On March 14, 2013, teachers in the Chicago Public Schools were told, without explanation, to remove all copies of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis (Pantheon, 2003) from their classrooms.
A day later, facing protests from students and anti-censorship organizations, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett explained the move. The “powerful images of torture” on a single page of the book made it unsuitable for seventh graders and required the district to give teachers in grades eight through 10 special professional development classes before they could teach it. The book was pulled from classrooms for those grades, but remained in school libraries.
This is the paradox of graphic novels: The visual element that gives them their power can also make them vulnerable to challenges. Researcher Steven Cary calls this the “naked buns” effect. “It’s the rare student or parent who objects to the words ‘naked buns,’” he writes in Going Graphic: Comics at Work in the Multilingual Classroom (Heinemann, 2004). “But an image of naked buns can set off fireworks.”
At the same time, graphic novels are increasingly used in the classroom. For over a decade, public librarians have been promoting graphic novels as literature, and researchers have studied their benefits in educational settings.
From challenged material to classroom curricula
To help educators and librarians deal with the potential fallout sparked by strong graphic imagery, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Banned Books Week planning committee, working with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), has made comics and graphic novels the focus of this year’s Banned Books Week (BBW; September 21–27). The CBLDF site has a free, downloadable BBW handbook and also tracks challenges in schools and public libraries, and offers advice on the educational use of graphic novels.
“The number and profile of challenges that CBLDF participates in has risen dramatically in recent years,” says Charles Brownstein, executive director of CBLDF. “As a partner in the Kids’ Right to Read Project, we are addressing challenges to comics and prose books on an almost weekly basis.” The nonprofit organization provides assistance in a number of ways, often writing letters of support for challenged books and talking to school and library administrators.
“Prose books and comics are challenged for the same reasons,” Brownstein says. “Content addressing the facts of life about growing up, like sexuality, sexual orientation, race issues, challenging authority, and drug and alcohol use are causes for challenges. [Profanity] is often a factor,” as is violence.
In the old days, comics found in schools were usually smuggled in by students, and challenges meant a teacher snatching away the “Richie Rich” or “Superman” concealed in a social studies textbook. Times have changed. In sixth-grade teacher Jennifer DeFeo’s social studies class at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Jefferson City, Missouri, the textbook is a graphic novel, the centerpiece of the Zombie-Based Learning program, in which students learn geography by tracking the undead after a zombie apocalypse. She has used graphic novels in literacy classes to build vocabulary via context clues, which can be hard for some readers using prose books.
Because the last decade has seen a sharp increase in the number and quality of graphic novels published for readers of all ages, they are more common in classrooms and school libraries. Publishers often provide lesson plans, information on curricula, and tie-ins to the Common Core State Standards. The organization Reading With Pictures recently published a graphic textbook, Reading With Pictures: Comics That Make Kids Smarter (Andrews McMeel, 2014), an anthology of short, nonfiction comics stories accompanied by a downloadable teacher’s guide.
Graphic novels as teaching tools
Educators agree that graphic novels are useful for teaching new vocabulary, visual literacy, and reading skills. They “offer some solid advantages in reading education,” says Jesse Karp, early childhood and interdivisional librarian at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City. “They reinforce left-to-right sequence like nothing else. The images scaffold word/sentence comprehension and a deeper interpretation of the words and story. The relative speed and immediate enjoyment build great confidence in new readers.”
Karp also points to the value of graphic novels as supplementary texts. “I wouldn’t assign a graphic novel to get specific dates and events in the heads of, say, a history student,” he adds. “But I would definitely assign a graphic novel like C. M. Butzer’s Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel (Bowen Press/Collins, 2009) in conjunction with a textbook. A student can read it quickly, and it makes distant events live and breathe.”
“For weak language learners and readers, graphic novels’ concise text paired with detailed images helps [them] decode and comprehend the text,” says Meryl Jaffe, an instructor at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, Online Division, and the author of several books on using comics in the classroom. “Reading is less daunting, with less text to decode. While vocabulary is often advanced, the concise verbiage highlights effective language usage,” adds Jaffe, who also blogs for CBLDF about using comics in the classroom. She cites the “Babymouse” series (Random) and Squish, Super Amoeba (Random, 2011) both by Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm. “There is ‘smart’ but limited text, complemented by images that show what is being said, or thought.”
“For skilled readers, graphic novels offer a different type of reading experience while modeling concise language usage,” Jaffe adds. Jimmy Gownley’s “Amelia Rules!” series (S. & S.), for instance, uses a variety of visual techniques and dialog filled with humor and “words of wisdom.”
Furthermore, Jaffe says, the pairing of words and images gives learning a boost by creating new memory pathways and associations. “Research shows that our brains process and store visual information faster and more efficiently than verbal information,” she says. “Pairing [graphic novels] with traditional prose texts is an excellent means of promoting verbal skills and memory.” Ho Che Anderson’s King (Fantagraphics, 2010), a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., for example, can be paired with biographies and news articles about civil rights.
Eric Kallenborn, who teaches English at Alan B. Shephard High School in Palos Heights, Illinois, saw that effect when he gave one group of his AP students a translation of the epic poem Beowulf and another group the graphic adaptation by Gareth Hinds (Candlewick, 2007). The students who read the graphic novel spent, on average, 3.5 hours less than the ones who read the full text, but they only scored an average of 4.5 percent lower on the test. “However, when they wrote about or discussed the work, there was no difference in the quality of the conversations,” says Kallenborn. “At times, the graphic novel students had more to say, since they were discussing the words and the images.”
“I feel that the lower average, although four percent is not that much lower, was partly due to the fact that I created the test from the actual text and not a combination of the text and the graphic novel,” Kallenborn adds. Repeating the experiment with Hamlet, he drew quiz questions from a summary, rather than the original text. Students who used the graphic novel spent 50 fewer minutes reading and scored seven percent higher on a comprehension quiz.
Jessica Lee, a teacher librarian at Willard Middle School in Berkeley, California, who hosts a weekly graphic novel discussion group, sees the speed factor as a plus. “With text-only books, kids read at such different rates and often struggle to finish a novel in a timely manner,” she says. “With graphic novels, we are all on the same page.” Her group has read Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist (Candlewick, 2007), Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Nimura’s “I Kill Giants” titles (Image Comics), and Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” books (Oni Press), among others. They also read MK Reed and Jonathan Hill’s Americus (First Second, 2011), dealing with a book challenge.
Sometimes graphic novels can convey an idea better than conventional prose. Ronell Whitaker, who teaches English at Dwight D. Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Illinois, had been “running into a wall” trying to teach his students about inference until he started using graphic novels. When he taught Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (First Second, 2006), his students had to infer that the three main characters were all the same person. “This was especially difficult for some of my kids, but when they got it, they felt like they had discovered a hidden message,” he says.
When teaching with graphic novels, Whitaker explains that readers infer what happens between panels. “I had kids write out the completed action of a page or two using descriptive prose,” he says. “They demonstrated two things: One, their ideas about what actions connected the images we can see in each panel. Two, how effective comics can be at communicating information.”
The pull of graphic novels in the school library was demonstrated in a 1981 study cited in Stephen D. Krashen’s The Power of Reading (Libraries Unlimited, 1993). Researchers put comics in a junior high school library and allowed students to read them there, but not check them out. Visits to the library increased by 87 percent and circulation of non-comic books by 30 percent.
Nonetheless, school libraries have seen their share of graphic novel challenges.
• In 2009, a mother asked that Amazing Spider-Man Vol II: Revelations by J. Michael Straczynski and others (Marvel, 2002) be pulled from an elementary school library in Millard, Oklahoma. “It has a lot of sexual undertones,” she said, adding that comics had little literary value.
• In 2010, a Minnesota woman asked that Jeff Smith’s series “Bone” (Scholastic) be removed from her school district’s libraries since it showed characters smoking and drinking. A committee voted 10-1 to keep it.
• After a parent and a county council member complained about violence and nudity in “Dragon Ball” (rated 13+ by its publisher, Viz Manga), the Wicomico, Maryland, school district removed it from all school libraries.
How to head off challenges
“The single most important step to prevent challenges is to have a detailed and comprehensive selection policy, including challenge procedure,” says Brownstein. “Many libraries and school districts refer to or even quote ALA’s Library Bill of Rights.” He also cites the importance of shelving books according to the appropriate age group.
“Often, people who think they want a title removed only want it out of reach of certain constituents or age groups,” says Karp. “I make sure there is no title in the collection that I wouldn’t go to the mat for,” such as American Born Chinese and Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell’s Coraline (HarperCollins, 2008).
To reassure parents, Kat Kan, the librarian in a PreK–8 parochial school in Florida and the graphic novel selector for Brodart Books & Library Services, is preparing a statement for her library website. “I am very careful to make sure the books I have come from reputable publishers, I read everything before I put it on the shelf, and I am watching out for your kids,” she says. Her library includes “Babymouse” and Squish, Dave Roman’s Astronaut Academy (First Second, 2011), Kazu Kibuishi’s “Amulet” series (Scholastic), and Nathan Hale’s Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood, (Amulet, 2014), about World War I, a favorite among boys.
“When I distribute the books, I forewarn kids, ‘This one deals with war. It can be pretty graphic and painful,’” says Lee. “Or, ‘The characters curse a lot. If your parents will be upset that you’re reading a book with strong language, you might skip this.’” Some kids were uncomfortable with the drug use in Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons (Sasquatch, 2002), and Lee didn’t use Brian K. Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad (D. C., 2006) in the book club because of images of violence involving animals.
“The biggest step I take to prevent a challenge is to make sure I’m ordering books that are fitting for the age range of the students I serve,” says Esther Keller, librarian at I.S. 278 Marine Park in Brooklyn and a contributor to SLJ’s Good Comics for Kids blog. In the Persepolis case, Keller thought the book was more suited to high school students.
Good communication with parents and staff is key. “I made sure my principal was on board before I even started the collection,” as well as conversing with administrators and parents, Keller says.
“If anything ever comes up, you want there to be as few surprises as possible,” Karp adds.
In seven years, Karp has had only one book objection go beyond a conversation. “The [objector voiced] their argument to a larger group of parents and administrators. We had an open discussion,” he says. “Careful explanation of how the graphic novel was used, particularly that it was intended for and only made available to older students, made a big difference.”
Should a challenge occur, Brownstein advises librarians to follow procedure “to the letter”—which can be difficult if it goes directly to the district school committee or an administrator, rather than the school. He urges them to report the challenge and reach out to CBLDF, ALA, and the Kids Right to Read project. “Even if the challenge is resolved quietly and successfully, it’s important to report it to us, to the Office of Intellectual Freedom at ALA, or the National Coalition Against Censorship,” he says. “The more information we have about what’s being challenged, the better equipped we are to respond in a helpful way, and to make proactive tools.”
While their visual aspect may make titles such as Persepolis or “Bone” vulnerable to challenges, that’s what also makes them essential to a school’s collection. “Today’s kids have grown up reading comics,” says Keller. “A school or library that doesn’t include comics isn’t addressing the needs or wants of their community….Images are a part of today’s culture: selfies, pictures on the net, ads, video, infographics. If we aren’t educating young students about reading images, they aren’t getting a rounded education.”