Building Literacy with Graphic Novels for Young Children

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graphic-novels-rights-clearedDo you have graphic novels in your collections? Do you include them in your picture book collection or do you think graphic novels are for older readers only? Just in time for National Picture Book Month, our reVIEWS+ Collections Editor Dr. Sylvia Vardell suggests that the line between the picture book and the graphic novel is blurring and, furthermore, that in this highly visual culture in which we live, the graphic novel represents another way we can get our students to read.
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OK, it’s true confession time. I am not a big fan of graphic novels. There, I said it. Actually, I like LOOKING at graphic novels, I just don’t really enjoy READING them. My eye is not sure where to start, go, move, and follow. And I get impatient with the pictures and want more words. Ridiculous, I know. And those are some of the very reasons that students really ENJOY graphic novels:

#1 Because many adults don’t like them, so graphic novels seem a bit taboo and thus even more inviting.

#2 Because they like looking at graphic novels.

#3 Because they do know how to scan, read, and follow the story.

#4 Because they want their story from the visuals as well as from the text.

#5 Because they don’t want to wade through so many words.

And for many more reasons.

I share this because one of my biggest pet peeves is working with librarians who let their own personal tastes and individual reading preferences get in the way of connecting kids with books THEY like, but we may not like as much. People often refer to our “gatekeeper” status as the people who build library collections and choose which books to purchase and then promote our collections to students. We owe it to them to build the collection that they want and need.

How Graphic Novels Help

I also share this because I see the value in graphic novels from many different perspectives that go well beyond personal preferences. This is not just a trend in publishing, graphic novels offer a new dimension for a literary experience that draws new readers into the fold—and that is powerful. Karen Gavigan and Mindy Tomasevich share some of their basics in their article, “Connecting Comics to Curriculum: Beginning Reader Graphic Novels,” one of our Essential Readings this month. And in her article for School Library Journal, Allyson Lyga (2006) noted, “Graphic novels help all different types of learners. For children who are incapable of visualizing a story, the artwork helps them create context…. and [they] help reluctant readers understand the plot of a story…. And cross gender lines.” As children are developing as readers, the format of the graphic novel helps them use their stronger visual literacy skills in gaining story from pictures.

Indeed, the lines between the highly visual picture book for young children and the innovative graphic novel are blurring. Children are immersed in the visual culture of television, apps, games, and the web, and thus are often drawn to the visual qualities of art and literature, too. In her book, Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age, Eliza Dresang (H.W. Wilson, 1999) looks at the appeal of these new kinds of  “handheld books” with graphic and nonlinear formats that today’s young people find especially appealing. Many graphic novels are most appropriate for teen and adult readers, but there is a growing body of graphic novels and Japanese manga that is fun, appealing, and appropriate for young children, including the marvelous TOON series that help them bridge the verbal and the visual in playful ways.

Authors and illustrators are breaking the rules and creating new forms that blend text and visuals in innovative ways like Brian Selznick’s Caldecott medal book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) or his Schneider Award book, Wonderstruck (Scholastic, 2011). In addition, comic books and cartoons feature popular superheroes kids already know and love like Superman, Batman, and X-Men, and animated talking characters such as Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, and Mickey Mouse. Many comic strips, such as Garfield and Calvin and Hobbes, are also gathered in book format. In an interview in Children and Libraries, Jennifer Holm, co-creator of Babymouse, commented, “I think certain genres, such as fantasy, especially lend themselves to graphic novels because of the opportunity for striking visuals. You can show an entirely new and fantastic world in a single panel” (Bird, 2007, p. 19). With these, children bring their prior knowledge of the characters to their reading and have a “head start” in understanding the story because of that.

Collection Tips

In their article in Children and Libraries, “Got Graphic Novels?” Baird and Jackson (2007, p.6) offer these helpful tips for librarians on collecting this graphic novel format:

  • Include graphic novels in your library’s collection development policy or statement
  • Become knowledgeable about the genre through professional resources on this topic
  • Read graphic novel reviews in library and education journals and preview books to help in the selection process
  • Budget wisely and set aside funds to start up and maintain a viable collection, keeping in mind replacement costs
  • Consider cataloging options, a separate place to house the collection with a graphic novel suffix
  • Have a solid reconsideration and intellectual freedom policy
  • Choose a well-placed display area with face-out shelving
  • Be open to receiving suggestions from children

You’ll find additional “educator resources” at the Reading with Pictures website here http://www.readingwithpictures.org/.

Which books?

I have provided a recommended list of graphic novels that are particularly appropriate for and appealing to young children and of course ALA offers collection development help, too. The “ALSC Best Graphic Novels List” created by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), offers suggestions for multiple age levels, including K-2 and grades 3-5. Go to ALA.org/alsc/booklists. The book lists are available online in full color and black and white and are free to download, copy, distribute, and customize. For their purposes, they define graphic novels as a full-length story told in paneled, sequential, graphic format. Their lists do not include book-length collections of comic strips, wordless picture books, or hybrid books that are a mixture of traditional text and comics/graphics.

You can also find recommendations of graphic novels for young children at these sites:

Will Eisner Best Publications for Early Readers (up to age seven; list of winners from 2010 to present)
www.comic-con.org/awards/eisner-award-recipients-2010-present
Booklist Top Ten Graphic Novels for Youth
www.booklistonline.com/ProductInfo.aspx?pid=6649832
Texas Library Association Little Maverick Graphic Novel Reading List
http://www.txla.org/groups/little-maverick-graphic-novel-reading-list

For more information on sharing graphic novels with kids, these resources may be helpful:

  • Goldsmith, Francisca. The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Graphic Novels. American Library Association, 2009.
  • Gorman, Michelle. Graphic Novels for Younger Readers. Book Links, 2007.
  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Morrow, 1994.
  • Pawuk, Michael. Graphic Novels; A Genre Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More. Libraries Unlimited, 2006.

Additional resources


vardellSylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University and teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 published articles, more than 25 book chapters and given more than 150 presentations at national and international conferences. She is the author of Children’s Literature in Action: A Librarian’s Guide, Poetry Aloud Here!, The Poetry Teacher’s Book of Lists, Poetry People, co-edits The Poetry Friday Anthology series (with Janet Wong) and maintains the PoetryForChildren blog and poetry column for ALA’s Book Links magazine.

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