In Defense of Graphic Novels: A New Way of Reading That’s as Old as Time

This article first appeared on FutureFemaleLeader.com

As a librarian and the FFL book czar, people often come to me with their book problems. What should I read? What should my child read? What books are popular with children? They’re often surprised when I suggest as an answer to any of these three questions a graphic novel. I’ve heard it all. “but…I want them to read REAL books.” “I want them to actually learn words.” “I want them to read something other than comics.” 

I could go on a tirade about how these responses are ignorant and actually prevent kids from loving reading more than you can ever imagine, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk to you about how reading graphic novels is actually good for us and how the way we read them is actually just as indicative of early learning processes as picking up any novels by Dickens or Morrison. 

First, let’s talk about what a graphic novel is and isn’t. Not all graphic novels are comic books, full of superheroes, and not all graphic novels are in the anime style. Graphic novels use a combination of words and images to tell a story in a sequential manner, across the page. You have to learn how to read a graphic novel, you can’t just look at the whole page at once. Graphic novels come in every genre and for every age–from children to adult, fiction romances and mysteries and memoirs. There are also lots of different styles because every author/illustrator has their own style and way of telling stories–just like the authors of other books. 

If you or someone you know is a reluctant reader seeking motivation, try graphic novels. They usually are shorter and can be read in less time than a typical novel, but the kids love them! They draw them in with fascinating stories and illustrations. It helps kids feel confident with their reading when they’re able to finish a graphic novel and truly talk about why they loved it. One of recent graphic novel, Guts by Raina Telgemeier, is one of the most requested books in my library system right now, and every day kids ask me if we have books like it because they love reading graphic novels. These are kids who six months ago wouldn’t have said they liked to read at all, now they’re clamoring for the next book. 

Graphic novels are great for people that aren’t usually visualizers, like me. When I read a book, I don’t always paint a picture in my head, but with graphic novels, there’s so much more. Not only is each page and each panel within that page visualizing the words on the page, they’re doing so much more. They’re helping readers visualize the world of the book but also teaching them to read nuance, to read facial expressions, and to be cued into details.  Long before we had written words, we told story aurally and through pictures. Graphic novels are a great combination of the historic forms of reading we’ve engaged with. And no, they don’t let kids “off” of reading and learning. 

Per Scholastic, “The excellent graphic novels available today are linguistically appropriate reading material demanding the same skills that are needed to understand traditional works of prose fiction. Often they actually contain more advanced vocabulary than traditional books at the same age/grade/interest level. They require readers to be actively engaged in the process of decoding and comprehending a range of literary devices, including narrative structures, metaphor and symbolism, point of view, the use of puns and alliteration, intertextuality, and inference.”

On top of that, the content of graphic novels is just as “real” as the books you might assume kids and teens should be reading. Graphic novels for kids and teens deal with issues like racism, coming out, falling in love, falling out of love, moving to new areas, welcoming new siblings, discovering ghosts, solving mysteries,  going to summer camp, et cetera. Seriously, they’re good stories. Plus, a lot of the “classics” are being adapted to graphic novels because it’s an art form that’s growing in popularity and provides a new way to engage with the text. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Little Prince, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Giver, Romeo and Juliet, The Hobbit, Anne of Green Gables, and Animal Farm have all been adapted into graphic novels. 

So, the next time someone recommends a graphic novel, give it a shot. You just might love it. And the next time you see a kid wanting to pick up a graphic novel at the library, let them. Reading is reading, and anything we can do to encourage reading will go a long way. 

For further reading, check out these 10 graphic novels that are great for readers of all ages. 

  1. Guts by Raina Telegemeir
  2. Drama by Raina Telegemeir
  3. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
  4. They Called Us Enemy by George Takei
  5. Speak: The Graphic Novel by Laurie Halse Anderson
  6. Pumpkinheads by Rainbow Rowell 
  7. Check Please by Ngozi Ukazu
  8. Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
  9. Lisa and the Lacemaker by Kathy Hoopmann
  10. Stargazing by Jen Wang

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