Graphic novels get a bad rap sometimes. Some people confuse them with comic books, which tend to be shorter, more action-oriented, and with fewer words (though, don’t get me wrong–I quite like reading comics as well and there are some excellent ones out there with vivid artwork, engaging plotlines, and excellent characterization). Unlike comics, graphic novels aren’t as often serialized or read as periodicals.
So why bring graphic novels into the ELL classroom?
Graphic novels provide multiple avenues for understanding the story.
The use of artwork in graphic novels–indeed, the very nature of the two-type storytelling that occurs–can make the books more accessible to ELL students. The words and the pictures reinforce each other. This isn’t so different from the ELL standby of using flashcards with vocabulary words and pictures, but here it’s applied to the whole piece of literature as well.
Graphic novels can appeal to reluctant readers.
It’s no secret that teachers sometimes have to contend with the idea that “books aren’t cool.” I actually encountered less of that attitude working with ELL students than I did in my mainstream class. The English Learners were hungry to read. But there were always a few students who, whether due to the aforementioned “uncool” views or because of lack of confidence in their abilities, would avoid reading. Graphic novels are more visually striking, more accessible, and definitely “cooler” than traditional novels. Whether you want to point out that reading graphic novels is still reading is up to you.
Graphic novels can help diversify the existing literature canon.
ELL classrooms do a much better job of this on average than mainstream classes, but it’s still often the case that the canon of recommended books features a lot of white male authors. But graphic novels are often a diverse bunch. For a round-up of diverse book lists, visit the Multicultural Children’s Book Day page on the subject here. I’m also including my review of one of my absolute favorite graphic novels below–Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese.
The stories are just as good.
This is where I’ve gotten some pushback in the past from fellow teachers, administrators, and even parents. “Why are you letting them read comics? I want them to read great books, not look at pictures! The SAT isn’t in graphic novel form, etc, etc, etc.” And yes, there are some graphic novels that are more entertainment-focused and that I wouldn’t recommend as particularly great works of literature. But you know what? That’s true for a lot of traditional books, including some of the so-called “Great Books” that people always recommend. It’ll take some time for you to read through the graphic novel reviews to find a few that fit your needs, but I promise, they exist. Increasingly, publishers and authors are realizing that the graphic novel format can be useful for transforming traditional novels into accessible forms as well. There are graphic novel treatments of Shakespeare, of Greek myths, and of many of the other so-termed classics. But I encourage you to think outside of these “translations” and give original graphic novels a try as well. Some of them aren’t just great graphic novels; they’re great novels, period. One of my favorites is reviewed below.
American Born Chinese
Yang, Gene Luen
Ages 13 and up
2006 Printz Award 2007, National Book Award Finalist 2006
Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is a graphic novel that masterfully crafts three individual plotlines into a singular story, delighting teenagers and adults alike with wit and heart. Yang’s novel follows three protagonists—Jin, Danny, and the Monkey King—who each have to discover their own identity amidst stereotypes, bullying, and self-doubt. To reveal exactly how the plotlines connect would ruin the power of the story, but suffice it to say, the form of the novel is as powerful as its message.The artwork, which will engage reluctant readers or fans of the graphic novel genre already, adds to the depth of each plot with detailed colored panels that inform as much as the text. But it is the story itself that shines here. Yang has written a tale that,while perhaps particularly appealing to Asian-American readers, offers complex themes accessible to every reader. There are traditional high school concerns of fitting in, first dates, and the sometimes dreaded family visits paired with the folklore fable of the Monkey King and his attempts to reach higher than himself. Humorous and heartbreaking situations are treated with equal gravity and each protagonist is given complex character development. Most compelling, each character must discover how to find their identity when faced with challenges and pressure, either external or internal. Chinese-American stereotypes and bullying—both deliberate and out of ignorance—make the novel emotionally difficult to read at times. And yet, the challenge is rewarded, as the final connection between Jin, Danny, and the Monkey King offers an inspiring message of acceptance and celebration of diversity. While graphic novels covered many genres, American Born Chinese stands as an exemplar of the format, and of literature in general.