Teaching Graphic Novels

Readers can’t seem to get enough graphic novels, and luckily, the number of superb graphic novels appears to be multiplying exponentially every year. This is good news for teachers, since there are about a hundred reasons to use graphic novels in the classroom; one big reason being that graphic novels are frequently highly relatable, which increases student learning comprehension and engagement.

The relatability of many the most successful graphic novels can be at least partially attributed to two aspects: a processed, personalized perspective and individualized artistry tailored to the content. This combination, complemented by a well-told story, generates a level of reader engagement that allows for a seamless layering of cultural and historical contextualization. In this way, new cultural and historical knowledge can be easily and often lastingly absorbed. Events and concepts that are typically difficult to teach become believable and real when told through the eyes of an empathetic narrator, and students may find themselves connecting to moments and figures in the past and present that could otherwise appear dry or remote.

This makes graphic novels a terrific tool for struggling readers and special-needs students, many of whom experience difficulty settling into a book, and benefit from more dynamic resources and creative learning exercises. For English-language learners, the graphic novel can be an invaluable resource, as it includes its own visual aids, which are a necessary component to language comprehension and retention. Additionally, the content of graphic novels is typically more relatable than the average book to an English-language learner, since graphic novels hail from all over the world, and often include a great deal of cultural contextualization. Graphic novels are also assets in the AP classroom. Check out this informative article by AP teacher Lisa Cohen, entitled “But This Book Has Pictures! The Case for Graphic Novels in an AP Classroom.”

Graphic novels generally have the potential to advance literacy and reading comprehension, and often contain distinct examples of event sequencing, metaphors, symbolism, and style. Many graphic novels can also serve as springboards for students’ creative projects.

Included below are a list of some graphic novels at the TC Library, as well as books on how to teach graphic novels, and online resources.

For more information, take a look at Karen Green’s extremely thorough and expansive research guide on graphic novels here. This guide introduces graphic novels, explains how to search for graphic novels and scholarly literature about graphic novels in CLIO, and provides links to graphic novel publishers, journals, collections, exhibits, conferences, stores, and organizations.

TC EDUCAT Catalog Books

Graphic novels:

Abouet, Marguerite. Aya. PN6747.A36 A93 2013

Based upon Marguerite Abouet’s youth in Yopougon (aka Yop City) on the Ivory Coast, and complemented with Clément Oubrerie’s electric artwork, Aya offers a slice-of-life peek into African culture, complete with recipes, glossaries, and wardrobe instructions. From Abouet: “That’s what I wanted to show in Aya: an Africa without the . . . war and famine, an Africa that endures despite everything because, as we say back home, life goes on.”

B., David. Epileptic. PN6747 .B2213 2005

A resonant autobiography and family history, Epileptic documents the author’s outward and internalized experiences of his brother’s intractable illness. Illustrated with striking black-and-white images.

Brown, Jeffrey. Darth Vader and Son. PN6727.B7575 D37 2012

This delightful reimagining of Star Wars posits Darth Vader as a loving, exasperated father caring for his son, Luke.

Guibert, Emmanuel. The Photographer. Oversize, CURR. PN6747.G85 P4913 2009

In 1986, Afghanistan was torn apart by a war with the Soviet Union.  This graphic novel and photo-journal follows one reporter’s journey through Afghanistan, traveling with Doctors Without Borders. Didier Lefevre’s photography and Guibert’s illustrations provide alternatively symbolic and stark accompaniment to the story.

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. PN6747.S245 P4713 2003

This book carries the reader through the childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood of a girl who grows up in the midst of the Iranian Revolution. Satrapi’s narration and accompanying illustrations are evocative, intricate, humorous, somehow both brutally real and heavily symbolic.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus. D810.J4 S643 1986-1991 (volumes 1 and 2)

The first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, Maus is based on a series of interviews that Spiegelman conducted with his father about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. The entire book is a symbolic tour de force, documenting one harrowing and deeply personal tale of the events leading up to Wold War II and the Holocaust, as well as a complicated relationship between father and son.

Tan, Shaun. The Arrival. On Reserve. PZ7.7.T36 Ar 2007

A wordless graphic novel depicting a universal story of immigration. Shaun Tan has said he wanted his book to build a kind of empathy in readers: “In Australia, people don’t stop to imagine what it’s like for some of these refugees. They just see them as a problem once they’re here, without thinking about the bigger picture. I don’t expect the book to change anybody’s opinion about things, but if it at least makes them pause to think, I’ll feel as if I’ve succeeded in something.”

Yang, Gene Luen. American Born Chinese. On Reserve. PN6727.Y36 A84 2006

This book is more than the retelling of an Chinese-American childhood; it is also a fable for every kid who feels like an outsider. Filtered through cultural icons and pointed stereotypes, this is a dynamic, clear, and expressive tale about growing up different, with the ultimate message of self-acceptance.

Books about teaching graphic novels:

Bronzo, William G. Wham! : teaching with graphic novels across the curriculum. LB1044.9.C59 B76 2014

Dong, Lan (ed.). Teaching comics and graphic narratives: essays on theory, strategy and practice. Oversize LB1044.9.C59 T43 2012

Dooley, Michael and Steven Heller (eds.). The education of a comics artist : visual narrative in cartoons, graphic novels, and beyond. NC1320 .E29 2005

Frey, Nancy and Douglas Fisher (eds.). Teaching visual literacy : using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills. LB1068 .T43 2008

Jaffe, Meryl and Katie Monnin. Using content-area graphic texts for learning : a guide for middle-level educators. Oversize LB1632 .J34 2013

Monnin, Katie. Teaching graphic novels : practical strategies for the secondary ELA classroom. Oversize  LB1631 .M588 2010

Monnin, Katie. Teaching early reader comics and graphic novels. Oversize PN6790.U6 M66 2011

Online Resources:

ALA. Great Graphic Novels 2014. http://www.ala.org/yalsa/great-graphic-novels-2014. Accessed 3/18/14. This list published by the ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) includes 78 titles of Graphic Novels from 2014, for students between the ages of 12-18.

Diamond Bookshelf. http://www.diamondbookshelf.com/Home/1/1/20/162?articleID=37627. Accessed 3/21/14. Dr. Katie Moonnin (see Books About Teaching Graphic Novels above) reviews a selection of graphic novels and demonstrates how each can be used in classroom settings, including suggested tasks and questions.

Finley, Todd. Common Core in Action: 10 Visual Literacy Strategies. http://www.edutopia.org/blog/ccia-10-visual-literacy-strategies-todd-finley. Accessed 3/18/14. This article outlines how to get students to start developing visual literacy skills. Includes strategies and worksheets that could be useful for the introduction to a graphic novel unit.

Green, Karen. Columbia Research Guides: Graphic Novels. http://library.columbia.edu/subject-guides/graphic_novels.htmlhttp://library.columbia.edu/subject-guides/graphic_novels.html. Accessed 4/1/14.

Scholastic. Using Graphic Novels with Children and Teens. http://www.scholastic.com/graphix/Scholastic_BoneDiscussion.pdf. Accessed 3/18/14. A portable document outlining the benefits of using graphic novels in the classroom, suggestions for graphic novels based on age and reading levels, and a vast selection of online resources.

Storyboard Creator. http://www.storyboardthat.com/welcome/classic. Accessed 3/18/14. A program allowing students to create their own comics.

…And now, my own personal anecdote:

A little over six years ago, I was a Special Education teacher in Bay Ridge with the NYC Teaching Fellows. At the end of my first term, I was asked to design a reading list and curriculum for a tenth-grade Literacy & Literature class, consisting of nine students who I hadn’t met yet, who had a range of learning disabilities and emotional/behavioral disorders that I was scrambling to become familiar with. Luckily, I had previous curriculums and reading lists to work from, as well as the curriculum for the students’ World History class. This literature class would partially serve as a companion class to World History, and I’d need to coordinate our book selections with the historical content that was being taught that month.

During the winter break, I shut myself into the school’s book room for three hours and pulled together a tentative reading list. Most of them were classics: George Orwell’s Animal Farm for the Russian Revolution, Elie Wiesel’s Night for the Holocaust (he made a great impression on my class, by the way! The students wrote him letters about their experiences with the book, and he wrote back a thoughtful and kind letter, mentioning each student by name)– but after the second World War, I drew a blank. I knew the students would be studying the Islamic Revolution, but the previous Literature curriculums skipped that time and region. Coincidentally, I had just read a book about the 1979 Revolution. And that’s how I ended up teaching a graphic novel: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

In 2008, there were no graphic novels in the school book room. When I suggested the book to my Assistant Principal and lent her my own copy, she was skeptical, voicing doubts about the book’s historical veracity, as well as its potential to challenge the students in the areas of basic and complex reading comprehension. But a few days later, she returned the book to me and gave me the thumbs up, as well as her guarantee that I’d have ten copies of the book in my classroom by February.

During our Persepolis unit, I saw incredible things happen in the classroom. All of the students, most of whom had stopped reading halfway through Animal Farm, and had groaned through the first few chapters of Night (before getting sucked in), were puzzled but clearly excited when I passed out the copies of Persepolis. And, unless my memory fails me, every single one of the students began flipping through the pages as soon as the book was in their hands. From day one, these students truly appeared to enjoy the book, and some even became mildly obsessed. One of my students, A., was  a tall, gangly boy with a bubbly laugh, who’d doodle all over his class assignments. A. didn’t read the books and he didn’t do the classwork or homework, but he could assemble a compelling argument at the drop of a hat, and was extremely insightful into character motivations, just based on the little bit of information that I’d provide within a question posed during class. But I couldn’t figure out how to encourage him to apply those strengths to his schoolwork, when he skipped one out of every two or three classes. When he came to class, he’d almost always arrive late, escorted by the school’s officer. And then, about ten-fifteen minutes into the class, the same thing would happen: he’d put his head down on the desk, and nothing I could do would make him lift it back up until the bell rang. I created special assignments for him to do during class, but he didn’t like being singled out. I’d had meetings with his mother and social worker to no effect. It was a small, somewhat experimental class, and I could work out a number of individualized solutions in the form of alternative assignments to help my students to pass it, but I couldn’t figure out how I would be able to pass A.

But with the introduction of Persepolis, A. became enraptured by the story of an Iranian girl in the 1980s an 90s, and was doing not only the classwork and homework, but extra credit. A. became the first student to arrive to my class, and he was there for every class. He read a quarter of the book the night that the first chapter was assigned, and ordered the sequel to the book on Amazon the week after that. So anyway, I’ve seen it happen! Graphic novels can be invaluable tools in the classroom.