Graphic Novels are Books, Too! by Stacey DeCotis
Oh if I could count the times I’ve heard adults say that graphic novels are “too easy” or “not challenging enough” or “they don’t count as books”…
My 5th grade students this year are devouring graphic novels! Until I started reading them last year, I never understood why (I mean, yeah I got that there are colorful and interesting pictures, but what about the text?)
I fell in love with graphic novels! I started off with Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, Sisters, and Drama. Then I moved on to Ghost, then, El Deafo by Cece Bell.
Then the fantasy Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi came out. I. Was. In. Love. Just yesterday I had a student ask if I could place the rest of the series on hold at the library (I had purchased 2 and 3 over winter break). I immediately went on my library network website and put books 4-8 on hold. That made this student’s day! (He’s already signed them out on my classroom library sign out sheet!)
Now, as a teacher do I allow my students to read graphic novels and ONLY graphic novels? No. Yes. Maybe. Actually, I’m not sure. I tend to entice my readers with books on topics that interest them, some starting with a graphic novel. I slowly add in more text until they are reading novels at their independent level. One student at the beginning of this year refused to read anything but my Calvin and Hobbes comic book. When we started our Global Issues unit before winter break, I gave her The Breadwinner graphic novel adapted by Nora Twomey. She read it in one sitting and loved it. We conferenced about the historical context, read the author’s note together, looked up Afghanistan on a map, then I moved her on to the novel The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. I have ideas on choices to give her next so she can continue feeling the success as a middle school reader. I am especially thankful for graphic novels in moments like these. This was a student who emphatically told me in September that she “hates reading”. I won’t lie, that broke my heart a little bit. But I’m so happy she was honest with me, and this drove me to help her see herself as a reader. Slowly, and with graphic novels, she will get there.
If you’re still not sold on graphic novels as “real” books, I encourage you to read my favorite Annual Reminder that Graphic Novels are “Real Reading” by bookriot.com. There are 5 powerful reasons that graphic novels have literary merit for kids. One of them being that students can acquire rich and challenging vocabulary from graphic novels. The other important reason – students must learn and practice with “reading between the lines” and making inferences with text and visuals. Now I do recognize that some of my stronger readers may not enjoy graphic novels, and that is ok. One reported to me that she likes to create her own pictures in her mind and she doesn’t like graphic novels. I respect that. But as a teacher, I cannot and should not dismiss this genre as not being as important as other types of books and formats.
Another one of my favorite things about graphic novels is the accessibility of them today. They are no longer in the back of my own classroom library or on the bottom shelf. They are up front and center. I even have a separate bin for books that I have taken out of my own library. Separate, but next to the ones I own. You can walk into any bookstore or library and easily find graphic novels amongst other best selling and high interest novels. And so many center around important themes for middle grade readers.
I recently read Sunny Side Up by Jennifer and Matthew Holm. When I brought it in and book-talked it, the message from the book was that it is OK to talk about what struggles and difficulties a family member may be going through. My students take a 10 week DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program and this idea of witnessing a loved one make bad choices connected with the lessons they’ve been exposed to with our DARE Officer. I can’t keep the book on the shelf. I wonder if this serious topic wasn’t presented in this format, would there be such an interest? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that it will quickly become a favorite in my classroom and many, many kids will connect to it. It is also based on the sister-brother authors’ lives. A graphic novel with real life connections. How powerful.
My hope is to continue to expose my 5th graders to good literature – and graphic novels count too! Next up for my own graphic novel reading: Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani, Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke, Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson, Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale.
Stacey DeCotis is a 5th grade ELA teacher at the Hanover Middle School in Hanover, Massachusetts. She has taught 4th and 5th graders for almost 15 years in Hanover. Stacey is an avid reader and passionate about putting the right books into her students hands and promoting the love of reading with all those in her life. When she is not teaching, she is spending time with her family including her 8 year olds twins and her energetic 3 year old who often curl up next to her as she’s reading (even while cooking). You can connect with Stacey on Instagram and Twitter @readinginthemiddlegrades and her new website www.readinginthemiddlegrades.com.