Owly. Buzzboy. Pinky and Stinky. Who are these guys? And why aren’t they ever on the shelf?
Since I started stocking our school library with graphic novels six years ago, I’ve discovered that kids love them. Our collection, for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, now has around 125 graphic novels, and they’re by far our most heavily circulated items. Every year, I add about 20 to 25 new ones, and I’m convinced that the time and money I’ve invested in those titles have been my best collection development decision to date.
Of course not everyone thinks graphic novels are wonderful. Some teachers, parents, and even media specialists wonder if they’re even appropriate for young students to read. Are graphic novels really worth purchasing? Or do they just pander to kids’ wants without meeting their educational needs? To best answer those questions, let me share a typical experience I had with one of our third graders, a below-average reader named Bryonna.
Bryonna checked out a copy of Owly, one of our most popular graphic novels, earlier in the year. She came up to me before class and held it up: “I love this book,” she said. “It’s my favorite book!” I was thrilled and wanted to know more. “It’s a story about friendship, and there aren’t any words in the book,” she told me. “I read the story to my two-year-old sister, and she loved it, too!” “How did you read a book without words?” I asked her. Bryonna explained that when she looked at the pictures she thought about the words the characters were saying and she visualized the words in her head. Then, when she read the story to her sister, she created the dialogue and story based on the pictures.
For a young child to read a graphic novel, much less a wordless one, many essential literacy skills are required, including the ability to understand a sequence of events, interpret characters’ nonverbal gestures, discern the story’s plot, and make inferences. Best of all, these skills don’t merely apply to Owly or to graphic novels. They are the critical skills that govern all reading comprehension, making Bryonna’s triumph with Owly into a lesson that has also helped her with other reading materials.
I always like to say that, educationally speaking, graphic novels give the brain more of a workout per sentence than any other type of media, including conventional books. That’s because as a reader takes in a graphic novel’s print and art through a series of panels, word balloons, and captions, the reader’s brain is bombarded simultaneously with the graphic novel’s characters, setting, plot, and action. So if a parent or teacher claims that reading graphic novels isn’t much of a challenge for a child, hand him one. Explain how the brain works to comprehend the story and how it detects the subtle nuances of the characters’ facial expressions.
Graphic novels help all different types of learners. For children who are incapable of visualizing a story, the artwork helps them create context. Graphic elements also attract visually dependent readers, who then freely read the text, and help reluctant readers (or as I like to call them, “avoidance readers”) understand the plot of a story. Finally, graphic novels cross gender lines. Boys always gravitate toward my graphic novel collection—they are often picture-driven creatures who like our fantasy, action, and adventure titles such as Bone, X-Men, Superman, Adventures of Tintin, and Buzzboy. On the other hand, girls are attracted to graphic novels that relate to their interest in forming friendships, such as Peanutbutter and Jeremy’s Best Book Ever and Monkey vs. Robot. Instead of forcing my students to alter their interests, I treat them as individuals with varying tastes and our collection caters to them.
There are certain steps you can take to convince a skeptical colleague or an unsupportive parent to see the merits of graphic novels. Examine some graphic novels so that any objectionable artwork or mature plot lines can be avoided. For example, I never purchase graphic novels about war or crime, because many of them are too violent for young children. And of course if something is R-rated, I’m not about to put it in my elementary school collection.
Unlike ordering traditional nonfiction and fiction titles, where you head straight to review sources, book jobbers, and catalogs, visit a comic-book store and talk with the owner or an employee about your students and the community you teach in. For example, what are the ages of your students? Is you community conservative or is it open-minded? Bring along a list of curricular topics, recreational reading topics, and your students’ favorite television shows so that the owner has a better idea of what to suggest for your collection. By matching graphic novels with your school’s curriculum, you’ll be able to offer teachers new titles instead of their “old faithful.”
This happened to a third-grade teacher when she came to check out materials for a unit on folk and fairy tales. I surprised her with Patrick Atangan’s The Yellow Jar, a perfect retelling of two old Japanese folktales with the art drawn in traditional ukiyo-e or woodblock style. Instead of simply teaching her students about the story—like she usually did—The Yellow Jar enabled her to show them how to critically analyze the art that accompanied it. The students were able to see how the art reflected the culture and how it was used to tell the story.
Many children’s television shows are branching out into cine-manga, basically a Japanese-style graphic novel with actual film shots incorporated into the book. They are glossy, soft-cover books that are extremely popular with children. Disney’s Lizzie McGuire and TokyoPop’s SpongeBob SquarePants are two examples in my collection. This is a perfect way to get reluctant readers to read because it connects interest in their favorite TV shows with literacy. It’s also a perfect way to get more teachers to visit the media center. Many of our teachers have used these books in their classrooms and report that they’ve been very successful in getting children to read them for pleasure. Now, instead of students writing book reports about their favorite novels, they’re writing about their favorite graphic novels. In fact, some of these reports have been created as graphic novels themselves!
You’ll also want to pay close attention to the artwork in the graphic novels you’re purchasing, as this is an area of concern for many teachers and parents. Some artwork might be too mature or inappropriate for elementary school students. With graphic novels, everything is on display and there can be no question as to what the student is viewing. Therefore, the art as well as the story line must be carefully scrutinized.
Make sure to inquire about upcoming titles and series. Store owners get catalogs and press releases, so if you like a certain author or type of story, ask about upcoming issues or if there are any “crossover” stories your students might enjoy. Crossover stories, such as JLA: The Ultimate Guide to the Justice League of America, are ones in which an established character visits different settings and experiences unusual adventures. A little time spent examining graphic novels before you purchase them will prevent future problems. Meanwhile, you have made a new friend in a comic-book store retailer.
DC and Marvel are two of the most familiar names in comics. Sure, they produce the most popular superheroes around: Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and X-Men. Superhero comics are wonderful but some story lines are darker and more mature than others. Based on these dark story lines, some parents and teachers believe that all graphic novels contain inappropriate material for children, but this is simply not true. There are many graphic novels suitable for what I call “the little guys”—those second to fifth graders who are becoming confident independent readers. I only purchase developmentally appropriate titles for my students and many of them are suitable for all ages. Many of these precious stories are written and published by smaller presses, like Top Shelf and NBM, which released The Yellow Jar. Some are even self-published, which makes these graphic novels more difficult to find because major distributors or book jobbers don’t solicit them. In this case, the trip to the comic-book store to find graphic novels by smaller presses could make a difference in what you add to your collection. Without my visits, I would not have had Owly for my student Bryonna or The Yellow Jar for a teacher.
For a unique professional development experience, visit comic-book conventions to meet authors and illustrators firsthand and to check out the suitability of their stories for your community and age level. I attended the 2005 Baltimore ComicCon and discovered some gems: Banana Tail, Bumperboy, and Salamander Dream. While there, artist and author Andy Runton signed copies of Owly for my school. He was thrilled that elementary students have been enjoying his small-press book, and he showed me the prototype of the plush Owly that his mother sewed.
Along with our reading specialist, I’ve used graphic novels to create reading comprehension lessons for a group of struggling fourth-grade boys. The typical classroom methods of using scaffolding, word lists, and graphic organizers weren’t helping them become better readers or enjoy the reading experience.
Using a wordless graphic novel called Li’l Santa, students were encouraged to unlock the plot’s meaning through pictures and the subtle details and nuances of the characters’ facial expressions. Since these students love TV programs, movies, and video games, I knew that they could handle the task and enjoy the process.
While examining the graphics, they used Post-it notes to dictate to us their ideas for dialog and captions. They liked sticking the notes directly onto the page, which also bookmarked where they left off at the end of each class. Using their notes, students transcribed their stories onto sheets of paper—with each numbered page corresponding to a scene in the book. In other words, students literally wrote the story and thus demonstrated that they understood the graphic novel. When we showed the boys’ work to their classroom teachers, they were amazed by the students’ word choices and dialog—and by their deep understanding of what they had read.
Another great way to promote literacy is for students to create their own graphic novels. With their classroom teacher, students can use graphic organizers to plan their tales using all of the story elements: characterization, setting, plot, action, problem, and resolution. By working in pairs, students can capitalize on each other’s writing and artistic strengths. Next, in my media class, I went over the format of a graphic novel—panels, gutters, word balloons, and captions. We discussed the importance of the flow of the story from one panel to the next and examined some models.
Then students made some rough sketches, which they brought along to art class. The art teacher taught them how to add depth and movement to their images with ink and dark pencils. Over the course of a few art periods, students finished their creations and gained a better appreciation of the process and the teamwork required to make graphic novels. This activity was literacy in action—students were actively involved in every step, becoming their own readers and critics.
Penny Foster, a media specialist at Century High School in Maryland, has the ultimate idea with graphic novels. She worked with Diamond Comic Distributors, a graphic-novel book distributor, to set up a graphic-novel book fair to raise money for the school library. The fair included a book signing by a graphic novelist, graphic novels for elementary and middle school students, and a display of this genre made by high school students. The fair offered local families a unique experience, bringing together elementary, middle school, and high school students and their parents and showcasing literacy through the arts.
I’ve seen my boys’ recreational reading habits bloom because they’re requesting graphic novels, and I’ve witnessed the most non-avid readers become active book promoters. Even my nonverbal students are talking about what the graphic novels they’re reading.
I’m able to share these positive changes with classroom teachers, which may seem trivial on the surface, but is actually an important part of collaborating with colleagues and helping students. When a teacher is trying to motivate a child to learn or a speech teacher is stumped, the behavior and attitudes that I can observe and relate become invaluable: Teachers can encourage students to write a report based on the graphic novel title. Speech teachers can assist students in talking about the characters and plot in graphic novels.
As librarians, we know that enthusiasm for reading often wanes as children get older, so it’s a shock and a delight to see a group of fifth-grade boys running to the shelves to recommend titles to their friends… and then booktalk titles and reserve graphic novels to read after their friends have devoured them! Yes, simple “happy talk” about graphic novels may seem inconsequential but it indicates enthusiasm and a confident reader who will be ready for more challenging material.
Some interesting things have happened to me since I included graphic novels in my collection. I’ve had a grandfather hug me for having Golden Age Superman in my library. His grandson brought the book with him during a visit and upon opening the book, the grandfather saw the Superman comics of his childhood days. He told me that he felt even closer to his grandson because he was reading what he enjoyed as a child. I was astonished but happy that graphic novels had bridged the intergenerational gap.
I had a pastor thank me for having comic books and graphic novels because his son brought them home and read them cover-to-cover. Seeing his son read them reminded him of what he enjoyed reading as a teenager—comic books. The two now enjoy weekly visits together to the comic-book store.
Best yet, I’ve seen countless students like Bryonna, the struggling third grader, who are well on their way to becoming successful readers—thanks to graphic novels.
|Allyson A. W. Lyga is a media specialist at Cranberry Station Elementary School in Westminster, MD, and coauthor of Graphic Novels in Your Media Center: A Definitive Guide (Libraries Unlimited, 2004).|