It’s no surprise that kids (of all ages) love graphic novels, but it may surprise some parents to know that reading graphic novels takes a special kind of literacy: one that should be encouraged, according to Dr. Meghan Sweeney, an Associate Professor of English at UNCW. Dr. Sweeney was kind enough to let me interview her for this post about the benefits of reading graphic novels for children and teens. Read on to see what she has to say:
Q: Do graphic novels offer the same benefits to literacy as regular fiction for children? How do these two genres work together?
A: I think it's a good idea for children to read anything and everything: graphic novels, picture books (even bigger kids!), cookbooks, magazines, comic strips, instruction manuals. Reading should be a joyful activity and, as adults, we can model that for kids. Certainly kids are going to have their own preferences. But if they see us enjoying all kinds of texts, they will, too. The solution is never, I always maintain, to tell a child not to read a particular kind of text. Just model reading widely and deeply and offer lots of low-stakes opportunities.
Being able to understand the codes of comics is immensely valuable. And being able to "read" pictures is a kind of literacy: toggling back and forth between pictures and words, making conceptual leaps between the frames of the panels (what <isn't> included is sometimes just as important as what is). Sometimes, I find that when people say that they don't like graphic novels it is because the form itself doesn't feel natural. But just as with reading typical novels, it's something we have to learn.
Q: How is the term “graphic novel” defined by professionals? Is there a target age group for this type of reading material?
A: As far as graphic narratives specifically* they vary so widely that they can hardly be classified as one thing. At their best, though, they are beautifully complex. We tend to think "having pictures"= "easy"--and that couldn't be further from the truth!
*On graphic narrative: I use this term because some graphic narratives aren't novels at all. They might be memoirs or biographies, for example. And I also sometimes use the term comics, which is the term that many working in the field prefer. As critic Charles Hatfield so aptly puts it, "The 'graphic novel' label is not so much a single mindset as a coalition of interests that happen to agree on one thing—that comics deserve more respect" (Keywords for Children's Literature, page 101).
There are graphic narratives available for all ages! Here are some that I think are particularly good:
El Deafo by Cece Bell,
Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke,
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson,
Anne Frank: the Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography by Jacobson and Colon,
Storm in the Barn by Matt Phelan (set in the Dust Bowl) .
Raina Telgemeier is also great and hugely popular with younger audiences. She has authored Smile and Drama, but has also redone The Babysitters Club books (and, I'd argue, made them better.)
For older youth and adult audiences, there are some incredible texts out there, including Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (about the author's Iranian childhood) and Stitches by David Small (a harrowing, moving memoir about the author's childhood),
The ALA always has great suggestions: http://www.ala.org/alsc/graphicnovels2016
Q: Is there a place for graphic novels in the classroom?
A: I’d encourage teachers to use graphic narratives in their classrooms. They might ask their students to think about how these texts are created—and to create comics themselves. They can learn the "vocabulary" of comics—panels, splash pages, word balloons etc. and think about how to deploy them. (Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud can really help on that front; Adventures in Cartooning activity book by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost is a great book for kids themselves who are learning to make comics.)
I’d like to thank Dr. Sweeney again for her insights. This interview took place several months ago, before March: Book Three swept the ALA Youth Media Awards. So watch for my next post: Graphic Novels: Part II, which will be dedicated to John Lewis’ March Trilogy. Happy Reading!