Girls and Graphic Novels by Emily Meixner

My eight-year-old niece loves graphic novels.  She ingests them voraciously, and when I saw her during the winter holidays, ninety percent of that time she was reading.  Truth be told, I didn’t actually see her all that much – I just saw her fingers and the top of her head.  That’s her in the photo below reading through dinner at a local restaurant.

niece smileWatching her that particular night as she tuned out everyone else at the table, I was reminded of myself at that age, hunkered down, hidden behind the newspaper and magazine rack at my dad’s pharmacy with a stack of Richie Rich and Archie comics in my lap.  Watching my niece tear through Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, I remembered how I would sit legs-crossed, shoulders hunched forward, my lower back pressed against that green wooden rack as I poured over each new volume, imaging what it might be like to be “the world’s richest kid” or, perhaps even more implausibly, in high school.  There, like my niece at dinner, I would read for hours oblivious to the world and happily out of my parents’ way.

Fast-forward to the present and the course I teach on literature for younger readers.  When I ask my college students (mostly future teachers, mostly young women) how many of them were/are comic book and/or graphic novel readers, a few will raise their hands enthusiastically.  The majority, however, will staunchly affirm that they were/are not.  Some of these students will have read a graphic novel at some point in their lives, but almost always because it was assigned, not because they chose to read it for pleasure.  Similarly, very few of them read comics.  As a result, they are pre-disposed to think of both as “boys stuff”: science fiction, high fantasy, superheroes.

In some ways, I can’t blame them.  These were my assumptions for many years, too, even though I’d been an avid comic book reader as a child.  Once I began to grow out of Richie Rich and Archie, I simply didn’t know where to go next.  I’d never heard of graphic novels, so I didn’t seek them out.  Not once in my entire K-12 experience can I recall a parent or teacher or friend placing a graphic novel in my hands and saying to me, “Here, Emily, you should read this.

When I finally did meet my first graphic novel, I was 29, in graduate school, and perusing the shelves of a local feminist bookstore. There, stacked innocuously on a corner shelf, was a copy of Judd Winick’s memoir, Pedro & Me.   I distinctly remember seeing the book and pausing, curious, cup of hot coffee in my hand. I was vaguely familiar with the season of The Real World during which Winick and Pedro Zamora were members of the cast, so that immediate connection drew me in.  But what really got me once I started flipping through the pages was the artwork – the gorgeous black and white images.  I set down my cup of coffee and stood there riveted for nearly an hour as I read the book from cover to cover.  I cry regularly when I read, but this was the first time I wept openly in a bookstore.  I was still sniffling when I bought it.  The cashier calmly took in my swollen eyes and blotchy face and nodded sympathetically as she bagged the book and handed it back to me.

My students have similarly powerful reactions when I assign Pedro & Me for class.  They’re surprised by its emotional impact; they’re moved by the story, but they’re also moved by the art, and they quickly understand how literary the book is because of this essential interrelationship.   What I love most about this text, however, is that it challenges my students’ assumptions about not only what graphic novels can do (tell rich, deeply affecting stories), but also who graphic novels are for.  Graphic novels are for everyone, girls included.

Thankfully my niece has parents who support her interest in graphic novels and actively help her seek out new titles.  I worry that many parents and teachers still don’t – that they continue to believe that graphic novels are easy reading, lack substance, and only appeal to boys.  None of these things are true.

When I asked my niece what graphic novel I should read next, she ran into her room and quickly came back with Dana Simpson’s Phoebe and Her Unicorn: A Heavenly Nostrils Chronicle, her absolute favorite.  “I think you’ll really like it,” she told me, adding, “you remind me of the mom.”  I’m pretty sure she said this because both the mom and I wear glasses, but she was right.  I loved it.  It’s snort-out-loud hilarious. I can’t wait for the sequel, Unicorn on a Roll, which makes its debut this May.

Between the two of us, we’d also recommend

  • Giants Beware! (The Chronicles of Claudette) by Jorge Aguirre
  • El Deafo by Cece Bell
  • Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
  • Page by Paige by Laura Lee Gulledge
  • Zita the Spacegirl (Series) by Ben Hatke
  • Amulet (Series) by Kazu Kibuishi
  • Cleopatra in Space (Series) by Mike Maihack
  • D. New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld
  • Primates by Jim Ottaviani & Maris Wicks
  • Tomboy by Liz Prince
  • Persepolis and Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi
  • Maus I & II by Art Spiegelman
  • Drama, Sisters and Smile by Raina Telgemeier
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson
  • American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang
  • Foiled and Curses! Foiled Again by Jane Yolen

There are wonderful graphic novels available for students of all ages, but we (teachers, teacher educators, parents) need to know what they are so that when our kids come to us looking for something good to read, we can say to them – to our girls as well as to our boys: “Here, you should read this.


Emily Meixner is an Associate Professor of English at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ, where she teaches courses on secondary ELA pedagogy and young adult literature.  She can’t wait to check out Victoria Jamieson’s graphic novel Roller Girl (which her niece has already read) and Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer.  You can follow her and hear more about what’s she’s reading and teaching on Twitter @EsMteach.