Sunday, October 16, 2011

Graphic Novels

[Update: check out my Graphic Novels page for book lists.]

Below is a post I made today in response to a serious query on English Companion Ning about the validity of teaching graphic novels as "text."  I got so excited about the topic that I ordered three graphic novels while working on the comment.  My love of the graphic began with picture books - my own childhood books, many of which were saved by my mother and now live in my granddaughter Bea's bookcase.

I believe that my fascination with this genre is also connected to my reading history.  I learned to read in Nebraska and Wisconsin cemeteries, on long walks with my college professor dad.  From him I also learned early to love fantasy (Arthurian) and SF.  From my mother's collection of Horizon magazines I learned the power of myth and image.  Graphic novels, like the best iPad apps, are among today's best tactile and literary venues for showing students different paths to reading and learning.

Learning what?   
  • "The need to conduct research and to produce and consume media is embedded into every aspect of today’s curriculum."  (Common Core Standards, Key Design Considerations).
  • "Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally." (Common Core Standards, Anchor Standards)
  • every single ELA analytical term and method can be visually demonstrated using selected graphic novels - the best of them cover most of the tested content
Comparing texts in different formats is not a new idea - I was doing that with 16mm film long ago - what a pain.  It is now much easier to integrate film media, thanks to YouTube, but graphic media has been more of a challenge to teachers.  The graphic novel, it seems to me, fits the bill for today's teachers, at all grade levels.

Matching graphic text to student in terms of appropriateness is important.  So read the books before giving them to students.

My post is in response to this query (the following discussion is going to be good as well - take note of the post by Karen LaBonte pointing teachers to Scoop.It, which in turn points us at this Book Shelf interview: Graphic storytelling and the new literacies and many more terrific resources for teaching with graphic novels.  Check it out.

You might also want to explore the concept of the picto-essaySyncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays is a starter collection. These short graphic pieces eyeball an experience (e.g. memoir), place, or time, crossing back and forth from history to "you are there" as only the visual world can.  I would use them along with the web to enrich visual literacy and visual history lessons. Students with drawing-disability can generally create a wonderful product with a digital camera.
[My response to Raef Earl Williams, who writes: "With the pressures of teaching all standards and standardized testing, can you rationalize teaching this type of text year in and year out? "] There is also new pressure to teach creative thinking and textual interpretation, and to have students work in purposeful discussion groups.  I think that the best graphic novels are a legitimate text source for developing higher order skills - including comprehension.  I also agree with you that the power of images is a literacy that should be taught.  One approach might be to compare graphic to text versions of literature.  I did this with Fahrenheit 451. The Gunslinger, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Twilight, The Odyssey, and Beowulf (several graphic and comic versions of this are available) are other possibilities  [and, I have since discovered, most of Shakespeare and Mark Twain, many great moments in US history... the concept of compare/contrast is HUGE using this format].

It is certainly possible to study any element of literature through its visual presentation in graphic novels - much as you might study a visual image (painting, photograph, etc.).  [in fact, some concepts might be best introduced or reinforced with graphic novels: irony, mood, point of view, contrast, parallelism - to name a few]

Here are some titles I would love to teach: American Vampire, Vol. 1 (because Stephen King was involved - but there are also a vol.2 and 3 is on the way), Persepolis, Trickster (Native American storytellers and graphic artists), American Born Chinese, Stitches - a Memoir, Shaun Tan (The Arrival, Lost and Found), and (of course - you would have to offer this) Maus.

American Library Association maintains lists of the best YA graphic novels published each year.  The number of titles alone is one reason to attend to them in the classroom.

Since I am having fun imagining this:
  • Hark a Vagrant and Wondermark are online sources of excellent, intelligent "shorts" - check out the Hark archives to show kids that graphic is not "dumb." Find a 1-panel short called "The Hole" at this unlikely source: ELL online resource Grammarman (also noted in my post Storytelling Spirit). Grammarman Comic also offers short graphic lessons: comics with errors, worksheets, answer sheets.  And another in the .pdf download from, of all places, spirit - the journal of Southwest Airlines, October 2011.
  • There are many comic apps - so your students should have no trouble finding DC and other titles for their smart phones. I use Comics, the reader for
  • I would probably begin with a study of wordless picture books: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (there is a collection of short stories - one for each picture - due out this fall), Woolvs in the Sitee, Varmints, and Chalk are four of my favorites, but ask a children's librarian. 
  • Inanimate Alice is a terrific graphic puzzle story - a good problem-solving challenge for a visual reader. There will surely be more of these fully digital visual stories in the months to come.
  • It would be interesting to have students do some deep thinking about the mood, tone, and content of graphic novels - so little humor, so much violence and darkness (just a study of color across several titles would be fun).

On the "create" end of learning, you might want to have groups collaborate on a graphic story - apps like Comic Life and online tools like Make Beliefs Comix can support the non-artistic.  With middle schoolers, we did work on large pages as well as digital ones.   Have fun!

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