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Yes, Graphic Novels Are Real Books

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Young boy reading manga

I've had a couple of parents approach me recently with questions akin to: "How do I get my child to read something else besides graphic novel? I want him to read real chapter books." To which I say: "Why do you need to do this?" If your child is reading graphic novels, then he is reading. Graphic novels are real books. If your child is reading graphic novels avidly, then my suggestion is not to try to push him to chapter books. My suggestion is to find him more graphic novels.

Now, I will concede one issue that I've run into due to my daughter's devotion to graphic novels. There just aren't as many graphic novels as there are chapter books. This means that we can actually run out of books for her to read that are even remotely age appropriate (and believe me, I have stretched this upwards). She doesn't help matters by having only passing interest in fantasy - she wants thick, realistic graphic novels only. And she pretty much has all of the ones I can find that she can understand. She simply reads those over and over again. I'm fairly sure she must know Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham's Real Friends by heart.

Because of this shortage I have tried introducing some notebook novels into the mix. These still have plenty of illustrations, but also have more text. My daughter is having none of it. This means that unless I can find new graphic novels that she likes, she ends up reading less. Which is certainly not the goal. But I personally think it would be worse to push her to read books that she's not interested in. So I don't.

Graphic novels, by their nature, provide more scaffolding to new readers. They can often figure out what's going on by looking at the pictures, even when the vocabulary might be above their heads. My daughter told me that she finds graphic novels easier to read because "you don't have to read all that 'he said' 'she said' stuff." To her, it's more intuitive to just SEE who is saying what.

Graphic novels are also generally fast reads - our eyes can scan pictures faster than we can read words. My daughter is currently whipping her way through the Amulet series (here we have branched out a bit from the realistic fiction, though she doesn't expect to have an interest in re-reading these). Because they can be thick, but still a fast read, graphic novels give new readers a sense of accomplishment.

And just like chapter books, graphic novels can cover serious issues. In Sunny Side Up, by Jenni Holm and Matt Holm, young Sunny's summer is overshadowed by her worries about her older brother, whose drug problem has led to erratic behavior. This is shown via flashbacks, and the graphic format allows the authors to imply the drug use without speaking of it directly. This means that it's not overwhelming for my daughter (I think it mostly went over her head), but it's there for older readers to process.

For more on benefits of graphic novels, see this digital document created by the Comic Book Legal Defense Club: Raising a Reader! How Comics & Graphic Novels Can Help Your Kids Love To Read!, a resource for parents & educators about the learning benefits of comics. This is a great resource for parents covering things that graphic novels offer kids, tips for parents for navigating graphic novels, ideas for creating reading dialogs with graphic novels, booklists, and more.

So why are some parents (and many librarians, for that matter), so determined to push kids out of graphic novels and into chapter books? Here are three possible reasons:

  1. Parents don't like to see kids re-reading the same books over and over again when they could perhaps benefit from exposure to a broader array of titles.
  2. Graphic novels are different from the books that we grew up with, and we aren't as comfortable reading them. I personally don't much like reading graphic novels. I prefer the linearity of straight-up text. I find it distracting to have to look at the whole picture in each panel, and figure out what comes first. This bias on my own part makes it more challenging for me to support my daughter's graphic novel passion. But I do it anyway.
  3. The more academically-focused parents probably want their children reading more words, instead of looking at pictures, so that they are on a path to better test scores, etc.

To reason one I say: try to find more graphic novels, if you can. Perhaps look to graphic novelizations of traditional chapter books. Did you know that there's a graphic novel version of A Wrinkle In Time? Ask librarians for help. And then maybe very gently offer things that stretch the child's reading zone. There are some nonfiction graphic novel-style books coming out - maybe these will lead into actual nonfiction on the same topics. For my realistic graphic novel-obsessed daughter I'm quietly mixing in some fantasy. I don't push, but I grab things from the library and offer them. If they are rejected I can return them easily enough.

To reason two I say: try to get over your own feelings about graphic novels. Your child does not have to like the same books that you liked. I think it's ok to explain to your kids that you aren't as much of a fan as they are, as long as you respect their reasons for liking graphic novels. You can also learn more about graphic novels via resources like the CBLDF booklet linked above. Some extremely fine authors are producing simply fabulous books in this area. It's ok to take graphic novels seriously. They are much more than the old Archie comics from when we were kids.

To reason three I say this: our goal as parents should be to help our children learn to LOVE books. If we are successful at this, then they will read books. As they read more books, they will get better at reading, and they will want to read even more. We'll have a virtuous cycle in which their reading skill enhances their enjoyment, and vice versa. (See Jim Trelease's The Read Aloud Handbook for more about this).

I believe that if you have a child who loves books, she will eventually want to read MORE books, and she'll more than likely branch out from graphic novels. Maybe she'll move to notebook novels like Dork Diaries. Maybe she'll move to series books like the Rainbow Fairies. Maybe she'll go straight to the non-graphic version of A Wrinkle in Time, if she's old enough. Because that's what real readers do. As an adult, I like to read mysteries. If there's nothing new by any of my favorite mystery authors, perhaps I'll pick up some nonfiction, or science fiction, or re-read a classic. Readers find a way to read. Our goal should be to nurture readers.

Shawna Coppola writes about this topic in "But they only read graphic novels". She links to some background on "the myriad of benefits that reading comics and graphic novels offer readers of all ages" but concedes that there can be a valid interest in teaching kids to have a more balanced reading diet. She suggests that we mine this food analogy to encourage kids to read different things, with different benefits. She also suggests for teachers "Perhaps we ought to simply let our students read what they want to during independent reading time–including as many graphic novels as their charming little brains can handle, for Pete’s sake–and be incredibly mindful about offering multiple opportunities for them to read and engage with other kinds of texts throughout the remainder of our time with them."

My personal belief is that this is what we should be doing at home - letting kids read what they want to read, to nurture their love of reading. What I also do is read aloud a more challenging work with my daughter, and talk her through the details, as a way to expose her to more complex plots and substantive vocabulary words. I feel like if she is listening to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, she's more than welcome to read the Lunch Lady books 10 times over on her own.

I've never personally been a big reader of graphic novels. But I will defend to all comers my daughter's right to prefer them. First, because there are many benefits to graphic novels, and second because I truly believe that one of the most important things we can do to nurture young readers is to give them choice in their reading.

This post was originally published on my blog, Jen Robinson's Book Page

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Jen Robinson | @JensBookPage has been blogging about children's literature and growing bookworms since 2005. After her daughter started elementary school, she expanded her blog's focus to encompass the growing of joyful learners of all types: bookworms, mathematicians, scientists, artists, and more.


Jen believes that most schools today feature too much homework, too much testing, and not enough time for play and self-directed learning. She worries about the pressures on kids that are sapping their joy of learning. She thinks that we can do better. She feels that this matter is urgent. 


Jen has a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering, and co-owns a small software firm serving the semiconductor industry. She grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in San Jose, California, with her husband and daughter.  

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