Reading & Literacy

Going ‘Graphic': Educators Tiptoe Into Realm of Comics

By Michelle Galley — February 18, 2004 6 min read
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Comic books have come of age. No longer filled solely with simple drawings and fluffy stories about goofy teenagers or violent superheroes—though those publications still exist—these are “graphic novels” that some educators say would benefit classroom curricula.

These artistically illustrated books that take on mature themes appropriate for adolescents and young adults engage students in reading, help English- language learners put colloquial phrases into context, and introduce complex ideas in a format that is easy to understand, proponents say.

Graphic novels look like trade paperbacks. Some are made up of several comic books within a series, while others are complete stories in themselves.

School librarians are catching on to the phenomenon, and comic book publishers have begun marketing to educators. Even as the novels fly off library and bookstore shelves, though, teachers appear to be reluctant to use them in lessons, or even allow the books in their classrooms.

“Teachers don’t really see the value of graphic novels,” said Philip Crawford, the library director at the 1,600-student Essex High School in Essex Junction, Vt. “They don’t see graphic novels on the same level that they might a young-adult novel.”

Mr. Crawford said he has seen how successful the novels can be in engaging middle and high schoolers. (Very few are geared toward elementary pupils.)

Manga Explosion

It was in his previous position as the curriculum adviser for school libraries in San Francisco that Mr. Crawford saw firsthand the enormous popularity graphic novels had with teenagers and preteens.

Graphic novels “exploded about five years ago in public libraries in the teen sections,” he said. Especially popular now is manga, or Japanese comic books. Asian popular culture “is on the pulse of youth culture,” Mr. Crawford said.

Still, this new genre has a reputation for being the reading equivalent of junk food.

Before teachers use graphic novels in their classes, “they have to overcome the old, ‘This is just a comic book’ mentality,” said Gretchen E. Schwartz, an education professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.

Many graphic novels “have substance in terms of the story, theme, information, and make you think,” said Ms. Schwartz, who has researched their educational benefits.

In addition, she said, “the artists manage to express emotions that are visceral as you read it.”

‘They Really Like It’

Carrie Edwards, a 7th grade literature teacher at Clyde Boyd Middle School in Sand Springs, Okla., is an exception to the skepticism in the teaching profession. She taught an elective course to 8th graders last year that incorporated many manga books.

“They really like it,” she said, adding that even her students who weren’t interested in reading readily picked up the books.

In fact, Ms. Edwards said, she had such a positive response to her course that she now tries to use graphic novels in her other classes. She also has persuaded a couple of other teachers to use the famous series called Maus by Art Spiegelman.

The books, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, describe how the author’s father survived the Holocaust.

Many teachers are hesitant at first to consider graphic novels, Ms. Edwards said. However, “once they finally pick them up and read them, they realize the value.”

Most graphic novels fit easily into English/language arts lessons and social studies units, according to Ms. Schwartz.

Some publishers have produced illustrated versions of such classics as The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and have turned Shakespeare plays into graphic novels.

The books, though, are not limited to the humanities.

“Comics is a content-driven medium,” said James Strum, the author of The Golem’s Mighty Swing, a fictional graphic novel about a Jewish baseball team in the 1920s. “The content could be anything.”

Jay Hosler, a biology professor at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., writes graphic novels that center on scientific themes.

His latest, Clan Apis, depicts the life cycle of bees by weaving humor and scientific concepts into a story about the development of a honey bee named Nyuki.

By engaging students in the thread of the story, Mr. Hosler said, they more easily learn the complex information.

“I set up a story that is enjoyable, but I use the science or elements of natural history as integral components of the story,” he said. “If you remember the story, you remember the science.”

One of the biggest benefits of graphic novels is their ability to explain complicated ideas, Mr. Hosler argued.

For example, after reading a magazine article about how samurai swords were crafted, Mr. Hosler said he was still confused about the process. Then he picked up an issue of a comic series about a rabbit samurai warrior named Usagi Yojimbo that included a detailed sequence of the process. “It suddenly made sense to me,” he said.

Graphic novels could be a motivating factor for students who are otherwise reluctant to pick up books, according to Sister St. John Delaney, an associate professor of education at Pace University in New York City and the director of the school’s Center for Literacy.

When she was teaching elementary pupils, she said, parents would often complain that their children only liked to read comic books. “I would say to them that at least he is reading,” said Sister Delaney, who describes herself as a lover of good literature.

Comics, in her view, are merely a good introduction to books, not an end. “Start out with what is appealing to them and what is appropriate for them,” she said. “But then let them know that there is a library.”

Marketing to Schools

Some comic book publishers have caught on to the potential educational benefits of their products and have started to market publications to educators. CrossGen Education, a branch of the Oldsmar, Fla.- based CrossGen Entertainment, has launched a series called Bridges that includes lesson plans for teachers.

And Dark Horse Comics, based in Portland Ore., has published a workbook, Word Squad, that integrates comics and vocabulary lessons. The company has also published lessons teachers can use to help students create their own comics.

In schools, it is the librarians who are venturing into the world of graphic novels, but they are generally slower to acquire them than public librarians are, according to Mr. Crawford of Essex High School. That’s because school librarians often operate under more restrictive policies, he said.

Not all graphic novels, for instance, are suitable for readers younger than 18: Some contain explicit violence, nudity, and drug use. “They are the equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino film,” Mr. Crawford said.

He cited one such book that reinterprets the Robert Louis Stevenson story about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. At first glance, it looks as though it would be an engrossing read for students. But upon closer inspection, Mr. Crawford said he noticed that it included scenes—such as a trip to a brothel—that were not in the original text and would not be at all suitable for students in his school.

As a result of the wide range of graphic novels available, librarians and teachers need to be careful about which books they choose, said Mr. Crawford, who wrote Graphic Novels 101: Selecting and Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy: A Resource Guide for School Librarians and Educators.

More guidance is becoming available for educators, said Mr. Crawford. “We are starting,” he said, “to categorize what is art and what is trash.”

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