Are Graphic Novels Just Comic Books?

Are Graphic Novels Just Comic Books?
Casie Cobos, English Language Arts Teacher

Several years ago I became a parent in Anita Taj’s then-Lower Elementary classroom when my oldest moved out of Primary.

During that Transition to Elementary meeting, Anita looked around the parent circle and looked nervously at me, the high school English Language Arts teacher, and said, “We have daily reading time–and I consider graphic novels to be books.” Being an avid book lover, I knew then that she was going to be a superb teacher (by the way, I was right).

Are graphic novels just comic books?

Marjane Satrapi, writer and illustrator of the infamous Persepolis, said, “When you say ‘graphic novel,’ I think you mean Lady Chatterley's Lover or something like that.” Instead, she refers to this form as “comics.” So, yes, in many ways graphic novels are comic books with their reliance on images and words to construct a world, characters, a plot, and more. However, using the word “just” about any graphic novel or comic does a disservice to the form, a growing area of study, and, importantly, a child if comics are their reading interest.

Why should I or the child in my life read graphic novels?

Difficult topics. While graphic novels can be fiction, and often are for younger audiences, memoirs and nonfiction stories make up a large number of the graphic novel genre for adolescents and adults. What this means is that authors can delve into often heavy topics through an author’s personal experience, including the WWII Holocaust (Maus), the Iranian Revolution (Persepolis), and the Vietnam War refugee experience (The Best We Could Do). Readers then find they are readily learning history and social sciences to understand the construction of the world on paper in panel-size pieces. “I didn’t know, so I looked it up” is a phrase I often hear in the ELA classroom when we read graphic novels, and those words are followed by “and that really happened!” Students often continue to research to satisfy their curiosity. 

Visual Literacy. In case we haven’t stopped to notice lately, our world is already largely pictorial. This is not new–the Mayan alphabet actually moved from the pictorial to the alphabetic and back to the pictorial for quite a while in order for written language to be more readily accessible across the geographic region. Our world is still like this today. From advertisements to traffic signs, seeing images, picking up on contextual clues, and making inferences remain a large part of our everyday world. 

While there are fewer words in graphic novels and comics than in alphabetic-text-based books, research out of the University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning shows that, on average, comic books contain 53.5 more rare words per thousand compared to text-based children’s books, which average 30.9.

Vocabulary Growth. While there are fewer words in graphic novels and comics than in alphabetic-text-based books, research out of the University of Oregon Center on Teaching and Learning shows that, on average, comic books contain 53.5 more rare words per thousand compared to text-based children’s books, which average 30.9. The margin is smaller as a book’s target age rises; however, this trend continues through adult graphic novels and books. There may be fewer words in this form, but the challenge of learning new and lesser-used words means the practice of phonics and growth in language.

Reading Engagement. Many studies show that as children feel more pressure to choose certain books in school and read certain kinds of texts for testing, their interest in reading declines. Around the third-grade range, children blame this on a dislike of reading rather than a dislike of content or form. Whether the books are about science (Get to Know Your Universe Science series) or about cats and superheroes (Katie the Catsitter), graphic novels and comics can keep children reading longer and give them a win when they feel discouraged about completing books. 

How do I read graphic novels by myself or with a child?

Every other year, the high school students and I do a deep dive into a graphic novel–usually Art Spiegelman’s Maus, but we’ve also worked through others to round out our knowledge bases when we are short on time, including George Takai’s They Called Us Enemy and Homer’s The Iliad (Gareth Hinds). While the content is often what overtly captures our attention, we also slow down, look at the form, and practice visual literacy. 

In English, we read left to right and up to down, so unless an artist is trying to disrupt the reader’s attention, our eyes should follow the same direction from panel to panel and from word bubble to word bubble. What readers are also doing, whether overtly or not, is looking for cues about what is important and what is not. What is in the foreground? In the background? Why is a pile of bodies in the background and why is a shoe in the center of a panel? Why does one panel bleed into the next page? Should we be paying attention to the jagged gutter between panels? Readers are learning spatial cues not visible in purely alphabetic text writing, and these spatial cues transfer to the world around us. 

If we are reading with a young child, we should take time to notice how much longer their eyes are lingering over the images as they try to match pictorial content with the words we or they are reading. Furthermore, we should listen to what they have to say, which might include questions like, why is that so big? What is that? Is that real? We can also slow them down the same way I do with high school students and ask, why do you think that line looks like that? Do you think this child is actually that much bigger than that adult? Why do you think they skip over to the next day here? Why is that word bubble like a cloud? Slow down and explore the pictorial world with them.

What suggestions do you have for graphic novels?

Adults and Adolescents

  • Maus by Art Spiegleman
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui 
  • March (trilogy) by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin 
  • Good Talk by Mira Jacob
  • They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
  • The Iliad Home and Gareth Hinds

Younger Adolescents and Elementary Children

  • Get to Know Your Universe: Science (series) 
  • New Kid by Jerry Craft
  • El Deafo by Cece Bell
  • The Cardboard Kingdom (series) by Chad Sell 
  • Stargazing by Jen Wang
  • Katie the Catsitter by Colleen AF Venable and Stephanie Yue
  • Babysitters’ Club (series) 
  • Babysitters’ Club Little Sisters (series)
  • Narwhal and Jelly (series) by Ben Clanton 

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