Pay it Forward: Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom by Mary Catherine Miller

This week, I taught Shaun Tan’s The Arrival to my undergraduate students.  I’m currently working on an article with a few colleagues in which we’re analyzing ways to teach social justice by incorporating graphic novels into our classrooms.  My colleagues have taught The Arrival in K-12 classrooms and I’ve had the unique experience of teaching the graphic novel to college undergraduates, many of whom plan to be educators. For my first “pay it forward” post, I wanted to provide practical applications for graphic novels for those of you who are teachers.

To introduce The Arrival, I’ll give you Shaun Tan’s own description of his work (taken from his website):


The Arrival is a migrant story told as a series of wordless images that might seem to come from a long forgotten time. A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.


I’m fascinated by the wordless nature of the novel.  I think there’s something magical about the art in this book—it transcends age and experience.  We’ve had third-graders write letters to strangers, fifth-graders make up meanings to the “language” in the pages, and high schools analyze how Tan portrays the immigration experience.  My college students talked about the “displacement” of the reader and how that mirrored the experience of the protagonist of the story.  We discussed teaching methods and book pairings and ways to promote social justice in our classrooms.

Graphic novels are difficult to teach.  Some teachers will have to jump through hoops just to include them in their classroom—critics argue that the novels are superhero comics and have no merit.  A quick Google search will give you thousands of lesson plans and arguments in favor of multimodal literature.   Even Dave Pilkey provides lesson ideas for his Captain Underpants series!

Children latch onto the images in The Arrival.  They understand feeling unwanted or scared of a new place.  They draw pictures or write letters or make up their own language and signs in imaginary cities, responding and interacting with Tan’s work.   When I work with adults, I have my students read the book in pairs or groups—they work together to construct meaning and engage with the text.  I watch these groups create a communal story and share emotions (laughing, arguing, sharing) and I see my class become a stronger community.   My immigrant students share their personal stories and my students teach each other.


In my children’s literature course, I pair The Arrival with The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  Hugo lets my students enter into the world of graphic novels.  The chapters of prose are comforting for my students who have no experience reading graphic novels.  Other students, who confess to hating Maus or Skim, find The Invention of Hugo Cabret to be a more palatable entrance to the genre.   I give them Hugo to get them on board, then I throw them The Arrival to get them engaging with the text.  I make sure to tell them not to read The Arrival before they get to class—reading it together is part of the process!


Some of my students don’t enjoy the process of reading The Arrival, but others find meaning in the images and connect with the emotions Tan folds into his drawings.  Do you incorporate graphic novels in your classroom?  Are you a fan of The Arrival?



Mary Catherine Miller is working on her doctorate in children’s and young adult literature.  She posts book reviews and musings over at