Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Graphic Novels at Home and In School: A Dialogue

I spent this past weekend at the New York City ComicCon (comic convention) circulating with Jane Yolen, Joe Kelly, Magneto, Thor, Wonder Woman, and many others I didn't recognize.  It is a world which I initially entered tepidly, but am now curiously approaching (nay I say embracing?).

As a parent, I was apprehensive my kids would abandon classic literature and I was apprehensive about violence.  I was concerned every next word out of their mouths would require parental censoring. But, my kids express themselves beautifully and appropriately and my comic-reading kids read - everything - avidly.  My daughter majored in classic literature in college; my son  after consuming Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials (a Young Adult novel) read Dante's Inferno because  he read that Pullman's story was based on Dante's work.  As a parent and avid reader, I realize now that one format influences, supports, and enhances the other.  As an educator and psychologist I am realizing that aside from enticing reluctant readers, graphic novels can and should be used at home and in the classroom - in terms of content, format, and skills they tap and reinforce.  The catch - finding appropriate material (which is getting easier and easier).

Overview:  Graphic novels have changed dramatically and are a force to be reckoned with.  In a world of visual images (on billboards, phone apps, television - just about everywhere), graphic novels are becoming enticing educational tools that can help our kids learn, read, critically evaluate and communicate - on many levels. 

The challenge:  finding comics, manga, and graphic novels appropriate for your kids.  This too is becoming much easier thanks to many fine publishers and careful reading and reporting by  The School Library Journal which is an excellent resource in finding just the right comics for your child.

History:  As a kid I grew up with Archie and Veronica, Batman and Robin and a few others, and never fully embraced the world of comics.  In all honesty there wasn't much to embrace.  Born in the 1950's, I was and am a product of my time.  Comic art and graphics was in its infancy.  The comics I read told short stories  of limited plot and character depth, and politics was rearing its ugly neck in censorship.

In 1954 Frederick Wertheim, in his "Seduction of the Innocent" argued that the then-popular comics such as Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Superman and the then newly devloping "Tales from the Crypt" and The Vault of Horror" directly impacted on youth and led to violent delinquency.  Wertheimer's publication led to a subcommittee investigation which forced comic book producers to draw up a self-imposed "Comic Code Authority" restricting sex, violence, curse words and criticism of religion.  Many distributors refused to sell comic books, many comic book companies disappeared, DC Comics became a shadow of its former self and Marvel Comics (then called Atlas Comics) was almost forced to fold.

Today:  Comic books and graphic novels are an alternate format for story telling that come in many different genres.  There are still many challenges to Graphic Novels today, but they've come a long way. Graphic novels are now typically printed in serial format.  As a result there is tremendous character depth.  The plots are intricate and the messages quite powerful as they incorporate visual and printed mediums in numerous genres: 
  • Science Fiction
  • Non Fiction
  • Humor
  • Super Hero
  • Romance
  • Classics
  • Western
  • Historical
What Can Graphic Novels Offer Your Kids?  The list below is introductory and only touches the tip of the iceberg.  I plan to develop and explore graphic novels in greater detail in future blog posts - detailing and expanding their educational value and providing appropriate reading lists for your kids. In short, graphic novels:
  • Are visually enticing;
  • Usher the reluctant reader into a world of  rich story-telling, character development and graphic images;
  • Reinforce and strengthen sequencing skills (visual sequencing following the panels, cognitive sequencing following the story line and plot)
  • Reinforce and sharpen cognitive skills - especially problem solving and making inferences (since much of the plot and story are either provided visually in the art and inferred between panels);
  • Reinforce and sharpen attention skills as readers must integrate language and visual forms - attending not only to print but to the illustrations and graphic representations as well;
  • Often offer rich, challenging vocabulary;
  • Sharpen visual literacy in a world of bombarding visual images;
  • Further enrich  social skills and social cognition as their very nature evokes strong emotions as characters face diverse social issues.
Graphic Novels for Kids:  This weekend I was pleasantly surprised at the wealth of appropriate graphic novels for kids - even young kids.  First Second, Boom, Udon, Lerner, Scholastic, Abrams, Kids Can Press, Top Shelf, and Toon Books are just a few publishers with quality lines for kids.  Check them out on your own, and come visit them on future blog posts here, and please let me know what you think and find.


  1. Meryl,

    saw your note on Mother Writer over at She Writes. The graphic novel came into focus for me via my writing cohort Liz Brennan, who started "feeding" them to me last year. My sons 4, 7, read TinTin with their father; at first I was a little alarmed by the content. However, the love they share as they read seems to override the rest, and they have picked up some stellar vocab along the way "monocle" "Yeti" etc.

    For my daughter, when she was 8, we were lead to Rod Espinosa's The Courageous Princess--I reviewed it briefly on Feral Mom, Feral Writer, (couldn't dredge up my own url for it at the moment); Courageous Princess is great fun because the princess has to be her own hero.

    For the teenage/adult crowd, perhaps something like Blankets (author escaping me) which is sort of a first falling in love/falling out of love with family of origin's religion quest story that I enjoyed (also reviewed briefly at Feral Mom.

    As a writer, and someone drawn to artwork and poetry, I loved Allison Bechdel's Funhome, Tragicomedy (I hope I have that title right); it is her account of growing up in the home of her undertaker father, etc, a coming of age/ coming out story any writer would appreciate.

    I am going to print out your post here for use for one of my comp classes I teach; I love the way you break out the plus list for diving into the graphic novel. Yes, one must still take along one's judicious hat and choose, screen, wisely. But there's so much to be gained by checking out the genre. Some fertile work going on in that field. We will see more and more historical stories and figures, I think, coming out in graphic novel format.

    Thanks for your post.

  2. Hi Meryl!

    I read my first graphic novel this year. The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT is near my new hometown. I hadn't realized just how serious some graphic novels really are. "I know nothing of your genre" I confessed to one of the Center's founders. "It's a MEDIUM, not a genre" he corrected me. And the difference is palpable. It is a medium in which any genre--classy or not--can be expressed.
    And good things await!
    Sarah Pinneo

  3. Rock on! Comics are great for young and old, and it's exciting to see so many parents embracing them these days.

    I do have one little nitpick, though - just as graphic novels are not a genre, neither are manga. Japanese comics (as well as their Korean and Chinese cousins, manhwa and manhua) come in as many different genres as comics from the West. :]

  4. Great post Meryll! Your bulleted lists might entice others who haven't gone the distance to discover the value of graphic novels to explore a bit on their own.
    As a child I was presented with a copy of a book created by a friend of my father. Flip van der Burgt told the stories of the Old Testament in expressionistic wood cuts, printed black on white.

    When I first discovered how popular graphic versions of classic plays were in the U.S. I was appalled. Shakespeare as a comic book writer? It grew on me though. My development, as yours took me from apprehension to appreciation.

    Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is a great example of a contemporary autobiographical comic that will drive home the story that might otherwise not be heard or read.

  5. I have been reading a lot lately how graphic novels are a legit and great way to get reluctant readers to enjoy reading. I haven't read many myself yet, but I found some great classics redone as graphic novels that are a perfect example of how great this genre is!

    Thanks so much for your post!

  6. Great post, Meryl! I appreciate the breakdown of how important graphic novels can be in the learning process, but also how important they are as a medium for storytelling. I do think they are becoming more recognized and certainly more widely available. When I was a child in the 1970s, my mother (a elementary school teacher) used to let me read anything -- including stacks and stacks of comics. Spiderman was by far my favorite.

  7. Great, great post. As a writer and clinician I believe that all media must be considered. Graphic novels as you say, are emerging. What was once a simple "comic book" has unlimited possibilities. They can be literary and artistic. And as you so aptly point out, they draw on a variety of cognitive skills for the developing mind. Good job!

  8. Thank you for this post! You have some great resources here. Also, I don't feel I need to justify permitting my sons to read graphic novels now. You've made a well-reasoned case.

  9. My boys, 9 & 10 years old, have a few books that are graphic novel-ish, and educational, at the same time. We have The Cartoon Guide to Statistics, The Cartoon Guide to Physics, as well as Genetics and Chemistry. We also have a few Manga Guides to various subjects as well. They love these books and get much more from them than regular texts. We also have a comic book that details the history of science. Not all graphic novels or comic books are just for fun. Some are just fun as a byproduct.