Sunday, December 30, 2012

Year's Best 2012 Non-Fiction or Historical Fiction Graphic Novels

In line with ABC Wednesday's "Y" week and the close of 2012, I thought I'd share my favorite non-fiction and historical fiction kids' graphic novels with you.  Each of these works would be assets to home and school libraries and lessons. For those of you interested in a wider reading list, I have also included links by other librarians and graphic novel aficionados listing their 2012 favorites as well.

I thank you all for your visits this past year, and wish for all of us that 2013 be a year of peace, prosperity, good health, happiness and success.

Silence of our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell (First Second Books, Grades 6+) - a true story about a while male reporter and his family living in Texas during the Civil Rights Movement. The father must make career and life choices while trying to do the 'right thing.' The struggles of segregation and the Civil Rights movement are clearly and sensitively depicted.

Baby's In Black by Arne Bellstorf (First Second Books, Grade 6+) tells the story of the early Beatles (pre-Ringo) and their life in Germany before Ed Sullivan and their rise to fame.  It is a wonderful look at Europe in the 1960's pop culture and the significant cultural 'happenings' and salons that shaped our modern culture today.

Marathon by Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari (First Second Books, Grades 6+) tells the story of Eucles and The Battle of Marathon. Eucles, an Athenian messenger in the year 49 ran over 300 miles to save Ancient Greece from being subjugated into the Persian Empire. The Battle of Marathon was the turning point in ancient history, and the foundation of the modern Olympic games.

Victory - Book 3 of the Resistance Trilogy by Carla Jablonski and Leleand Purvis (First Second Books, Grade 5+) Relates how a family in France, torn apart by World War II must deal with decisions made in Books 1 and 2, and the consequences each member faces as a result as the war draws to an end. 

XOC by Matt Dembicki (ONI Press, all ages) follows the journey of a great white shark from the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco to Hawaii and back. The author uses exceptional prose, vocabulary and alliteration as he describes the life of a female shark and the perils (natural and man-made) she must face on her journey to spawn her pup.

Sumo by Thien Pahm (First Second Books, Grades 9+) is a wonderfully affirming story for teens and young adults that things will work out as told through an aspiring football player turned sumo wrestler.  Readers learn about the sumo wrestling culture and discipline while following the story of Scott's move from the US and his NFL dreams to Japan.

Little White Duck: A Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez (Graphic Universe, 2012) is a collection of eight moving stories based on the author's life of her childhood in China during the 1970' and 80's.  Here is an excerpt of a review from The New York Times ( "A Child's View of China" November 9, 2012 by Gene Luen Yang)
"“Little White Duck” isn’t Communist propaganda. It is at once more innocent and more sophisticated. What Liu and Martínez do is convey a child’s-eye view of a country in transition. Politics, culture and history play into their stories, but the reader’s awareness of them is a child’s awareness. The mural of Mao and the ancient gods and the colorful posters encouraging patriotic behavior are probably important, but fireworks, schemes to catch rats and pretty jackets with soft little white duck-shaped patches are so much more interesting."
I'm Not a Plastic Bag by Rachel Hope-Allison (Archaia, All Ages) is a wordless graphic novel that illustrates human impact on our oceans as it follows a used plastic bag that begins as refuse on the top of a leafless tree in the city and ends up as part of The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  There is an extensive  appendix at the end of the book with information on The North Pacific Gyre (Great Pacific Garbage Patch),  Top Ten Items Found in Ocean Debris, Descriptions of Threatened Marine Wildlife, and How You can Help.

Continuing Non-fiction/Historical Fiction Series of value for home and school:
  • Squish Series (Ages 7+)  Jennifer and Matt Holm continue to weave marvelous adventures and challenges for Squish, Peggy and Pod, our favorite single-celled 'young adult' characters.
  • Hades by George O'Connor Olympians series (Ages 8+)  a collection of books each focusing on a different Greek God/myth.  These books contain detailed, accurate myths and stories, breathtaking art, suggested lesson plans, suggested supplemental reading lists, and a family tree of the Greek gods.
  • Crogan's Loyalty by Chris Schweizer (ONI Press, Grades 4+) Schweizer uses the Crogan family tree to  relate famous historical events through the Crogans' perspective. This year's tale, Loyalty focuses on two brothers one who fights for the British and the other for the Coloniesin the American Revolution and must deal with their own issues of family and country loyalty.
"Best of 2012" links for further reading:
Thanks again for your visit.  Please leave your favorite 2012 reads in the comments.  I look forward to many fascinating visits and comments, to reading stimulating posts, and wish you all the very best in 2013!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

XOC, Ancient Mayan Word and Awesome Non-fiction Graphic Novel

Did you know that XOC is the ancient Mayan word for shark? This is one of the facts I learned in XOC: The Journey of a Great White (Matt Dembicki, ONI Press, 2012) an awesome graphic novel written by Matt Dembicki and should be seriously considered for home, school or classroom use for kids of all ages.

More specifically:
"XOC (pronounced "shock") is an ancient Mayan word for demon fish (though there are other translations) and likely the origin of the English word shark. The story behind how it entered the English language is rather interesting. Capt. John Hawkins was said to have brought a carcass of a beast that killed some of his crew while they were pirating off the coast of Mexico. He heard some of the local people call it "xoc" and he apparently brought that term back to the Old World with him. The specimen was exhibited in London in 1569...according to, a broadsheet post about the fish read:

"There is no proper name for it that I knowe but that sertayne men of Captayne Haukinses doth call it a sharke. And it is to bee seene in London, at the Red Lyon, in Fletestreete."

This alone hooked me in terms of the book's value.  This one page peeked my interest in pirates (and their indirect influence on our modern culture), Captain John Hawkins, Old English, and the origin of "shark." But, read on my friends, because this gem of a graphic novel goes even further.

Xoc Page 3Xoc is about nature, conservation,  and the story of a female great white shark's voyage to give birth to her pup as told through a combination of 3rd-person narrative and dialogue between seals (about to be hunted), a sea turtle, and Xoc. But this book is more than that:
  • It is an outstanding resource of vocabulary (with words such as ferocious, piques, impending, denizens, turbulent, bravado, venture, euphoria, lieage, deftly, satiated, intrigued, exuberance, and silhouettes- for example).
  • Dembicki uses alliteration ("this pack of predators...the broadtooth behemoth...the pennipeds (seals)  panic...a cold current hints at impeding change... ), personification ("the blue titan basks in the warm sun...")  and other literary devices to capture our minds and imaginations.
  • It is a tremendous resource when learning about :
    • Xoc Page 4
    •  sharks and their prey
    • shark migration and the spawning female
    • the underwater perils sharks face (orcas, starvation, exhaustion, storms disorienting sea creatures, parasites, pollution and debris of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch)
    • how the sun and Earth's magnetic field help the shark navigate and keep her course
    • life at the bottom, light-less depths of the ocean off the continental shelf
    • how dolphins and hammerhead shark feed and their relation to the great white
Xoc Page 1In terms of the story, it begins off "the Farallon Islands--some 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco--[which] tend to serve a generous breakfast menu. it is a favorite haunt of this pack of predators [who] arrive with ferocious appetites." As  readers continue we see the sharks' hunting tactics in action. Once (temporarily sated) Xoc's journey continues to Maui where she spawns her pup. Along the way we read about the natural and man-made challenges she must face and maneuver around. We see how pollution, boats, orcas, and storms all  effect her travels and how all under-sea creatures must learn to survive. The art, graphics, panel placements and language are all used to create real tension throughout the tale.

While there is an ending to Xoc's story (which I don't want to spoil), Dembicki provides the reader with other additional resources:
  • Author's note - providing additional information about the "Great pacific Garbage Patch" and pollution's effect on the ocean and its inhabitants;
  •  "Did You Know?" with fascinating facts to whet anyone's appetite for more;
  • More information on sharks and conservation links; and a
  • Bibliography worth further exploration
As the teaching suggestions are fairly obvious (and teaching points were noted above when discussing the resources this book offers), I have decided to spend the rest of this post with additional links worth exploring further:

For more information about the book and to read a short story about Xoc's pup, readers should visit

For more information about XOC and great white sharks visit:
For more information (and extraordinary links) about the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" readers should visit:
Maybe another new year's resolution might be to make our kids more award of ecological and environmental issues and/or deciding as families and communities to make greater efforts towards minimizing our carbon footprints and polluting agents.

I thank you for your visit and wish all of you a wonderful 2013 - may it bring you and your families joy, peace, good health and success.  I look forward to you comments now and future visits.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Power of Words

Confluence...synchronicity...alignment... Ever feel your worlds aligning?  This post is the result of such a feeling...

It is "W" week for ABCWednesday, my good friend Karin posted the powerful YouTube video (below) on Facebook, and it is the end of the year...we reflect and make resolutions for 2013, and a colleague totally misunderstood an email of mine and was hurt (you know who you are - and I am sorry)... So what am I writing about this week?

The Power of Words 

It seems like such a simple thing - words. We use them all the time, often not really thinking about our choices or their indirect effect. Writing emails, letters, speaking with friends... word choices can make such a huge difference, and so often we forget this.

Choosing words wisely and contemplating their significance takes time and consideration. And, while essential, EDITING is often a quick afterthought. Truth is, editing is a skill - and one that most of my students are so reluctant to do. They hate it and in truth, I often do too.  But,we all need to remember to look at spelling, grammar, keeping the content in one consistent tense, and most importantly, word choice (one of my 2013 resolutions).

I have a friend and colleague who is young, single, and dating.  She advises her single girl-friends that before emailing a guy they're interested in, to send it off first to a girl-friend (whom she calls a 'gate keeper')  for two reasons. One to pause and reconsider even sending it (is she sounding too eager, too harsh, too sassy, too cute....) and if she should send it, does it convey the message she wants. She's smart!

So here is my gift to you, my loyal friends, followers, and valued guests...

 The Gift of Words -in three parts
  •  a video
  •  editing guidelines / advice
  • suggested links or editing resources and for illustrating lighter side of word power

Here is a video "Change Your Words - Change your Worlds." While this ironically also emphasizes the power of image (visual literacy), it is provides a powerful punch at the end emphasizing how the words we chose to use can make a huge difference.  Enjoy - it's worth the time!

So what can we do? Here or some suggestions I give to students and revisit myself.

Editing advice:
  • Write a draft in a "Word" document. When finished look for red squiggly lines (that point out spelling errors) and green squiggly lines (pointing out grammar and tense errors).  Work on getting rid of those lines. Often the word program will give suggestions (especially with the spelling).
  • Once you've taken care of the red and green lines (spelling, grammar and formatting), go back and re-read your piece. Read it OUT LOUD.  This way you can hear as well as see awkward, incomplete, or over-burdened sentences.  IF you have trouble reading the sentence or passage smoothly, your readers will too - so change it!
  • Now reread it another time with these guidelines in mind:
    • Trim long sentences
    • focus on word choices - are they used correctly? Do they convey what you want to convey?
    • Do your sentences and paragraphs flow one into the other or do you need a sentence here and there to bridge your thoughts/points?
    • Check that names are spelled correctly, check that you are using the appropriate synonym, homophone and tense.
  • Take a rest but don't send it yet.  Come back after some time and read it over one more time. Read it one final time:
    • Does it say exactly what you want it to say? 
    •  Is the message clear and succinct? Will your readers understand the intent, inferences and content? 
    • If yes, you're ready. If not, rework it a bit.
My favorite books for kids illustrating the power of words:
  • Douglas Fredericks and the House of They written by Joe Kelly, illustrated by Ben Roman is about a boy who wants to do so many creative things but "They Say" it can't be done.  This is a wonderful book about language and the power of creativity and determination. (Ages 6+)
  • Frindle by Andrew Clemens is an awesome book about what makes a word a word. (Ages 6+)
  • Many Luscious Lollipops (a vibrantly illustrated kids' book about adjectives and rhyming); A Cache of Jewels (a vibrantly illustrated book about collective nouns); Kites Sail High (all about verbs) ---by Ruth Heller are three of her books about words (ages 5-8)

Awesome word-related links:
  • For laughs on POOR word choices that could not be retrieved here are some sadly funny political gaffes and "Quayleisms:
  • For more laughs emphasizing the power and need of proofreading and editing, here is an awesome video of Taylor Mali's slam poem "The The Impotence of Proof Reading"
  • Here is a post on how to "Understand Spelling Errors to Raise Better Writers"
  • Here is a with a nice editing checklist
  • From:

  • This is a SUPER handout from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Writing Center on Word Choice. It discusses misused words, jargon, 'loaded language', wordiness, cliches, writing for an academic audience, repetition vs. redundancy, building clear thesis statements, strategies for successful word choice, final editing questions to ask yourself, and it contains additional references.

Thank you all for your visit.  Please leave some of your editing tips or word of reflection or kindness in the comments.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eisner Award (the "Oscars" of comics) Judges Announced


Congratulations, Katie (friend and co-author) and all her fellow judges. 

The six judges (introduced below) are all well-deserved and well-respected judges. They will meet in April to decide and announce this year's Eisner nominees.  Industry members will vote and the award ceremony will be held with much celebration and gala at the San Diego Comic Con in July.

The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, considered the “Oscars” of comics, turn 25 in 2013. The most prestigious of the industry’s awards, the Eisners are given out at a gala ceremony on the Friday night of Comic-Con International: San Diego.

The Awards encompass more than two-dozen categories covering both works and creators. Nominees are chosen by a blue-ribbon committee of judges, and the winners are chosen by professionals in the comics industry. Started in 1988, the awards are named for Will Eisner, the legendary creator of “The Spirit” and giant of the graphic novel. The Eisner Awards administrator is Jackie Estrada.
Judges Named for 2013 Eisner Awards
The judges will meet in San Diego in early April to select the nominees that will be placed on the Eisner Awards ballot. The nominees will then be voted on by professionals in the comic book industry, and the results will be announced in a gala awards ceremony on Friday, July 19 at Comic-Con in San Diego.

Six Comics Experts Make Up Nominating Committee. This year's judges are:
Dr. Katie Monnin
Dr. Katie Monnin, assistant professor of literacy at the University of North Florida. She has written four books about teaching comic books and graphic novels in 21st-century classrooms: Teaching Graphic Novels (2010, a finalist for ForeWord's Educational Book of the Year Award), Teaching Early Reader Comics and Graphic Novels (2011), Using Content Area Graphic Texts for Learning (2012), and Teaching Reading Comprehension with Graphic Texts (2013).  Her next book, Get Animated! Teaching Children's Cartoons in the Elementary Classroom is set to be released fall 2013.
Michael Cavna
Michael Cavna, award-winning writer, editor, and artist with The Washington Post, for which he writes the popular "Comic Riffs" cartoon blog. As a journalist, his favorite interviews have included Bill Watterson, Neil Gaiman, Tim Burton, Marjane Satrapi ,and Hayao Miyazaki. As a cartoonist, Cavna—a San Francisco native and UCSD alum—began working professionally at age 12 and has drawn for numerous syndicates and national publications. He wrote the main text for the 2012 anthology book Team Cul de Sac: Cartoonists Draw the Line at Parkinson's (Andrews McMeel).
Charles Hatfield
Charles Hatfield, professor of English at California State University, Northridge. Charles is the author of two books, the Eisner Award–winning Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby (2011) and Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005). He has written essays on comics for many academic, trade, and fan publications and has written reviews for The Comics Journal and various comics blogs. Charles is co-editor of The Superhero Reader (coming in 2013 from the University Press of Mississippi), and is currently collaborating on two other books. He serves on the Modern Language Association’s Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives as well as the editorial boards for several academic journals and book series in comics studies. (Photo courtesy photographer Lee Choo & CSU Northridge.)

Adam Healy
Adam Healy, co-owner of Cosmic Monkey Comics in Portland, Oregon. Adam has been in comics retailing since 2003 and became co-owner (with Andy Johnson) of Cosmic Monkey in 2007. The popular store prides itself on the diversity of material it carries and on the comfortable environment it offers its customers. Adam has degrees in Psychology and Sociology, and is most proud of the Science, Foreign Language, and All-Ages sections of his store.
Frank Santoro
Frank Santoro, author of the graphic novel Storeyville (published by Picturebox) and a columnist for The Comics Journal. He co-founded the comics criticism magazine ComicsComics with Dan Nadel and Timothy Hodler. He has also created a correspondence course for comic book makers and has taught drawing at Parsons School of Design. His comics have been published in Kramers Ergot, Mome, and The Ganzfeld. He has exhibited at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and at The Fumetto Festival in Switzerland. He lives and works in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
John Smith
John Smith, co-coordinator of the Attendee Registration Department, Comic-Con International: San Diego. John is a lifelong comics fan who has been involved with Comic-Con since 1991, when he started as a volunteer in the registration department. He has been co-registrar since 1997. For the last five years he has also been a judge for the Russ Manning Promising Newcomer award. His comics collecting days go back to childhood, when he lived in Los Angeles and regularly went to Cherokee Book Store on Hollywood Boulevard to buy back issues.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

VISUALIZATION Helps Memory, Creativity, and...Holiday Cheer :-)

VISUALIZATION is a powerful tool we  all use.  In work or school we are told to visualize data, information, concepts, and strategies to better understand, cope, set goals and motivate.

Here is a link and image of "A Periodic Table of Visualization" - click on each element and an image of that type of visualization will appear - very cool! 

[NOTE: CLICK HERE FOR THE INTERACTIVE Periodic Table of Visualization, the table - below is merely a representation].

A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods
These elements of visualization can help with:
  • memory
  • concept formation (and retention)
  • comprehension
  • story writing and critiquing
  • goal setting
  • frame of mind/mood
Because it is the season for holiday cheer and for many, finding that cheer can be difficult, The Wall Street Journal had an article this weekend about how visualizing can help us find holiday cheer. But before getting to that article, I am curious...

How do YOU find holiday Cheer?

In the past, we were advised to "think positive" by many including Norman Vincent Peale who in his book "The Power of Positive Thinking" suggested that we make a deliberate effort to speak hopefully. Studies suggest, however, that optimistic affirmations designed to lift one's mood, often achieve the opposite effect.

art by Alex Nabaum from The Wall Street Journal
In this weekend's Wall Street Journal (The Power of Negative Thinking essayist, Oliver Burkeman suggests that there is an alternative approach to help us find that sometimes ellusive (holiday) cheer:
"...both ancient philosophy and modern psychology suggest that darker thoughts can make us happier."
According to Burkeman, Albert Ellis (a New York psychotherapist) rediscovered this key insight of the Stoic philosophers of ancient Geece and Rome: "the best way to address an uncertain future is to focus not on the best-case scenario but on the worst."

Stoics called this worst-case scenario therapy "the premeditation of evils" and they believed that doing this would remove the anxiety "THE FUTURE" relayed. According to Burkeman, modern psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy which she terms "defensive pessimism."

Burkeman further posits that,
"The ultimate value of the 'negative path' may not be its role in facilitating upbeat emotions or even success. It is simply realism. The future really is uncertain, after all, and things really do go wrong as well as right. We are too often motivated by craving to put an end to the inevitable surprises in our lives."

While I believe the 'negative path' may be helpful in planning and organizing, it is not necessarily effective for me in building 'cheer'.

For me the cheer comes from being grateful for all the gifts I have. It comes from setting realistic goals, having a loving family, and from contributing to my community at large.  Don't underestimate the power of giving.

HOW DO YOU FIND HOLIDAY CHEER?  Please leave you visualizations and coping suggestions in the comments.

In the meantime, thank you for your visit. Have a JOYFUL holiday and all the very best!


Monday, December 3, 2012

Graphic Novels and Critical Thinking: A Piagetian Application for the Classroom

I have been asked to post an article I wrote on "Graphic Novels and Critical Thinking: A Piagetian Approach." As this is much longer than my typical posts, I have provided an outline overview and headed each section in bold, capital letters to help you better navigate, skim, and collect the information you seek.
This article:
  • Defines Critical Thinking
  • Relates Piaget's Theory of how we all must CONSTRUCT levels of understanding as we evaluate, relate, and analyze information in front of us - helping us gain greater and more effective levels of understanding
  • Relates how graphic novels can play an integral role in critical thinking, analytic thinking, inference making, sequential thinking and help students grapple with abstract concepts such as metaphor.
  • Provides tables and materials you can reproduce to help students with critical thinking
  • Provides suggested graphic novels suggestions for various learning levels and learning issues. 

"Critical the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication."  -M. Scriven & R. Paul, 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987
Critical thinking leads to intellectual independence.  

Memorize the solution to a problem, and one has the key to that particular problem, understand and critically evaluate underlying concepts to effective solutions and you'll develop the tools to create your own effective solutions to a multitude of diverse problems.

When we're willing and able to acknowledge our own capability as thinkers and acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses this allows us to refine our thought process so that we learn to think and process information more effectively and comprehensively, rejecting false/incomplete 'constructs' and ideologies while building more accurate ones.   

This is where Piagetian theory comes in (and developed further below). To grow as critical thinkers, he posted that we must constantly reevaluate our 'schemas' or ideas checking our 'knowledge' with evidence, making sure they fit and that there is no incongruousness.  Furthermore, we must be willing to refute (often) cherished ideas if there are too many inconsistencies between our 'knowledge' and available evidence.
Reasoning and critical thinking plays an intrinsic role in our decision making and judgement formation. 


Abstract concepts such as inference, metaphor, and social context are often difficult concepts for students to comprehend. They are usually taught through classroom discussions, which pose a distinct challenge for visual learners, for students with weak language skills, or for concrete learners with weak higher-order cognitive skills.  Graphic novels can help by providing visual as well as verbal cues, concrete use of metaphor, and more motivating  and natural opportunities for building inference and scaffolding comprehension.

Graphic novels offer motivational and visual components making many concepts easier to grasp (Edwards, 2009; Lyga, 2006, Gorman, 2003). They also provide verbal and visual cues that aid comprehension for visual learners, while reinforcing them for verbal learners (Crilley, 2009; Schwarz, 2002). From a Piagetian perspective, graphic novels' sequential art panels deftly integrate verbal and visual dialogue and background that the reader (and author/artist) melds to construct the story. Between the panels of story, are pauses or spaces ("gutters") over over which the reader must navigate and infer what is happening between the panel sequences. When reading graphic novels, readers continuously combine visual and verbal data to construct meaning, intent, mood and movement over (often unspecified) periods of time.  

While many educators are aware of Piaget's stages of Cognitive Development, what appeals most to me is his epistemological theory of how children learn, develop, and construct levels of understanding: 

Learning, for Piaget (1976) IS critical thinking (although he didn't use those words).  It involves a dynamic, active process. When we are exposed to new information and it makes sense to us (based on our existing understanding or 'knowledge' of the world and the information in front of us), the new data will be "assimilated" or incorporated into our existing 'schema'. IF, however, we are exposed to something that does not make sense, we enter (an uncomfortable) state of 'disequilibrium' which we try to manipulate and work it out until it does make sense. We will either ignore the information we can't understand and critically analyze, OR construct rules or 'schema' to 'accommodate' the new data.  Sometimes the newly generated rules or theories are valid and will hold over time, sometimes they will not.

 Piaget refers to this process of taking information and integrating, tweaking, and altering existing 'knowledge' to 'fit' the new data (and reach a new state of equilibrium) as accommodation. Generating knowledge, for Piaget, is a fluid, active and constructive process. This is because we are constantly interacting with the world around us, noticing glitches of understanding and working them out so the world makes sense on a keener, more efficient level.

Let's revisit Piaget's classic experiment with volume to illustrate how children learn:  There are two clear containers - one is tall and thin (Vase A), the other shorter and wider (Vase B): 

Vase A

                              Vase B

If you were to fill each vase with one cup of water and ask a child:  "Which has more liquid?"
  1. Vase A
  2. Vase B
  3. They have the same amount
A young child (typically below the age of six) will tell you that Vase A has more. If you were to ask her why, she would tell you that the water is 'higher' in vase A so it has more. Piaget would then have her measure ONE CUP of water (again) on her own into each vase, making sure she 'knows' that each vase had one cup of liquid. he would then ask the same question and see if the child can critically evaluate and incorporate the 'data'.  

Inevitable, the young child will continue to respond that 'A' has more because kids (typically under age six) think very concretely focusing ONLY on the most obvious aspect of what they "see."  In this case they see that in Vase A the water level is higher and therefore must be "more." The young child will not assimilate the fact that Vase B is wider and as a result the same amount of liquid spreads out more, making the water level look lower.

When kids can go beyond the visual (or concrete) and concentrate on more than one obvious aspect of a problem at a time (somewhere between six and eight years), they will respond differently. At first they may say that Vase A has more water, but when asked to carefully remeasure "one cup" of liquid into each vessel, they will recognize that 'A' may not have more more water - they just  measured one cup for each Vase. At this point the child is reaching a state of disequilibrium. She knows she filled both vases with the same amount of liquid, but one clearly looks like more. 

This state of disequilibrium is a gold-mine for teachers. The goal at this point is to ask the child questions that help focus NOT ONLY on the obvious (the liquid's height), but to consider integrating various aspects of the problem simultaneously. In this case the student must consider the length, height, and width of both vessels to correctly analyze the problem. Successful responses require visual and mental integration of multiple aspects of the problem. The more the student physically, visually, and cognitively manipulate the problem, the sooner they'll arrive at the solution.  This is what critical thinking is all about - integrating multiple aspects and modalities of a problem to arrive at an effective solution.

Graphic novels fit into this mode of learning because in order to 'comprehend' and integrate the story, readers must go beyond one source or the 'obvious'.  They must intergrate the words, color, page arrangement, visual details - the subtle and the obvious.


While readers of poetry, prose, and graphic novels all construct knowledge as they read, graphic novels offer a unique format and opportunity to scaffold and "build" information. When reading graphic novels, readers must construct the meaning of each panel using color, language, illustration details, facial expressions, text size, text font, and shading (McCloud, 1993). In essence, graphic novels provide multiple 'practical aids' to scaffold, build, integrate, and facilitate comprehension.

Graphic novels' gutters offer natural breaks where readers can pause to evaluate comprehension and make inferences about what is happening both within and between the panels. Furthermore, graphic novels provide both verbal and visual information aiding comprehension and critical analysis. So, for example, to determine mood, readers can look at the colors used by the illustrator, at the characters' facial expressions, at the fonts used, the text, even the types of borders used to enclose the panels. Even the panels' arrangement on the page provide valuable information the reader must use to actively construct and infer the complete story. This is particularly useful for students with language weaknesses.

How can graphic novels help stimulate cognitive growth?

Let's look at a language arts class, for example:  The students are reading Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken and one student, let's call her Cora, cannot understand why Frost commented about this poem that "You have to be careful about [this] one: It is a tricky poem - very tricky."  To concrete and literal readers like Cora, they think he is simply walking in the woods and has to decide what path to take. They don't necessarily understand 'metaphor', the issue of 'opportunity costs', conflict, or long range decisions.

  • Read Frost's poem. Analyze it and deconstruct its metaphor
    • Ask students to create an additional stanza in Frost's style continuing the metaphor OR simply have them deconstruct the metaphor - either as homework or in smaller group work. Maybe this stanza can be an 'afterward' reflecting after some time passed. [In doing so, they not only have to understand the poem, they have to understand its intent and style.]
    • In small groups have students read their stanzas or deconstructions to each other, and be prepared to summarize and present their work to the class as a whole. [Working in groups will provide additional opportunities for students to check each others' understanding and build from what they know.
    • Have each group present their summaries, select the class' favorite final stanza or metaphor deconstruction - making sure to critically evaluate WHY it is their favorite, WHY it is the closest approximation to what Frost might have written.
  • Bring in graphic novels to support/reinforce 'metaphor' and critical reading  of the text. What makes graphic novels so powerful is that the format alone forces students to go beyond the literal, and the stories and graphic novels themselves are often visual/verbal metaphors.  SEE GRAPHIC NOVEL OPTIONS AND DETAILED LESSON SUGGESTIONS BELOW.
  • When incorporating the graphic novels, the key is to help them practice understanding and building inferences, metaphor and comprehension.
  • As a final follow-up lesson component to EVALUATE student progress or to REINFORCE inference-making: read and discuss other poems or prose novels with heavy use of metaphor.  Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" are excellent companion poems. Prose novel companions suggestions that are full of metaphor and allegory are The Gammage Cup (for middle school students) and To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath or The Outsiders (for older students).
  • Another final alternative might be to have the class rework Frost's poem as a work of sequential art. This would require them to understand the intent and abstract concepts as well as the literal 'story' and break them down into concrete, sequential panels. They would have to make concrete choices about mood and metaphor while constructing and communicating ideas verbally and visually - integrating multiple aspects of the assignment into a cohesive final product.

A note on selecting graphic novels for classroom use: Always read the graphic novels before using them in the classroom.  We work in different locations with different tolerances and agendas.  You know your students better than anyone else.  You know what they will relate to, enjoy, and comprehend.  Also, most publishers do not specify age levels for their books.  One reason for this is that they can be used and read with different goals by various ages. Also note that some graphic novels present complete, self-contained stories, while others are parts of (often ongoing) series with minor resolutions.  Both are useful.  For further graphic novel suggestions, see Monnin, Teaching Graphic Novels:  Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom (2010); Carter’s Rationales for Teaching Graphic Novels (2010), Gorman’s “Graphic Novels Rule! The Latest and Greatest for Young Kids” (2008), Gutierrez “Good & Plenty:  It Used to Be Hard to Find Good Graphic Novels for the k-4 Crowd” 2009); Weiner “Show, Don’t Tell:  Graphic Novels in the Classroom” (2004); and Terry Thompson, Adventures in Graphica:  Using Comics and Graphic Novles to Teach Comprehension, 2-6 (2008).

I chose the three books below for various reasons: I Kill Giants is an extremely powerful story and is easy to relate to as Joe Kelly brilliantly weaves metaphor and conflict in and out of his story. What I like about Laika is that it presents a slice of history as it tells of the Soviet race to space, and can be used with a slightly younger audience.  It is also a story that cannot have been as effectively told in prose, which is a wonderful discussion point on its own. Finally, TRIBES:  The Dog Years,  is a feast for the eyes with its incredibly creative use of page, color and art, and its powerful social messages were just too hard for me to resist it.  It does, however, contain violence and is not appropriate for all classes. It is a great companion read for Lord of the Flies.  Check it out though; it is worth the look. Note that these books selected are for middle and upper school students.  

GRAPHIC NOVEL LESSON - OPTION1:  KILL GIANTS by Joe Kelly I(for grades 6+):
Brief Synopsis: I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly illustrated (in black and white) by J. M. Ken Niimura, is about a fifth grade girl wrestling with social and personal issues.  We learn right away that Barbara kills giants, but the reader is not sure whether this is real or fantasy.  Barbara’s home is dark and mysterious. She herself is ‘different’ and a loner, with one friend - a new girl, Sophia.  Barbara teaches Sophia all about giants: their threats as well as their mythological origins.  Initially while reading, the reader is constantly  ‘guessing’ what really is going on and only later learns who and what the “giants” actually are, why Barbara must face them, and how she eventually overcomes them. Rich vocabulary, references to mythology, metaphors, illustrations and sensitivity abound. There is some mild profanity.
One of my favorite quotes:
 “With respect, Principal Marx…until you’ve actually fought a giant…until you’ve looked into its eyes and seen the horrors that crawl behind really have no right to judge me.” (p.11)
How can I Kill Giants help students like Cora?  The book is actually one long metaphor about how we all must face our own personal giants, and leads the reader to clearly understand the intent and awesome power of 'metaphor'.  It is also a personal story that will be real and meaningful to your students.  The more they relate to it, the easier it will be to make inferences and abstract intent.  The really powerful discussion tool for inference building is that while Barbara does not actually kill the physical giant, she does face and kill her personal, social and emotional giants.  So, the question to your class is: “What giants does Barbara kill in this story?”
Suggestions for I KILL GIANTS Classroom use:
  • Barbara discusses Titans and giants.  You may want to tie this into a mythology class – discussing literal types of giants.  Then move on to the use of giants in metaphor and allegory.
  • Towards the end of Chapter 2, we see Barbara with an armored helmet, visor and breastplate waiting (for the bus?).  A fairy imp is huffing and puffing around her and she tells him, “No one’s there you don’t have to hide.”  He responds, “Oh really, miss tall and steely?  You’re hiding.”  She responds, “I’m not.”  Discuss the literal and figural intent of “hiding.”  What does the imp think she’s hiding from?  Why does she not admit she is hiding?  You can also discuss sarcasm – it’s use and intent.  Finally, this interchange occurs on the last two pages of the chapter.  Discuss how Kelly uses this to keep the readers’ interest up until the Chapter 3 (note this was originally seven separate comics until published as one graphic novel.)
  • There is a lot of anger and some violence (kids fighting out of anger, fear, and frustration).  This is an excellent vehicle to discuss anger, anger management, bullying, and social cognition – how best to read and interact with the people around you.
  • In Chapter 3, there are frequent occasions where the dialogue is crossed out. What do readers think was crossed out and why is it crossed out? (This is another opportunity to discuss inference, intent, and denial).
  • Barbara discusses harbingers. What are the harbingers that usher in the Titan?  What are harbingers for the seasons and storms?  What are harbingers of disease and death?
  • Discuss the Titan’s words to Barbara: “…I did not come for herrrrr… I came for you, child… All things that live, die.  This is why you must find joy in the living, while the time is yours, and not fear the end.  To deny this is to deny life.  To fear this…is to fear life… You are stronger than you think.”
  • Pair this novel with any prose novel or poem and compare and contrast the authors’ use of metaphor and use of language.
GRAPHIC NOVEL LESSON - OPTION 2:  LAIKA by Rick Abadzis  (for grades 5+):
Brief Synopsis: Laika by Rick Abadzis, is the story of the first dog (and sentient being) hurled to space and describes a segment of the Soviet space race in the 1950’s.  The reader relates not only to Laika, but to all the people she touched during her short, difficult life. Both verbal and visual stories are told in a simplified style.  The colors used in the cartooning are predominantly earth tones – except for: (a) moments of great importance (or foreshadowing) when they become bright, vibrant and more three-dimensional, and (b) dream sequences where the panel lines grow soft and colorful.  The panel on page143, Laika’s trainer, Yelena, learns Laika will not be returning, and this is the only panel where we see a person’s shell with no facial features drawn.  The art it is an important aspect of the book, and one that should be discussed with students when talking about intent and inferencing.  Finally, the book contains a powerful final quote from Oleg Georgivitch Gazenko, one of the main characters, as well as an extensive bibliography of books, videos and online sources that can be used with the book.  
How can Laika help a kid like Cora?  Aside from the discussions suggested below which help guide students from the concrete story (and illustrations) to the author’s intent, Laika has the added benefit of representing characters who say one thing, but whose expressions and body language relate something else.   This creates a sense of disequilibrium and is a very powerful tool when discussing social cognition and the art of social interactions. This graphic novel is also an excellent way to introduce the Cold War, the space race, and October Sky by Homer Hickam.
Suggestions for using LAIKA in the Classroom:
  • Discuss the influence of color and drawing on the story and perspective.  How does the use of color and lines reflect mood and intent? Why, for example, on page 143, did Rick Abadzis decide to leave Yelana’s face stone white with no facial features what so ever? Is this a form of visual metaphor?  What is the author’s message to the reader? 
  • Throughout this book, the characters say one thing, while their facial expressions infer other intents and emotions. Why might these characters want to hide their emotions?  
  • Have students write dialogue that reflect the facial expressions. Discuss how the story might have been different had the characters expressed their true feelings.  Discuss how important it is, in any situation, to read and match what is said in words, with what is said in expressions and body language.  This is very important in developing social cognition. 
  • You may want to read this book in conjunction with Homer Hickam’s October Sky.  Each book portrays the space race from very different perspectives.  Compare and contrast the format, the cultural nuances and the stories.  You may, for example, want to read the book and then assign chapters to students or group of students to create an October Sky graphic novel. 
  • In the beginning of the book, a young boy’s mother is convinced that taking care of a puppy would teach him responsibility.  The boy, however, does not want a puppy. Brainstorm/debate the pros and cons of whether he should be forced to take care of a dog; problem solve alternative modes to teaching responsibility.
  • Discuss Gazenko’s final quote and how it relates to animal right’s movements: “Work with animals is a source of suffering to all of us. The more time passes, the more I’m sorry about it.  We did not learn enough from the mission to justify the death of the dog.” 
  •  If/ when discussing the cold war bring in the panels on page21 where Premier Khruschev pushes Korolev  (Sputnik’s director) to send Sputnik II up in one month’s time because he wants to, “show the whole world the advantages of socialism!”  This is a very powerful, important sentence, one well worth delving into.  Have students infer what he means by this: 
"How would sending a second satellite up in one month’s time (on the 40th anniversary of the Revolution on November 7th) send a message of socialist prowess?  You may want to research whether, in fact, this was effective. What types of visual and verbal images support the Premier’s intent?"

GRAPHIC NOVEL LESSON - OPTION 3:   TRIBES: THE DOG YEARS by Michael Geszel and Peter Spinetta, art by Inaki Miranda  (for grades 5+): 

The final book I will discuss is TRIBES:  The Dog Years.  It is ONLY for older students as it has some violence.  It does, however, have excellent points for discussion. TRIBES: The Dog Years by authors Michael Geszel and Peter Spinetta and artist Inaki Miranda is truly a feast for the eyes and mind.  While there is more violence in this graphic novel than the others, the art, print and format are so inviting and creative.  The power of using this, aside from the social message (which I will get to in a minute) is for the sheer creativity it inspires.  
The power of TRIBES’ Art: The pages are presented horizontally and the art tells as much if not more of the story than the verbal prose.  In addition, the panels merge, expand, and contract in a life of their own, providing additional cues, rhythm, and story-telling opportunities.  The art has exceptional detail and depth, and while set in the future, it has a strong connection to the past. Take page fifteen, for example:

The character’s clothes are, in fact, remnants from our culture.  One character (above) has a “one way” arrow across his shirt. Another character’s shoulder pad is actually half a football (not shown on this page).  Also notice the unique use of panels and inserts to help focus the reader’s attention. On this page, for example, we see and read about the character’s interactions and reactions, while noticing the scope and details of their village and culture – both essential for understanding the tribe and its role in the story.
Furthermore, the colors and styles of the visual story change as the story changes.  While the book opens with tribes of kids who are survivors of a nano-tech virus and must live primitively in harmony with the earth, the illustration’s colors are primarily vibrant earth colors.  They change, however to whites, grays and blues as the characters journey to the laboratories of the previous technological society. 
The power of TRIBES’ plot
The story opens in the year 2038 to a world recoiling from a nano-tech virus that caused the “dog years” and reduced human life span to twenty-one years.  As a result, civilization as we know it collapsed as did the cities, states and nations.  In 2038, civilization is organized in tribes.  Volume One begins by introducing the Sky-Shadows who hunt and gather, and are at peace with the earth.  They fear the Headhunter tribe (who, unfortunately are cannibals- but please don’t let this turn you off – just think of  Lord of the Flies - which I suggest using as a prose novel to pair with this one – as discussed below).  One day, the protagonist, Sundog (a Sky Shadow), is keeping watch and notices a helicopter crash nearby.  The lone survivor is an “Ancient” (in his fifties) who convinces Sundog of his quest to reverse the “dog years” and 21-year age ceiling caused by the virus. While the literal story is about the quest to develop an antibody for the virus, there is a strong message about community and governance, medical ethics, and environmental issues. This book can be used to introduce and reinforce issues such as medical ethics, role of science and technology, and the role and function of government.
Suggestions for TRIBES: THE DOG YEARS Classroom use:  This is a book that can be used in its entirety or in sections. You may, for example,  want to only use sections of and fill in the rest of the story yourself.  Here are a few topics for discussion: 
  •  Even the first few pages with little to no written text can be used for inference building.  They show Sundog and the Sky Shadows on a hunt.  You can use this as a discussion of the art, use of panels, and on the role of hunters and community in the Sky Shadow tribe. 
  • Discuss the breakdown of civilization when there is no infrastructure, no rules to follow and/or limited means to enforce them.  Pair the story line and presentation of Tribes:  The Dog Years with Lord of the Flies. 
  • Discuss the very different ways and the pros and cons of how the tribes decided to govern themselves.
  • There is a lot of discussion about “quantum batteries” and about medicine and scientific research in search of cures.  Discuss roles of regulation, research design, and the responsibility of researchers in protecting populations.  When discussing the role of scientific research and responsibility, you may want to compare this story to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  
  • There are flashbacks to Los Angeles and the immediate aftermath of the virus.  In particular there is illusion to an epic battle in Dodger Stadium.  Compare this battle to other epic battles such as those in the Illiad.

My intent has been to spark a discussion on how graphic novels can be integrated into your curriculum to help encourage and direct the development of abstract thinking, inference making and social cognition. With motivating and inviting art, with the pairing of visual and verbal cues, and with natural pauses to reflect and make inferences, graphic novels are uniquely suited to help aid in teaching and making inferences, advancing creative thinking and problem solving, and in promoting both visual and verbal fluencies. 
Research has shown that some teachers fear graphic novels are too ‘risky’ to include in the curriculum (Carter, 2009) while others, unfamiliar with the quality work produced lately, believe comics and graphic novels are ‘junk’ literature (Galley, 2004) and have no place in the classroom (I used to be one of them).  Others are just not familiar enough with this format to comfortably include graphic novels in their lessons or their classroom libraries. This however, is changing and I hope to have added my voice and support to this discussion. 
Using graphic novels to support poetry and prose novels is motivating and involves visual learners.  use it to introduce complicated abastract issues and concepts (metaphor, role and funcition of government, ethics, role of science and technology, history, etc.) It is an excellent means of using illustrations to explain and reflect abstract concepts and issues and for breaking down social nuances teaching students to ‘read’ and understand facial expressions and the use of verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Incorporating graphic novels in the classroom is also valuable for helping students recognize sequential components to a story while building inference and vocabulary skills. Finally, it reinforces multimodal learning and helps teachers reach and motivate more students.
Bitz, M. (2009).  Manga high:  Literacy, identity, and coming of age in an urban high school.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Carter, J. B. (2010). Rationales for teaching graphic novels.  Gainesville, FL: Maupin House.
Carter, J. B.  (2009) “Going Graphic” Educational Leadership March 2009, Vol. 66 Issue 6, pp.68-72
Carter, J. B. (Ed.) (2007). Page by page, panel by panel: Building literacy connections with graphic novels.  Urbana, IL: NCTE.
Crilley, M. (2009).  Getting students to write using comics. Teacher Librarian, 37(1).
Galley, M. (2004). Going ‘Graphic:  Educators tiptoe into realm of comics.”  Education Week, 2/18/2004 (23) p6.
Geszel, M. and Spinetta, P. (2010) TRIBES:  The Dog Years.  San Diego, CA: IDW Comics.
Gorman, M. (2008).  “Graphic Novels Rule!  The latest and greatest for young kids.  School Library Journal, 54(3), 42-48.
Guteirrez, P. (2009) “Good & Plenty:  It used to be hard to find good graphic novels for the k-4 crowd.”  My, How Times Have Changed.  School Library Journal, 55(9), 34-39. 
Hinton, S.E. (1965) The Outsiders.  New York: Viking Press, Dell
Kelly, J. & Niimura, J. M. K.  (2009). I Kill Giants.  Berkeley, CA: Image Comics.
Kendall, C. (1959) The Gammage Cup.  New York: Odyssey/ Harcourt Young Classic, Harcourt, Inc.
Lee, H.  (1960) To Kill A Mockingbird.  Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & co.
Lyga, A. (2006) “Graphic novels for (really) young readers:  Owly, Buzzboy, Pinky and Stinky.  Who are these guys?  And why aren’t they ever on the shelf?  School Library Journa,l 52(3).  56-62.
McCloud, S.  (1993). Understanding Comics:  The Invisible Art.  New York: Harper Collins.
Monnin, K. (2010) Teaching Graphic Novels:  Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom.  Gainesville, FL: Maupin House.
Piaget, J. (1976) The Grasp of Consciousness:  Action and Concept in the Young Child.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schwarz, G. E.  (2002).  “Grapic novels for multiple literacies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 46, 262-65.
Thompson, T.  (2008).  Adventures in Graphica:  Using comics and graphic novles to teach comprehension, 2-6.  Portland, ME:  Stenhouse.
Weiner, S.  (2004.) Show, Don’t Tell:  Graphic novels in the classroom.  The English Journal.   94(2). 114-117. 

As an addendum, here is a wonderful reproducable chart you can use to help your students develop critical thinking skills...Definitely NOT Piagetian, but helpful nevertheless:


Thank you for your time and visit. I would love to hear your reactions and suggestions in the comments.