In Defense of Graphic Novels and Those Who Read Them by Liesl Shurtliff
It happened at a school visit.
I was between presentations, sitting in the library. A few students were quietly searching for books. A boy, maybe nine or ten-years-old, came into my view, scanning the shelves. He seemed a bit lost and overwhelmed. One of my greatest joys is helping children find books they will love, so I asked him what he’d read lately that he enjoyed. He named some book I can’t recall, but it inspired me to recommend the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi.
“My own kids love that series,” I told him.
Suddenly a teacher appeared from between bookshelves and shot me a withering glare. “He needs to read a real book.”
The boy’s shoulders slumped. The teacher steered him away from me like I had a highly contagious disease.
“I like comics,” he said. “But I know that’s not real reading.”
Wiley raised his eyebrows. “Who told you that?”
My teacher,” said Corey. “She said there are too many pictures and it’s not enough of a challenge for my brain.”
“Well with all due respect to your teacher, who I am sure is a fine educator, I disagree,” said Wiley. “Pictures are no less powerful than words, and words no more powerful than pictures. They each tell us a story. And what happens when you put the two together? A symphony of the mind, like lobster and butter. People who read pictures and words at the same time are smart people in my book, yes, sir.”
This passage has been shared and passed around online multiple times, usually with praise but sometimes with censure. I read a review once that was otherwise glowing, but the one “disappointing moment was when a child is praised for reading comics.”
The animosity some adults have toward graphic novels is nothing new to me, and yet it continues to baffle me. I am convinced these adults all have good intentions. Just like me, they want what’s best for their children and students. They want them to be readers. But I’m equally convinced the way they’re going about it is wrong and their methods will inevitably backfire. I believe their negativity toward graphic novels is result of the complete misunderstanding of graphic novels themselves as well as a misunderstanding of the fragile ego of a child, and the ways in which they develop a relationship with books and reading. I’ll address the graphic novel first, the child ego second.
I have a theory that one reason adults look down their nose at graphic novels is because they have the word “novel” attached to them, as though we’re somehow trying to compare it to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. We have to look at graphic novels and comics differently. Comparing a graphic novel to a straight novel is like trying to compare the opera to the ballet or a sculpture to a painting. Would you say the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci has less artistic merit than Michelangelo’s David simply because it is only two-dimensional? Is the ballet less worthy than the opera because there are no words? Most people, while they may prefer the David to the Mona Lisa or the opera over the ballet or vice versa, would never make this comparative mistake, because most people understand they are completely different mediums. Likewise, graphic novels and comics cannot be so closely compared to straight literature. They might contain similar ideas, information, and stories; they might both be in book form, but they are, for all intents and purposes, different mediums. Graphic novels and comics convey the information in their own unique fashion, combining visual text with written language. Indeed, comics are seen by many as a “visual language.” (Comics, Linguistics, and Visual Language: The past and future of a field, Neil Cohn)
There’s some excellent research being conducted in the field of graphic novels and young learners. What researches are finding is that graphic novels can engage and challenge any reader in both visually and linguistically complex ways. The combination of text and illustration require an entirely different level of focus and concentration. In some ways graphic novels are more challenging than straight novels. In fact, if you haven’t read a graphic novel recently (or ever), please give it a try. Maybe start with Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, a National Book Award Finalist among many other prestigious literary awards and accolades. I have a hunch that some adults who poo-poo these books actually find graphic novels more challenging than they would assume, and that subconsciously factors into their reasoning for not liking them. I will admit, I struggled with graphic novels when I first started reading them. It was hard for me to focus and comprehend what was happening in the story. It was almost like I was trying to decode a new language. I’ve heard many other adults admit to the same.
But my defense of the graphic novel goes deeper than their literary or educational merit. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if graphic novels are more, less, or equally challenging than a straight novel. What matters most is the child, their identity, and their relationship with books and reading. Shaming any child for their reading choices, no matter what it is, is a death sentence to the child’s budding and delicate passion for reading. It will shut them down, and it will be ten times harder to lure them back. I speak from personal experience. I’m sure that’s not anyone’s intent when poo-pooing graphic novels, but that will nevertheless be the result. Encourage them to try a wide variety, sure. Use the famed improv “Yes and…” philosophy. “Yes! Guts by Raina Telgemeier is a great choice, and you should also try The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty. I loved them both!”
Give them graphic novels and novels. Give them poetry and short stories and picture books and magazines. Give them fiction, non-fiction, contemporary, historical, fantasy, and sci-fi. We want kids to read widely, to grow and expand their horizons, and we adults should be the best examples of these reading practices. But for the love of all that is holy, please don’t tell them the books they go to again and again aren’t worthy. That’s basically saying THEY are not worthy, that they are not a real reader. And if you pass on that message, it will surely become the truth. I certainly want my children to be strong readers and have an expansive vocabulary, but always my first priority is to nurture their reading identity and a positive relationship with books. This is the most important thing. If I can accomplish that the rest will follow.
It’s time to embrace graphic novels. It’s time to lift the stigma, stop the lies. It’s time to show our kids we can be just as open-minded as they are. It’s time we adults read graphic novels, too, not just for the kids, but for ourselves. I promise it won’t kill your brain cells or lower your vocabulary. It might even enhance it.
Liesl Shurtliff is the New York Times bestselling author of the (Fairly) True Tales series and the Time Castaways trilogy. Book 2 is available October 15th! Her books have been named to over two dozen state award lists and have won many awards including a Children’s Book Award from the International Literacy Association. Liesl lives in Chicago with her husband and four children. You can find her online at Lieslshurtliff.com and on Twitter @lieslshurtliff.