The Great Graphic Novel Experiment by Sarah FitzHenry

I hear it often: “Kids won’t read real books anymore.” Two or three times a week, a parent— such a powerful voice in the reading life of a child— will come to my school library and roll their eyes while they ask me how to get their child to “put down the comics.” Often, the reader is standing nearby, staring at their shoes. For a kid who loves reading graphic novels, who considers them to be very real, exciting, and challenging pieces of literature, can you imagine how that feels?

A coworker and I were chatting one day about those painful moments when kids are called out for reading the “wrong” books. Our own experience with graphic novels had showed us that fun and worthwhile don’t have to be mutually exclusive; however, just like stories in poetry or prose, students don’t innately understand how to read graphic novels correctly. Sometimes educators and parents, who want the best for the children that they love, can miss out on that. If you’ve ever seen a fourth grader whipping through a Raina Telgemeier book, it might be your first instinct to blame the book. We thought it was time to change that mindset.

So we set a goal: we would stop guiding students away from graphic novels to something more “serious.” Instead we would help readers to see what graphic novels really are: worthwhile, serious, and profound pieces of literature— if you know how to read them effectively. If we dedicated valuable class time to them and showed students how to find and appreciate the elements of literature in graphic novel format, would students slow down and start reading and discussing graphic novels like traditional novels?

Our sixth grade classes studied graphic novels for six class periods, approximately 50 minutes each. Before meeting with students we checked out 60+ graphic novels from the public library, researched,  and learned as much as we could about the format. On our first day, we asked our classes what they wanted to learn about graphic novels. Surrounded by post-it notes and pens, we gave them the full 50 minutes to read and, as they read, add their questions to a Burning Questions display that would help guide our conversations. Their deep and thoughtful questions were a sign that we had touched on something important: Is a person that creates a graphic novel an author, an artist, or both? How do graphic novel artists design page format, layout, and characters? Are emotions and plot developments easier to read in words, or see in drawings? Does reading graphic novels improve your writing and vocabulary? Does fewer words real mean easier to read?

Over the next few weeks, we tackled the elements of literature in a new and exciting way by experiencing them through the panels of our favorite graphic novels. To talk about setting, we compared frames from different artists that expressed setting in different ways, sharing what we could learn about the characters and the story from just one snippet. To cover characterization, a local caricature artist volunteered her time to come to class and sketch us based on character descriptions provided by our classes. Comparisons like these also helped us to talk about line style (Round? Angular? Is that an accident? What does it mean?), size and prominence of frames (Why is there only one imagine taking up this whole page, while this page has six different frames on it?), and color (Why did this artist choose black and white? Would this story feel different if it were in color?). These conversations were academically similar to those surrounding a traditional novel, but they felt completely different.

In each meeting, students had time to read and explore the day’s topic in their books, and we met back at the end of class to share examples and discuss what they found. This put students in the driver’s seat and gave them even more ownership of the unit as we progressed. Our conversations were rich and interesting. Students that were normally slumped in the back row were suddenly animated. Something was happening.

So we kept going. We kicked it up a notch and offered a graphic novel book club, exclusively for sixth grade students. We read graphic novels along with our classes, laughing and gasping and turning pages with as much eagerness as they did, and kept the conversations going outside of class time. Our students noticed. Our graphic novel unit deepened our connections and made students feel valued and seen in their classroom and library. They stopped trying to hide their graphic novels and instead started talking to us more openly about the books that they loved, the things that they questioned, and the lessons they learned. They started slowing down and taking in the setting, the facial expressions, the artistic style – and their comprehension of the text deepened. When we started treating graphic novels like a legitimate form of literature that was worth our time, they did, too.

Here’s the crux of the Great Graphic Novel Experiment: If you don’t like the way your students are flipping through their graphic novels or using them to avoid longer texts, you have the power to do something about it. Get on board and show them that the books that they love matter. Ask them for their favorite graphic novel titles, read them in plain view, and talk to your students about them. If you have the flexibility, use class time to teach your students how to read graphic novels carefully and deeply, and help them to get the most out of these beautiful pieces of artwork. If you’re not a graphic novel expert, use some of the many resources online or contact an artist to get a professional point of view. Whatever you do, and however you do it, seize this unique opportunity. Instead of asking your students to put away their graphic novels in exchange for a “real” book, teach them how to treat graphic novels like the “real” books that they are and to get the same joy, wisdom, and passion from their pages.


Sarah FitzHenry is weird, even for a librarian. She’s passionate about creating school libraries that make every child feel welcome, confident, and safe. The K-8 Librarian at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, VA, Sarah is the voice behind library blog Fitz Between the Shelves. She writes and speaks internationally about school libraries, technology, and the joy of being a nerd. Sarah is a proud member of Books on Bikes, robotics coach, aerial yoga instructor, and lifelong learner. Follow her adventures on Instagram @fitzbetweentheshelves and Twitter @fitzbtwenshelves.