Friday, November 14, 2008

Carolyn & Renae Weigh In on Graphic Novels

Dear Friends,

In response to a question about graphic novels, Language Arts Consultant Carolyn Gough shared some insights about the topic, and I threw in my 2 cents worth as well to create the following collaborative entry.

Graphic novels can range from disturbing to educational and everything in between. The appeal of a graphic novel is obviously the picture-book element and the topic. Librarians and teachers could promote a series of graphic novels on fairly mundane topics only to find students will never read them. Pictures aren't enough. On the other hand, most educators wouldn't want hundreds of comic books lining school or classroom library shelves. Obviously, there needs to be balance.

Some students are great fans of Anime (Japanese animation) and manga (style of comics and print developed in Japan), so it makes sense to include copies from that particular genre. If that's what inspires a student to read independently, all the better. At one time, Bingham High School, as well as other secondary schools, sponsored Anime clubs that reviewed such novels and art work. This level of critiquing involves higher order thinking that includes analysis, synthesis, comparing and contrasting, etc. Because such activities are very motivational in the extra-curricular world, why not try to duplicate similar learning experiences in the classroom through graphic novels?

At the other end of the spectrum is a collection of graphic novels that correspond to all kinds of famous literature. That series is called Graphic Classics and features about 12 or so volumes of classic titles categorized by author and/or genre such as the following: Adventure Classics: Graphic Novels Volume 12; Graphic Classics Volume 9: Robert Louis Stevenson; Graphic Classics Volume 3: H.G.Wells; or Horror Classics: Graphic Novels Volume 10. To sample some of these, go to, and "peek" inside one. Readers might be surprised at the sophisticated writing that often includes the language of the original works. Graphic Classics can be helpful for teachers to aid in scaffolding or differentiating instruction.

For example, prior to diving into Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, Renae assigned her sophomore inclusion classes to read graphic novel on the order of Graphic Classics. By doing so, the students were acquainted with the characters and plot line, thus giving them a head start when they started reading and enacting the bard's original work. (I have to add that now some of Shakespeare's most popular works are recreated in manga, and I saw them on sale at the Utah Shakespearean festival!)

One graphic novel guide worth consulting is Stephen Weiner's THE 101 BEST GRAPHIC NOVELS 2nd Edition; introduction by Neil Gaiman and Edited by Keith De Candido. Weiner, a librarian and expert in the field of graphic novels, has long promoted their inclusion on library shelves. While some of the graphic novels listed in this guide are comics and some are manga, this concise guide introduces a range of titles with accompanying annotations explaining why they made Weiner's list. Not all connoisseurs of the genre agree with his choices; nevertheless, the list of what is currently available serves as a starting point for many language arts teachers and media specialists.

Another recommendation is to search for graphic novels simply by topic. We have found several interesting graphic novels searching for topics like the Holocaust, September 11, or even photosynthesis. Graphic novels like these could help scaffold textbook reading for students. Search by topic can begin on a site like under book search, on Google, or Recently, Carolyn introduced a graphic novel about Communism she discovered while conducting a topical search on Google, and she was able to garner enough information to determine that selection would be best used with upper grades.

One final reminder about reading graphic novels in the classroom: If teachers want to use graphic novels with students as literature to teach a concept or idea, that graphic novel will need to be submitted to the literature selection committee and receive approval before a teacher can use it with a captive audience. Remember, however, a school library can purchase graphic novels for students' independent reading according to district policy AA440. Naturally, some graphic novels are very insightful, but can be controversial. Such an example is Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman.

While some educators may feel graphic novels are not on the same level as well-crafted young adult novels, many critics do not agree. More graphic novels are showing up in winner's circles. For example, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang won the prestigious Michael Printz Award for Outstanding Young Adult Literature in 2007. Additionally, Newbery award winners like Avi and Shannon Hale are also authoring graphic novels.

While we can think of more reasons for including graphic novels than reasons for excluding them from classroom use, the best reason just might be that they get students into reading. Think about it.

Until next time,
Renae & Carolyn