Like many boys, Borderless comic book store owner Peter Newcomb was a reluctant reader as a preteen. Books really didn’t have any draw for him and he saw nothing exciting in pages full of plain text. At the same time, however, he loved looking at the picture in comic books, and he wanted to know the story that went along with them, so he began reading the printed dialogue. Over time, he became a good reader, which led to his becoming an avid reader—and he wants other reluctant readers to be able to do the same thing. This was the driving force behind the opening of his comic book store, and Pete encourages young people to come in and read comic books, even if they don’t buy them.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to clone Pete and Borderless and have one in every neighborhood, but what if there were another way to bring the love of reading to kids of any age who haven’t discovered that a page of text can hold a story just as brilliant and vibrant as any movie or video game? There is a growing movement to use graphic novels and comic books as teaching tools in schools and libraries that is very encouraging. A Volunteer Library Coordinator from North Hollywood California says:
“At the middle school I attended as a child, our teachers tried to interest us in the classics by giving us comic versions of Dracula and Frankenstein… [t]herefore I added comic books to our library—in spite of our lack of budget. The older kids were grateful for the pictorial versions of books they’d been encouraged to read. Overall, however, the mad rush to the comic-book section of the library was motivated mostly by the latest Spider-Man comic! This was fine with us. The love of any kind of book fit right in with the mission statement the volunteers had created.”
Sadly, not every library has someone as open-minded toward means of getting children to read, and there is still some resistance to the idea of bring comics and graphic novels into schools and libraries for several reasons.
Unfortunately, many people believe that comic books and graphic novels are simply not good teaching tools. They think that these books cannot be “real” books, and that browsing through them shouldn’t count as “real reading.” This is absolutely not true. Not only are these books chock full of diverse vocabulary, but they often have full, rich stories with complex, dynamic characters. In addition, as comics and graphic novels have increasingly captured the publishing market, more nuanced stories are being told in this form. Graphic novels especially are now becoming widely accepted even on an academic level, such as American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, which was a 2006 National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature, the winner of the 2007 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album: New, an Eisner Award nominee for Best Coloring and a 2007 Bank Street – Best Children’s Book of the Year.
The graphic novel is a unique way to present a story. As the Scholastic graphic novel guide for teachers and librarians puts it, “Novels speak to us usually in a linear written narrative; picture books tell a story with text accompanied by illustrations; film does so with moving images and dialogue; and poetry can communicate on levels that no other storytelling can. Graphic novels combine all these elements in their own unique way. They are like prose in that they are a written printed format, but they are also like film in that they tell a story through dialogue, and through visual images that give the impression of movement.” For younger students, this means that they can see the story unfold in front of them, supporting the words that may still be difficult to read. For older students who are studying deeper themes and concepts, graphic novels in class opens up a whole new research possibility: comparing different styles of storytelling. Not only can graphic novels be compared to print-only novels, but some graphic novels present abstract concepts through pictures in a way that can be compared to the abstract in poetry.
Another big hold-up for many educators is the stigma of accidentally providing inappropriate reading material to kids, but this is also something that is easily taken care of. One school librarian, Tameka To from Ontario, shared her story:
Before she added the graphic novel collections [to the school library], To says, “maybe 10% of the grade 7 and 8 students (boys) would voluntarily sign out a book.” This changed dramatically once the boys found out they could get the latest Bone or Amulet in the library. Most middle grade teachers and principals were also enthusiastic, but the school board took some convincing. “They were so concerned about inappropriate pictures that they insisted if we wanted to purchase them we had to look on every page for unsuitable content,” To said. “Since I was working at four school libraries at the time, it was simply impossible to do. Luckily I discovered a store in Toronto that evaluates every book and takes care of content concerns.”
There are now sites online that evaluate graphic novels and review them with an eye toward content and age appropriate material. In addition, reviews and round-ups of new graphic novels appear regularly in School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Voice of Youth Advocates, Library Media Connection, Publishers Weekly, and other journals. These reviews are an invaluable resource for teachers, librarians, or even parents who want to use graphic novels as a tool to encourage reluctant readers, but who simply do not have the time to double check everything that is available.
Comic books and graphic novels are a wonderful tool for learning. The style can be adapted to stories with deep, philosophical themes, to abstract concepts, and even to teaching math or science. Ultimately, it is up to educators to make sure they take full advantage of the opportunity to encourage kids who may not like sitting down with a book to find the amazing worlds that authors have dreamed up for them. It’s time to shake off the stigma that hangs over comic books and use them to full advantage.
Cooperative Children’s Book Center — resource for graphic novel review and evaluations
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund — interview with Tameka To on library graphic novel program
RHI Magazine — Random House Inc.’s magazine
A Novel Approach: Using Graphic Novels to Attract Reluctant Readers — graphic novel reviews