Excel(sior) through Graphic Novels!

Excel(sior) through Graphic Novels!

December 3, 2018 Books, KASL, Literacy 0

On Nov. 12, comic book legend Stan Lee passed away at the age of 95. In addition to co-creating numerous iconic Marvel characters, Lee is also credited with creating the concept of a shared comic book universe. Beyond that, Lee’s work impacted real lives. After Lee’s passing, a friend of mine who described himself as a “weird kid with massive social anxieties” credited Lee as the single most influential force in his life. He related to Spider-Man’s alter ego the most, he said, because Peter Parker dealt with real-world problems – problems like loneliness, bullying, self-doubt, scraping by, and providing for one’s family. Without comics and Stan Lee, my friend admitted he might not even be alive. Contrary to curmudgeonly critics like Bill Maher, comic books (even ones about superheroes) make a difference. Reading makes a difference!

As most librarians know, comic books and graphic novels can offer readers tremendous value. Like other books, comics and graphic novels can connect with readers on a deeply personal level. They offer a rich literary diversity, from superheroes to manga to memoirs to nonfiction to fiction of every genre. Graphic novels are also increasingly expanding in cultural diversity, allowing more readers opportunities to connect with the faces looking back at them. Long regarded as high interest reading for reluctant readers, graphic novels offer significant benefits (like visual literacy skills) for even proficient readers. That’s why our school’s summer reading list this year included a graphic novel. It offered value as well as connection to the curriculum.

As acceptance of the graphic novel continues to increase, are librarians and educators using the potential of these books to their fullest? What are some of the applications for graphic novels across the curriculum? What are some effective tips for librarians to grow and promote their graphic novel collection? In our presentation “Let This Dynamic Duo Answer Your Graphic Novel Questions” at this year’s KLA/KASL Conference, literacy coach Mitch Greenwell and I answered these questions and more. I hope this blog can help answer some of the same questions.

Graphic novels offer enormous benefits for readers, librarians, and educators. They promote reading skills, improve comprehension, and can even help raise reading test scores. Graphic novels are often much more rigorous than most realize, offering the same levels of complexity as other types of literature. Graphic novels are, unsurprisingly, great for developing visual literacy. When visuals and text are combined, this can help increase comprehension. We’ve all seen firsthand how a visual example can help a student recall information more readily, which is why we educators choose to incorporate visuals into our lessons. Graphic novels also work well in conjunction with the “7 Habits of Highly Effective Readers,” offering students ample opportunities to make connections, infer, synthesize, determine what is important, and more.

Because graphic novels are generally more high interest, they offer more potential to hook students who might not normally be readers. When students read more, studies show reading test scores also increase; so graphic novels have the potential to help raise test scores, by increasing the number of readers who are hooked on reading. One Washington Post reporter claimed that Spider-Man turned him into a straight-A student. Through wordless graphic novels, ELLs can use images to assist with comprehension and context, for example, by pairing an English-speaking student with an ELL student to write the story through post-its. Applications are endless. According to Teaching Visual Literacy, “advanced and engaged readers profit when the teacher combines the reading of graphic novels with the writing process” (p. 34). Further, graphic novels can do all of this while offering high interest reading options and consuming less class time.

Graphic novels offer many cross-curricular opportunities for teachers and students. Traditionally, novels have been taught in classrooms because they meet various standards. But graphic novels also can meet these standards, and with graphic novels available across all content areas, there really is no reason not to consider them in a classroom. In social studies, for example, there are graphic novels with tie-ins to economics, civil rights, the atomic bomb, Gandhi, 9/11, North Korea, the founding fathers, and so much more. In science and math, there are cartoon and manga guides to chemistry, genetics, physics, calculus, the environment, linear algebra, and relativity, just to name a few. Because graphic novels are inherently very stylistic, they also offer students the opportunity to develop their voice by creating their own comics in any content areas. Librarians can advocate for graphic novels by promoting these benefits to teachers.

In addition to promoting these benefits and cross-curricular connections to teachers, librarians can promote their graphic novel collections to students through film tie-ins, pairing titles with fiction and nonfiction on similar themes, and connecting titles to various anniversaries, observances, and events (e.g. Black History Month, the Grammy Awards). We’ve also promoted graphic novels through our school broadcast’s Library Picks of the Week segments, as depicted here with Mr. Greenwell.

Carefully curating the collection can also play a role in promoting it effectively. If your collection is lacking in diversity, both literary and cultural, it may not find the broadest possible audience. When I helped build our collection, I looked intentionally for titles that were audience-appropriate, popular, well-reviewed, culturally important, rich in literary diversity, offered a wide range of minority voices, and featured strong curricular connections across multiple content areas. By curating a collection with these qualities, we were able to promote much broader buy-in from students and teachers. Whenever I’ve had a question about whether a title was right for our population, I’ve sought feedback from experts in public libraries, comic book shops, and bookstores, as well as my most trusted comic book-loving friends. In just six years, our collection has swelled from 3 titles to well over 300, and has become one of our library’s most popular sections. You are welcome to take a glance at our collection in this handy spreadsheet, organized according to some of the qualities mentioned above.


Tim Jones has been serving in school libraries for 12 years. It’s his sixth year at Trinity High School. He serves on the KBA 9-12 Reading Committee for KASL and as Treasurer for JCASL. He has served in public and parochial schools, for elementary, middle, and high school populations. Mitch Greenwell has been teaching high school English for 10 years, in public and parochial schools. It’s his sixth year at Trinity High School, where he sometimes teaches a Graphic Novel elective he designed. You can follow Tim on Twitter @MisterLibrary and you can follow the Trinity High School Library on Twitter @TrinityLMC.

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