In Defense of Graphic Novels: A Top Ten List

April 29, 2021 § 1 Comment

Does your child adore graphic novels? You’re not alone. Does it feel like they only read graphic novels? You’re not alone. Do you worry about that? You’re not alone.

Hands down, the most common questions and concerns I hear from parents center around graphic novels. Do graphic novels count as reading? Are graphic novels too easy for my child? Why should I invest in books that my child ends up finishing in one sitting? I wish my child would read “real books” like I did when I was their age. How can I get them to broaden their reading?

Today, I’m going to assuage all these fears by giving you TEN reasons why encouraging reading graphic novels (and comics) translates into literacy skills and a love of reading for pleasure, both of which will serve your children for the rest of their lives. You should not only stop worrying about your kids’ obsession with graphic novels, you should actively encourage it! If you find yourself walking into a bookstore about to tell your child, I’ll buy you anything so long as it’s not a graphic novel, check that ‘tude at the door. (No shame. We’ve all been there.) Your child is taking an active interest in a literary format that is endlessly creative, artistic, entertaining, thought provoking, and aligns with the uniquely visual culture in which they are growing up. This is a good thing, and we’re going to talk about why.

Then, in a few weeks, I’ll be back with a follow-up post on tips to gently nudge your child to expand his reading interests beyond—but never in place of!—graphic novels, including stories with more traditional prose.

But today, without further ado, here are Ten Reasons Why You Should Feel Totally Great About Your Kids Reading Graphic Novels. Oh, and did I mention I’m going to give you dozens of graphic novel recommendations along the way?

10. More than any other books, graphic novels will get re-read, and repetition drives learning.

Susan Sontag once said, “No book is worth reading that isn’t worth re-reading.” Graphic novels are literally changing children’s relationship to books. No longer does reading material languish on bookshelves after it’s finished. Yes, kids will fly through a new graphic novel, because the cinematic presentation invites that. But, if they’re allowed, they’ll come back to that book again and again…and again. (My daughter read Katie the Catsitter a whopping seven times the first week she got it.) Each time they return to a graphic novel, readers are sinking deeper into the story, noticing new details, extracting layers of meaning from the pictures and the text. Anything that invites this kind of focus, commitment, and passion is an educator’s dream, because these are gateways to learning and retention. When my daughter first read Catherine’s War, only a fraction of the historical backdrop of World War Two made sense to her; every time she has read it since, she has developed more appreciation for the history behind it, even seeking out related books.

9. Graphic novels get kids talking and sharing about reading.

Last year, when we packed up to move into a small rental while our house was renovated, every book my kids insisted on bringing with them was a graphic novel. What I love are the myriad of ways they enjoy them together, in forts they build or side-by-side on the sofa. My daughter regularly borrows my son’s Hazardous Tales books, and he negotiates these trades for her Amulet titles. They have a shared vocabulary related to the world of Hilo (“repeat business,” anyone?). Last summer, vacationing with cousins, all the kids spent lazy afternoons passing around Trespassers and Stepping Stones. More times than I can count, I’ve driven carpools where boys and girls have passed around the latest Raina Telgemeier title, or debated about which Terri Libenson book was their favorite.

8. Visual literacy is a lifelong skill.

We tend to think of visual literacy as a tool for early readers, who must look to pictures for clues about the words they are sounding out. But any adult who has torn out their hair trying to assemble Ikea furniture knows that visual literacy is a requirement well beyond kindergarten. Now consider this: never before have children grown up in such a visual society. From video games to selfies to social media platforms that prioritize images over words, our kids are being asked to navigate a maelstrom of visual content. When children of any age read graphic novels, whose stories only comes alive through careful attention to the pictures, they are learning and strengthening their visual literacy skills. It might start with fun early graphic novels like Mr. Wolf’s Class, but it only gets stronger with subtler, sophisticated stories like Pashmina.

7. Graphic novels encourage non-linear thinking.

Graphic novels encourage and reward non-linear thinking, since their very style of storytelling is inventive and disruptive. Graphic novels are rarely the “easy reads” we parents worry they are. I’ve never been a visual learner, so I find myself often struggling to understand comics (OK, old lady eyes don’t help). Sometimes I can’t even tell in what order to read the panels! When I ask my kids for help, I’m amazed at how fluidly they adapt to different presentation styles. When my kids discovered Mister Invincible, where the pot-bellied superhero manipulates the comic medium itself by dropping into neighboring panels or rows to alter the scene’s outcome, they talked of nothing else for two days. At a time when outside-the-box thinking is being rewarded in business, let’s encourage our kids to devour graphic novels. The more they do, the more their definitions of storytelling, their very notion of what it means to be creative, will expand.

6. Graphic novels are as much about text as they are about pictures.

For all the appeal of their visuals, graphic novels make little sense if you don’t read the text; in fact, it’s in the marriage of the two that the magic happens. With space restrictions, text in a graphic novel often has to work extra hard, requiring careful editing by its author. Some of the richest vocabulary in children’s literature can be found in graphic novels. When kids lose themselves in a graphic novel, rest assured they are reading, even learning, words—and good ones at that. The language in Be Prepared? Beautiful. The language in any of George O’Connor’s Olympians books? Mic drop.

5. Graphic novels make close readers of our kids.

Graphic novels are one of the most active reading experiences our children will ever have. Their eyes track constantly between images and text, often having to infer meaning in what’s not said, in what’s left out of the frame. Many graphic novels take an entire year to create, the layers of detail more gratifying with every reading. Our children will be prepared for the day a teacher asks them to write a five page essay on a single paragraph of Austen or Steinbeck, because they’ve been training to be close readers all along.

4. Graphic novels are a springboard to history, science, biography, mythology, sci-fi, fantasy, and more.

Graphic novels or comics are often discussed as if they are their own genre—when, in actuality, they’re a format for a variety of genres. And because kids are drawn to these visual formats like moths to a flame, they’re more likely to dip their toes into waters they might otherwise avoid. My daughter has always run from any book about space (that’s her brother’s territory), yet she dove right into The Challenger Disaster from the History Comics series. Ditto to nearly every title in the Science Comics series. My son’s obsession with the Olympians series was a big part of why he finally agreed to try Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (also why, when we had a private tour of the Vatican, he nailed every mythology question). My daughter had no interest in reading the many excellent biographies of Ruth Bader Ginsburg until she discovered Debbie Levy’s graphic novel. It’s even possible to slip our kids valuable mental health lessons via graphic novels, with terrific titles on consent and anxiety.

3. Graphic novels have the power of literature because they are literature.

Quality graphic novels tell stories every bit as complex, poignant, and memorable as quality prose literature. The character development in Witches of Brooklyn is top notch. The suspense in Snapdragon is deliciously terrifying. When kids read New Kid, Jerry Craft’s Newbery Award-winning graphic novel, they’re learning about the role that race and class play in middle-school friendships. When they read When Stars are Scattered or Measuring Up, they gain empathy for the refugee or immigrant experience. A kid might meet a character with severe allergies like Maggie in Allergic and see herself. A teen struggling with his sexuality might read a book like Flamer, and it might save his life.

2. Graphic novels shape our children’s understanding of their place in the world.

It’s not just their diverse themes that are rocking our kids’ worlds in the best of ways, it’s also the inspiration that comes from seeing personal stories presented in creative, interesting, relevant ways. When kids read graphic memoirs like Real Friends, Guts, or Almost American Girl, they are connecting to more than the entertaining storylines; they’re connecting to pieces of themselves, to their own quest to claim identity. When they read books like Dragon Hoops or Cub, they’re learning the mechanics of putting real life on the page. Graphic novels give children a compelling medium through which to tell their own stories.

1. Graphic novels are so. much. fun.

Sometimes, when we’re talking about getting our kids to fall in love with reading, it’s as simple as that. Series like CatStronauts, Mr. Pants, The Bad Guys, and Bird and Squirrel brought so many smiles to my children in their early years of independent reading. Books like The Cardboard Kingdom once informed imaginative play for an entire summer. Graphic novels makes reading fun—and that, my friends, is what we’re after.

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§ One Response to In Defense of Graphic Novels: A Top Ten List

  • sandys5 says:

    Great post! I recommend graphic novels for all the reasons that you have stated. I love that they’re available for all age groups and they cover almost every topic from nonfiction, horror, to humor. For some individuals, this is all they read, which is great, they’re reading…..that’s all that matters!!

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