The University of Iowa

Graphic Novels for Developing Multiple Literacies


Posted on: March 14, 2016

(Editor's note: The blogger, Dr. Jenna Spiering, is a former junior high librarian and current assistant professor at the University of South Carolina)

As a librarian in a junior high, graphic novels are one of my most reliable recommendations. They appeal to students who are reluctant to pick up something that looks too long or intimidating, and they are the best recommendations for English language learners who are looking for something readable but with more mature storylines. I also like to recommend graphic novels to teachers for use in their classrooms as well as to my avid readers of traditional novels. However, I am routinely asked by teachers and parents what they can recommend to students who will not read anything other than graphic novels. They are worried that their student is not moving forward as a reader when they are only interested in reading “comic books.” As a librarian, the mere fact that a student is interested and engaged in a book is very rewarding for me. However, I also want to encourage and challenge teachers and parents to question some of their preconceived notions about graphic novels and comic books, and to take a look at some of the excellent examples of literature that have been published in graphic format in the last couple of years. These titles have so much potential for developing literacy at home and engaging students in literary analysis in classrooms. 

Graphic novels invite students to engage in multiple literacies, rather than being limited to words on a page. This is something they are increasingly expected to do in the digital environment in which they live. Recently I gave one of my more voracious graphic novel readers two new books and asked for her opinion on them. She brought both books back to me and told me she had loved one of them. “The illustrations were amazing,” she said, but the other one did not impress her as much. She opened it up, showed me a couple of pages, and told me to look at the character’s eyes. “You see how they don’t really ever change?” I did see it, but that thought had not occurred to me in my own reading of the book. Students who read graphic novels all the time are accustomed to noticing these nuances; whereas, my generation and others that grew up reading traditional novels tend to skip around the page from textbox to speech bubble, missing most of the important elements of these dynamic stories. My student was able to recognize the way in which illustrations and text worked together to convey important messages about the characters. In this case, the lack of movement in the character’s eyes made the book less effective for her. This conversation really made me think about how complex these books are and the potential for discussion they present.

Here are a few ways in which graphic novels are uniquely suited for developing important literacy skills and for developing literary analysis skills in the classroom.

  • Students are being asked to comprehend and “read” both words and pictures. They are exercising multiple forms of literacy simultaneously and gaining valuable practice integrating information conveyed in images and texts.
  • Graphic novels can contribute to media literacy. Students can ask questions about the different ways in which characters are represented. Are they stereotypical, or do they challenge stereotypes?
  • Readers have to use their own prior knowledge to make sense of what happens between images on panels. The panels in graphic novels provide a glimpse at a specific moment, and the movement from panel to panel requires the reader to fill in the blanks.
  • The color and style of the illustrations convey mood and tone, and the use of speech bubbles gives characters a voice in new and visual ways.
  • Vocabulary is presented alongside visual representations for students to decipher new words.
  • Dialogue is often read in conjunction with facial expressions and gestures to convey the tone of what characters are saying.
  • Graphic novels are popular and are potentially useful for engaging students who are reluctant to read otherwise.

Students are increasingly expected to comprehend and produce texts in a multimodal world where the information available to them is not purely linguistic. Graphic novels are a powerful tool for encouraging literacy development, and readers of all ages should be encouraged to read them. Recently there have been a number of high-quality and award-winning graphic novels published. Here are a few of my recommendations:

Grades K-5

Bell, C., & Lasky, D. (2014). El Deafo. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Holm, J. L., Holm, M., & Pien, L. (2015). Sunny side up. New York: Graphix.

Jamieson, V. (2015). Roller girl. New York: Penguin.

Grades 7-12

Brown, D. (2015). Drowned city: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.

Lewis, J., Aydin, A., & Powell, N. (2013). March. Marietta, GA: Top Shelf.

Long, M., Demonakos, J., & Powell, N. (2012). The Silence of Our Friends. London: Roaring Brook Press.

Stevenson, N. (2015). Nimona. New York: HarperTeen.

Tamaki, M., & Tamaki, J. (2014). This one summer. New York: First Second.

Thrash, M. (2015). Honor girl. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.