Comic Approach to Reading: Graphic Novels

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Comic books once were considered the worst things kids could read. Lots of irresistible issues were hidden under beds or between the covers of textbooks. Many comic books were banned because of their ephemeral nature, graphical format, and often mature and violent content. Think of those lurid covers featuring a scantily-clad, buxom girl in the clutches of the super villain or monster. To avoid censorship, the Comic Magazine Association of America responded by establishing and imposing the Comics Code Authority in 1954 that sanitized the content of comics for years.

Children and teens continue to be drawn to colorful, vibrant books full of pictures but having limited text. Today comic books and their longer-format cousins, graphic novels, are considered art forms as well as legitimate literary works. Although kids might think anything with pictures is either a comic book or a graphic novel, The Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), gives this definition of the graphic novel “as a full-length story told in paneled, sequential, graphic format. The list does not include book-length collections of comic strips, wordless picture books, or hybrid books that are a mixture of traditional text and comics/graphics.” This cool infographic,  featured in the University of Chicago Library’s research guide on comic books and graphic novels, visually explains the difference between the two. Your students may mention reading manga, originally Japanese graphic books, and anime, which is Japanese animation. Learn more about the different sub-genres in this Rhapsody in Books post.

Comic books and their graphic novel cousins joined the mainstream in the 1980s with the Pulitzer Prize-winning title Maus about the Holocaust by cartoonist Art Spiegelman. For an overview of comics, comix (the underground art form), and graphic novels see this Internet Public Library page.  Here’s a fun fact: The Library of Congress houses the largest publicly available comic book collection in the U. S.

Why not use this burgeoning literary form to entice your students to read and perhaps create their own art works? Want to start a graphic novel collection in your school library or classroom? To peak interest, combine the American Library Association’s late September Banned Books Week, Celebrating the Freedom to Read and resources for both graphic novels and comics.

Places to explore graphic novels as a way to spark student interest in reading:


Classroom Activity Ideas:


Digital storytelling tools to use with students to teach about media literacy, aspects of graphic novels and comics, and how to create their own stories:

About the author: Paula Deal

Retired high school media specialist, Paula Deal, has been a pioneer in many shifts in the library sciences throughout her career. Paula contributes a monthly column on research, digital citizenship and other ways to find and use media resources in the classroom.

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