Graphic Novels and Literacy Programs: Making an Impact

By Kat Kan, MLS

In my 35 years of working in libraries, I have always advocated for including graphic novels in library collections. Back in the early 1980s, that was not a popular position. People regarded comics as “kids’ stuff,” trash reading, or—influenced by Dr. Frederic Wertham’s “Seduction of the Innocent”a pernicious source of juvenile delinquency. The publication of such comics as “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and “Batman: The Dark Knight,” by Frank Miller, led still others to think of comics as only for adults and not safe for children. I was obliged to battle those wrongheaded perceptions as I tried to introduce comics and graphic novels into the libraries where I worked.

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Over the past three decades or so, things have been gradually changing, as more librarians and teachers have embraced the graphic novel format. Some library professional journals include regular graphic novel reviews, ALA conferences include at least a few panels and programs on comics and graphic novels, and teachers are using more graphic novels in their classes—not just as supplemental reading.

lady with comic_534338989So why comics? The format of art, together with smaller amounts of text (usually in word balloons), generally arranged in panels that show the story’s progression, looks a lot less intimidating to a non-reader or a struggling reader. The trick is, so much of the narrative is reflected in the art. My own mantra is “Exercise Your Whole Brain – Read Comics!”

Comics are now being published on just about every subject you could imagine, from language arts, to math, to science. Comics are especially beneficial for literacy programs due to their visual nature; the combination of text with pictures helps to reinforce memory of the content, and helps all kinds of students, not only those who need more help in building reading and comprehension skills.

Recent immigrant teens who came to the library where I worked in Fort Wayne, Indiana, told me they loved reading manga because the art helped them understand what was going on in the story, and they were learning more English by reading them. Some of my current students at my school check out lots of graphic novels because they think the format is fun and the stories are great. The teachers have told me some of those students struggle to read prose, so they don’t mind that the kids read comics.

Then there are kids like my younger son, who has been reading since Kindergarten (just like his mom!), but who never really enjoyed reading fiction. He did so only when required for class, and thus was branded a reluctant reader by his middle school language arts teacher. The summer before his freshman year in high school, I gave him “Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation,” a graphic novel by Tim Hamilton, and I asked him to try it. He came back to me that evening, bubbling over with excitement about the story and asking the kinds of questions any teacher would love to hear from students. He did read the novel his junior year, and he told me that having read the graphic novel adaptation, he found the prose novel much easier to understand and therefore more enjoyable. Now, as a college student, he actually reads some novels for fun.

TV_372377596Graphic novels also tend to boost library circulation, a topic discussed in a Publishers Weekly article in 2013: “How Graphic Novels Became the Hottest Section in the Library”. In my own school library, graphic novels account for 25-60% of circulation per week, depending on the class (4th graders borrow more often than any other age group). I conducted a small survey in my public library teen department of circulation statistics for some of the graphic novels, comparing them to bestselling prose fiction. I found that most of the graphic novels circulated at least three times more than any prose fiction (aside from the super-popular titles, such as the Harry Potter books). This means that graphic novels have a high return on investment for libraries. In my library, only the nonfiction picture books about animals out-circulate graphic novels—and some of those are in graphic format, too!

As you may have detected, I am passionate about comics, manga, and graphic novels. I love to sing their praises. But don’t just take my word for it (apologies to LeVar Burton). Here are some sources that reinforce what I’m saying.

Check out CBLDF Raising a Reader, especially pages 9-10, where Meryl Jaffe discusses multiple learning skills, including memory, sequencing skills, language, language usage, and critical thinking.

Educator Tracy Edmunds has a lot of great material on her blog. In particular, read “Why Comics?” from June 2, 2016 and “Why Should Kids Read Comics?” from June 21, 2016 for lots of information and sources you can use to justify using comics in your library.

Gene Luen Yang includes a story in his TED Talk about what happened in an algebra class when he started writing and drawing the lessons in comic book form. He points to two major reasons comics work so well: their visual nature and their permanence. Past, present, and future are all together on the page.

Other sources you might want to peruse are Pop Culture Classroom and Diamond Book Distributors’ online newsletter “Bookshelf,” which includes lesson plans from Dr. Katie Monnin, who is now Director of Education at Pop Culture Classroom.

On a final note, at the 2018 ALA Annual Conference, the ALA Council passed a petition to convert the existing Member Initiative Group into the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table. According to ALA, this “will allow for organization-wide engagement with professional and collection development, public outreach and advocacy, and internal mentorship, as well as furthering the cultivation of industry partnerships relating to the sequential art format in schools and libraries.”

Graphic novels are here to stay!

final_kat_caracatureIf you’re looking for a graphic novel guru, you’re looking for Kat Kan. Kat looks like the stereotypical librarian with glasses and a bun, until you see the hair sticks and notice her earrings may be tiny books, TARDISes from Doctor Who, or LEGO Batgirls. Click here for more.

4 thoughts on “Graphic Novels and Literacy Programs: Making an Impact

  1. Oooh I like that line – exercise your whole brain! Brings to mind Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics, which blew my mind with how he deconstructed comics and their many facets of expression.

    Like

    • Thanks for your comment! I heartily agree that Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is an amazing resource. I’ve even used some parts of it to teach middle school students! If you work with younger teens and children, I also recommend Tracy Edmunds. If you go to her website, you can find links to resources for teaching how to read comics and other materials. Also, I recommend you join the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table; check out their Facebook page for even more links to great educational products to use with different ages.

      Kat

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Comic Books and Libraries « Robin's iSchool Blog

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