics and graphic novels:

Inspiration for why graphic novels and comics matter:

Materials geared toward sharing with home adults:

In our relentless pursuit of co-creating better reading experiences for children it is so important that we do not leave the very children behind that we intend to create the experience for. And so if you find yourself in a situation where the reading of graphic novels or comics is questioned or prohibited, I hope this collection of links and further support will be helpful. If you know of any additional resources I should add, let me know. These are the ones I have used and use currently.

If you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me coach, collaborate with your teachers, or speak at your conference, please see this page.. If you like what you read here, consider reading my latest 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.

6 thoughts on “In Defense of Graphic Novels…Again”

  1. Thank you so much. I have argued for graphic novels myself many times, but you’ve just given me ready data to use and support my arguments. I normally find that the graphic novels have all the same fiction elements and techniques as a traditional chapter book, so why on earth would a teacher or parent not allow students to choose reading these — as long as they choose to read. ________________________________

  2. Thank you again for another thoughtful post! I often find myself arguing on behalf of graphic novels with both administrators and parents, so I appreciate the research that you shared in support of these fantastic texts. I have bookmarked the articles! You are spot on when you point out that graphic novels are not easy-reader versions of texts; they are their own unique works that deserve to be embraced and appreciated on their own.

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