Some year ago I discovered a whole new "room" in the library, one I'd never visited before. Likewise, I have found shelves in the bookstore that I've only ever walked by. I have discovered graphic novels.
I'm not talking about comic books. I grew up reading those flimsy magazines featuring Richie Rich, Archie and his pals Veronica and Jughead, Uncle Scrooge, and many others.
Graphic novels are book-length works of sequential art. Calling them graphic novels would seem to indicate that their storylines are always fiction. This could not be further from the truth, as I've come to realize. In recent years, I've read graphic fiction, graphic memoir, graphic documentary, graphic nonfiction, graphic fairy tales, and graphic mythology. I've also dipped my toe into Manga, or Japanese-style comics/graphic novels.
The children's book publishing world has recently responded to the rising popularity of graphic novels. At least five popular series have been rereleased as graphic novels: Time Warp Trio, Baby Sitters Club, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Goosebumps. Scholastic has an imprint (Graphix) expressly for its line of graphic novels. The YA librarian who buys graphic novels for her branch explained the popularity of graphic novels by estimating that some of the most popular volumes circulate 40 times per year. Traditional print novels might circulate five times per year.
What is it about graphic novels that is so attractive to kids? It's because of the pictures, but it's bigger than that. Marc Prensky in a research summary defines the current generation of children as Digital Natives. They have never lived in a world that didn't have the Internet, cell phones, video games, iPods, and all the other digital media that exist now. He believes that these children's brains are wired differently because of this upbringing.
"Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to 'serious' work."
[You can access Prensky's essay by clicking here. Scroll down the page for PDF links to his articles on digital learning.]
Graphic novels, then, give Digital Natives a reading experience that matches the way their brains are wired. Unfortunately, most teachers are not Digital Natives. We are Digital Immigrants. We struggle to understand and teach a classroom of children who live in a different world and speak a different cultural language than we do. Fortunately, I can also explain the importance of graphic novels in terms that a Digital Immigrant will understand. Graphic novels are an important tool for engaging reluctant and less-able readers. The pictures provide a powerful support for readers who struggle with text. Struggling students are able to read books that are popular, interesting, and motivating, which is often not true when those struggling readers are working with text-only books. Graphic novels are primarily produced in series, which allows a struggling reader to stay with familiar characters and plot lines. Finally, readers who struggle with text can still use all of the comprehension strategies with which we are familiar.
Applying Comprehension Strategies to Graphic Novels
Let's use Babymouse: Heartbreaker by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm as an example of the ways a reader can use comprehension strategies (Mosaic of Thought, Keene and Zimmerman, 1997) to maneuver through a graphic novel:
Prior Knowledge: This isn't just a book about a mouse that wants a date to the Valentine's Day dance. The book is rich with invitations to the reader to use what he or she knows about Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, the first Babymouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, Grease, and Gone with the Wind.
Determining Importance: If you've never read a Babymouse: Heartbreaker book, go read one now. I'll wait here while you read. I want you to see for yourself if you can determine the importance of the use of the color pink in Babymouse: Heartbreaker. How long did it take you to figure out that the parts of the book that are in pink are Babymouse's dreams or imagination, and the black and white is reality?
Asking Questions: We're pretty sure Babymouse is going to make it to the dance, but will her handsome prince appear to take her? Will not calling him work? How about a makeover? Will she have luck asking someone? Will she be brave enough to go to the dance alone?
Drawing Inferences: As I mentioned before, it is a natural function of the brain to "read" or fill in what happens between the pictures in a graphic novel. But the pictures can also provide clues that help the reader predict what will happen through the use of foreshadowing. You did notice all the bits and pieces of Georgie the giraffe that showed up on pages 14, 21, 24, 25, 31, 32 . . . well, you get the picture. Literally. The observant reader knows WAY before Babymouse how the Valentines Day dance will turn out.
Retelling: With the pictures as a support, retelling is a cinch.
Using a Variety of Fix-Up Strategies: In the same way that there is no penalty for a video gamer to "die" and start the game over again, there is no penalty for the reader of a graphic novel to misread the sequence of the panels or images on a page and then go back as far as necessary to reread and make sense of the story. The best way to experience this firsthand (if you are unfamiliar with Manga), is to pick up a book of Manga written in the "Native Manga" style: written in English, but formatted in the Japanese way of reading right to left. Not only will you feel like you are starting at the back of the book, but you will have to remember to read the panels right to left. And you'll forget. And you'll realize you made a mistake and you'll go back and reread.
Should we be using graphic novels in our classrooms? Absolutely. Aren't we supposed to do whatever it takes to reach every reader?
Will graphic novels replace traditional texts in our classrooms? Absolutely not. Think back to the literary references a reader needs to get the fullest meaning of Babymouse: Heartbreaker, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, the first Babymouse book, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty and The Frog Prince.
Should we buy every graphic novel we can find for our classroom libraries? No. As in every publishing format, there's a lot of junk mixed in with the jewels. You'll have to stretch yourself as a reader and come join me in that new an unexplored room of the library — graphic novels.
Here's a short list of books to get you started:
EASY FOR DIGITAL IMMIGRANTS (most like American comics):
Babymouse: Heartbreaker by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
Baby Sitters Club (originally by Ann M. Martin) graphic novel by Raina Telgemeier
MEDIUM FOR DIGITAL IMMIGRANTS (blend of American comics and Japanese Manga styles):
Time Warp Trio graphic novels by Jon Sciezka
Amelia Rules by Jim Gownley
HARDEST FOR DIGITAL IMMIGRANTS (beginner Manga):
Kat and Mouse by Alex de Campi
Mail Order Ninja by Joshua Elder