Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Reading, Graphic Novels, and Memory

In my last post, I discussed how reading and comprehending graphic novels demand large chunks of attention: attention to detail, attention to background, attention to language, and attention to art and lettering (size, font, and shape).  This week I would like to focus on graphic novels and memory.

Prose vs. Graphic Novels and the demands reading them place on memory.

Prose Novels: When reading anything in print we have to remember:
  • The shapes and corresponding sounds of letters;
  • We have to remember the corresponding sounds of letter blends, 
  • We have to remember vocabulary (recalling the spelling of words to more efficiently decode them as well as their defintions), 
  • We have to remember what we just read and if it makes sense vis-a-vis what you read a few sentences ago (metacognition - keeping track of our comprehension), 
  • We have to remember rules of grammar and punctuation, and 
  • When reading we have to constantly keep track of plot, time, motives, names, places and events.

Reading places demands on short term memory, long term memory, and active working memory.

Graphic Novels:  When reading graphic novels, we have to remember:
  • ALL the demands on memory listed above for prose novels PLUS:
  • We have to remember not only the words we read, but the sequence scenes we view in the panels.  
  • We have to remember what occurred in the previous panel while constructing and inferring what was not included in the gutter.  
  • We also have to remember the artist's different use of font and panel borders.  (Sometimes, for example squiggly lines around a panel means someone is thinking, sometimes it can mean they are angry.  
  • We have to keep track of the particular artists' intent in the choice of letter fonts and sizes, and panel divisions and borders.  The art, while adding an emotional and very engaging component, also adds additional demands on memory.
  • When reading comics or a graphic novel series we also have to remember small sequences of the story over a long period of time.  With comics, only a small segment of the story is printed at a time, with weeks between issues.  The reader has to keep track of plot, motives, intents, etc. [And, while we do this as well with sequels for books, the stories in each prose novel book are complete and easier to remember than the small segments readers are given at each comic installment.  The disjointed story makes it more difficult to remember.]
How to use graphic novels to build memory skills:
  • Read comic books in regular installments.  Read them together with your kids and:
    • Talk about them.  
    • Brainstorm where you think the author(s) will take the next installment.
    • Before reading the next installment, review what has happened so far.
    • Discuss how the art helps you remember certain aspects of the story.  
    • Discuss how the art provides cues to help your mind read and not have to think or remember reading strategies.  For example, different fonts and borders may help you realize this is a flash-back. Also, different art styles within a comic can cue your mind in terms of which sequence panels should be read in.  Once you realize the artist's intent, it frees your mind to focus on other issues.
  • Whether reading these books together or individually, you may want to create story maps to visually "see" where the story is going (and help remember details). 

There are now many kids non-fiction and historical fiction graphic novels.  Pairing these graphic novels with science, social studies, history and language arts in the classroom will help provide graphic images as well as complementary content that will help make the educational content more meaningful and easier to recall.  Here are a few young adult nonfiction and historical fiction graphic novel suggestions (recommended age ranges vary):
    •  American Born Chinese (Yang, G.)  a perspective of growing up as a multicutural minority student (recommeded for middles school and above);
    • Laika (Abadzis, N.)- provides a Russian perspective to the Space Race (third grade and above);
    • Mouse Guard (Petersen, D.) - perspective of life in the Middle Ages (fourth grade and above);
    • The Olympians (O'Connor, G.)- provides a wonderfully visual account of Greek myths (third grade and above);
    • Persepolis (Satrapi, M.) - the story of childhood in Iran (recommended for mature middle school - high school);
    • Kampung Boy (Lat) - about a Muslim boy growing up in rural Malaysia in the 1950's (middle school and above);
    • Malcolm X:  A Graphic Biography (Helfer, R.D.) - critiques the Civil Rights Movement and Malcolm X's life (recommended for high school);
    • Campfire Graphic Novels have published re-tellings of classic stories such as Treasure Island and Moby Dick and some of Shakespeare's classics (Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, for example) that you may want to check out.

Most of all, you want to enjoy the reading experience!  Let me know what your favorite non-fiction and historical fiction comics/graphic novels are.


  1. You are what I would call an Educator, in fact I'd call you one hell of an Educator.
    I love your blog, it is colorful, but so easy to follow, and so much to think about.

  2. I had never thought of reading my kids graphic novels! What a wonderful idea!

    Can I add a suggestion? Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe. I LOVED that book when I was in about fourth grade. If I was a teacher, I'd try to find a way to put it in my curriculum. :)

    ...as for your comment on my bullying post, I would love for you to host it as a guest post! Just let me know if there's anything else you might need from me. And thank you!


  3. I love your blog and all that you have to offer in education and improving the mind...I am a lover of how the brain works and important it is to challenge it and respect it.

    I thank you so much for your visit and wonderful comments on my blog. I will keep an eye out for your posts and look forward to many more...bkm

  4. My second daughter is an staunch non-reader. For a bibliomaniac like me, that's a heartbreaker. I do notice that when she DOES read (her reading teacher requires them to keep a book log), she gravitates towards books that are below her grade level. She is a smart kid and the reading level determined by her school is well beyond her grade, but I'm wondering if she would respond to graphic novels more. I was staunchly against them, but at this point I'm desperate. I will be buying the Olympians soon and I hope I can turn her into a reader.

  5. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for visiting my blog. I have to tell you that I too was staunchly against graphic novels. My kids, are/were avid readers but my son would always gravitate to the graphic novel sections with me arguing "oh no you're not!"

    One morning he sat me down to talk and asked me to read a graphic novel (one he knew I'd like) (He was 16 and buying them on his own.) I was amazed at the quality of art, the vocabulary, and the content. I would definitely try this with your reluctant reader.

    If you want, we can try to figure out what to start her with together, or often librarians are excellent sources. You do still have to be careful, though. While there are some absolute GEMS, there are others with a good deal of violence and sexual innuendo. First Second Books tend to publish really good ones - if that helps.

    Please let me know how it works out!

    All the best,

    Meryl Jaffe


  6. I've taught American Born Chinese for two years now to 7th graders and they wrestle with the text, allusions, visual context as they also explore the complexities of identity. I've added a piece -- I have them write their own personal narratives and then illustrate them/rewrite them as graphic narratives. I also have them select historical topics that they research, illustrate and write as graphic narrative. They learn an amazing amount by doing this.

  7. This sounds like a wonderful application. I bet your students love it! I am curious what you find most challenging about the text for your students.

    Thanks for sharing!

  8. Hi there! Thanks for inviting me here; it's a wonderful blog. I work with many struggling readers and have found graphic novels to be effective solutions at times (I remember being impressed with a version of Frankenstein, and also of Zinn's A People's History of the United States). However, I don't have much experience with this genre, and have had my reservations. Your information is very helpful and is making me reconsider. I think that you provide the smartest argument that I've heard in favor of graphic novels (most center on the relatively weak "they like them" angle). I'm definitely going to visit here regularly!