For the first time ever, the John Newberry Medal has been given to a graphic novel, "New Kid" by Jerry Craft. So we're refreshing this celebration of the genre!
In my former life as a teacher, reading specialist and educational therapist with a master's degree in language and literacy (a fancy name for reading), I had one mission: to transform every student into a reader. That meant not only helping my students develop reading skills, but also turning them into lifelong readers.
I pursued this goal like I was Harry Potter searching for the horcruxes to destroy Voldemort. But some of my students still weren’t meeting their potential as readers. What had I missed?
The answer arrived tucked under the arm of a third grader, whom I’ll call Cameron. When free reading time rolled around, Cameron found a spot with his copy of "Bone" by Jeff Smith. Within days, everyone in my class wanted to read it. Kids who “hated reading” were reading "Bone" over Cameron’s shoulder. I started buying graphic novels for my classroom library that weekend and, without fail, they attracted reluctant readers. Then I noticed they were attracting proficient readers, too. Parents wanted to know if they should let their children read graphic novels instead of “real” books.
The answer? Yes!
Parents still ask me the question. But now they ask because I’m the mom who writes young adult novels and my first graphic novel, "Teen Titans: Raven." My answer is still yes. Here are five reasons why:
1. Reading graphic novels develops empathy by helping children and teens relate to people who are different from them.
Images are powerful. If you've ever watched a heartbreaking Humane Society commercial and found yourself on the verge of tears, you understand what I’m talking about. The art in graphic novels makes it easier for readers to relate to the characters and imagine how it would feel to be in a similar situation, which builds empathy. The unique format also provides a way to “expose injustice and examine complex social issues, much like young adult novels do,” explains educational researcher J.B. Carter.
2. Graphic novels allow students to read above their independent reading level so they can engage with more challenging text.
Most children and teens are capable of understanding and discussing reading material above their independent reading level. As parents, we see this in action when we read a picture book like "The Three Little Pigs" to a kindergartener or first grader. By the end of the story, most children can tell us what happened to the pigs and the wolf, even if they can only read a few of the words. “The combination of words and images in (comics and graphic novels) provide an opportunity for scaffolding for some readers and also a new modality that interests and attracts more capable readers,” explains educational researcher G. Yang. “When kids read enjoyable, complex, and compelling stories, they are motivated to read more, so graphic novels can be great stepping stones to longer text works.”
3. Graphic novels level the academic playing field.
A child’s reading proficiency is not an indicator of intelligence, yet struggling readers are often given easier books that tend to have less complicated or meaty plot lines. The result? Less skilled readers don’t have a chance to flex their intellectual muscles and discuss complex issues, themes and characters. That’s why Kyle Redford of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity refers to graphic novels as “the grand equalizers” because they “invite all levels of readers into reading conversations. Since everyone can read graphic novels, everyone can talk about them.”
4. Reading graphic novels builds comprehension and critical thinking skills.
Reading a graphic novel involves more than just making sense of the words on the page and looking at art that complements the words. The art actually tells part of the story. So the reader has to decode and comprehend the text, the images, and the relationship between the two, which requires critical thinking skills such as drawing conclusions and making inferences. But that is good news, according to educational researcher P.E. Griffith, because “processing text and images together leads to better recall and transfer of learning. With [graphic novels], students not only learn the material faster, they learn it better.”
5. Graphic novels get children and teens excited about reading!
Studies show that graphic novels are a preferred format for both boys and girls, and for both struggling and skilled readers, which contradicts the myth that graphic novels are for primarily for boys and children who “aren’t good readers.” Educational researcher B. Edwards also discovered that middle school students who weren’t interested in reading were more likely to read graphic novels, because they enjoyed the format and felt they could challenge themselves more.