Many parents and educators don’t look at comic books and graphic novels as “real” literature. There’s a reluctance to see anything as a real book when it contains fewer words and more pictures. But there are a lot of good reasons for your children and students to read them—and those reasons can hold true for adults, as well!
The best way to think about a graphic novel is that it is a format, not a genre, with a far longer and richer history in countries like Japan (manga) or France (bandes dessinées). “Graphic novels” is simply an imprecise term used to describe a format that uses a combination of words and sequential art to convey a narrative. Graphic novels can be of any genre, on any topic.
If you reject graphic novels because of their association with Spandex superheroes, for example, you might as well reject words-only printed novels, because not all novels will suit your tastes and beliefs. You might as well reject audio books, because not all audio books will suit your tastes and beliefs. You might as well reject ebooks, because… well, you catch my drift.
And if you think that they’re bad for learning to read, then consider that a recent study from the University of Oklahoma shows that graphic novels improve memory and may be more effective in teaching students than a traditional textbook!
Here are just a few of the reasons that graphic novels are great for learning:
They contain higher-level vocabulary words than print-only books for readers in the same age range, and introduce children to new words.
They’re excellent for visual learners. They force readers to actively engage with the text to decipher the interplay between text and images, and to decode the differences in text format signaling it as narration or dialogue.
They offer the opportunity to learn important reading skills, such as inference. “Reading between the lines” of a text is often a tricky task, but readers who have experience with interpreting a story based on texts and images are actively developing this important skill.
Modern literacy means being fluent in a range of media, including the interpretation of images. Graphic novels prepare readers to comprehend a range of multimedia messages that increasingly dominate our culture.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging children to read outside their comfort zone, or urging them to select more challenging materials. Exposing them to a range of different media—text-only books, audiobooks, ebooks, graphic novels, documentary films—is the best way to find their learning “sweet spot,” as well as prepare them for life in a multimedia world.
Full disclosure: I grew up making assumptions about graphic novels. I lived in France, home to graphic-novel heroes Tintin, Astérix, and Iznogoud, and as a small child I read all of their adventures (and, yes, it was definitely reading) with delight. But as I got older, in my early teens, I was drawn back to those same books and same stories because of their cleverness with language. Puns abounded, and speaking English was an unexpected asset. (Iznogoud lives in some unnamed desert and spends his days plotting the downfall of the caliph, whom he aspires to replace. His name is pronounced “He’s no good.” Meaningless to anyone who doesn’t know English!) Finally, in adulthood, I’ve read and re-read Astérix for the now-clear political, historical, philosophical and literary allusions that were always present—but that I’d been too young to recognize. So I’ve always assumed that graphic novels are layered with multiple levels of meaning.
That’s not true of all of them, but even without subtext, graphic novels are effective learning tools—and, let’s face it, they’re fun.
And I keep going back to the importance of using every medium at our disposal to teach kids. Multimedia has always been part of the human experience; it's encoded in our DNA. The first stories people told each other may have been delivered orally, but it wasn’t long before there were visual stories: cave-paintings and then graffiti. Most people were illiterate, but they could listen to words and follow a story told in pictures. These were the ways in which biblical stories were commonly presented in medieval times, and they exert as strong a hold on readers today as they did then.
Pauline Books & Media has a number of terrific graphic novels for pre-teens, and this month we’re adding one to the list: the Life of Jesus. This graphic novel will help readers (both children and adults!) discover the living Jesus with a written story stunningly illustrated by artist José Pérez Montero.
Isn’t it time that you tried a graphic novel, too?
by Jeannette de Beauvoir