So you’ve been nurturing a daydream in which your middle-schooler marches past the XBox and cozies up instead to a 400-page Russian novel.
And who could blame you for such visions? Reading is, after all, fundamental.
But reality throws cold water in your face when, instead of a weighty, leather-bound book, your child reaches for a flimsy graphic novel. And your fantasy of raising a lifelong reader lays dashed on the rocks of disappointment.
Or does it?
Not at all, as it turns out.
Despite a history that includes a 1950s witch hunt by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee – which investigated the link between comic books and juvenile delinquency – works of “sequential art” have come a long way.
- In 1986, a Pulitzer Prize was awarded for the first time to a graphic novel: Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a story about the Holocaust that portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. And Spiegelman’s achievement apparently set the stage for more. In 2007, the graphic novel, “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang, won the Michael L. Printz Award for best young adult book of the year. The same year, “To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel” by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel was named a Robert F. Sibert Honor Book (for informational book).
- In the 1990s, college and universities around the globe began to offer programs in the art form.
- In 2002, the youth division of the American Library Association devoted its annual Teen Read Week to comic books and their lengthier siblings, graphic novels.
- School and public libraries now maintain popular graphic novel collections, and the American Library Association produces its annual list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens.
- Respected literary journals, including School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Voice of Youth Advocates, Library Media Connection and Publishers Weekly, regularly publish reviews and round-ups of new graphic novels.
Literacy experts say graphic novels help reluctant readers by introducing complex themes, plots and structures, and the graphical nature of the story telling helps to introduce vocabulary through contextual clues. It also can foster independent reading and learning.
A study by the Canadian Council on Learning found that comic books hold the key to improving literacy in boys, early readers and second-language learners, according to a 2010 article in School Library Journal.
“Even before children are ready to read text, comic books can give them practice in understanding material printed on a page, tracking left to right and top to bottom, and inferring what happens between individual panels in a story,” the journal reports.
According to a 2002 article in the International Reading Association’s Journal of Adolescent & Adult, educators quickly caught on to this trend and began introducing graphic texts in the classroom in recent years.
English teachers, for example, use graphic novels to teach literary terms and techniques such as dialogue, turning to works like the Victorian murder novel, “The Mystery of Mary Rogers” by Rick Geary (2001), as a bridge to other period classics.
Social studies teachers, meanwhile, have turned to graphic titles to explore history and the modern world. Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical “Persepolis” (2004), for example, offers a glimpse into Iranian life and the Islamic revolution, while Larry Gonick’s “Cartoon History of the Universe II” (1994) covers the history of China and India up to the fall of Rome. In “9–11: Artists Respond” (2002), a roster of well-known comic artists reflects on the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
If you’re interested in learning more about graphic novels – and the bridge they can provide to a life of reading ‐ now is a good week to do it. Each year, the week of March 6 brings “Will Eisner Week,” an annual celebration of graphic novels, literacy, free speech awareness and the legacy of Will Eisner, considered the father of the graphic novel.
This year’s theme is “Read a Graphic Novel.”
For further reading on this topic:
Great Graphic Novels of 2013, from the American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association (or YALSA).
GetGraphic.org, a project supported in part by a Family Literacy Library Services grant from the New York State Library, New York State Education Department.
“Graphic Novels: A Road Map to Academic Success,” in Knowledge Quest, the journal of the American Association of School Librarians
The best way to learn about graphic novels is to experience one. Visit your local library and peruse their collection. Find a book with a story line and graphic treatment that interests you, and start reading.