An Exploration into the Rise of Young Adult Graphic Novels

The rise of graphic novels in the literary world has been a long and rocky road from Art Spiegelmen’s Maus becoming the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize to the New York Times removing graphic novels from their best seller’s category to Congressman John Lewis’ March, Book 3 taking home several prestigious literary awards including the National Book Award between 2016-2017. With graphic novels being at the forefront of critical acclaim, the veil of previously constructed stereotypes cloud conversations as many scholars still struggle with the idea of comics having academic literary value.

Despite these stereotypes, graphic novels have consistently proved their literary worth especially in the young adult genre. The enthusiasm for young adult fiction and non-fiction graphic novels can be seen not only through the shift in academic award history, but also in the reported increase in sales from $75 million in 2001 to $120 million in 2003. Fifteen years after this initial spark, the former taboo text has been embraced by educators and librarians through several avenues including the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) providing a year “Great Graphic Novels” list to the format being included in awards such as the National Book Award and various awards from the American Library Association (ALA).

The critical acclaim of graphic novels in education may seem like a recent phenomenon, however, the rise of the format’s popularity began in 1978 when cartoonist Will Eisner created A Contract with God. This graphic ensemble collects four stand-alone stories: “A Contract with God” in which a religious man gives up his faith after the death of his young adopted daughter; “The Street Singer” where a washed up diva tries to seduce a poor, young street singer who in turn tries to take advantage of her former stardom; a racist bully is led to suicide after false accusations of pedophilia plague him in “The Super;” and the collection is wrapped up with the story of several tenants of 55 Dropsie Avenue vacationing in the country with “Cookalein.” 

This collection of short stories has been documented to be one of the first comic collections to use the term “graphic novel” to distinguish itself from the common comic periodicals. While the term “graphic novel” was coined in 1964, A Contract with God set the foundation for comics collected in a novel form, beginning their rise as a respected and valued narrative format. This road to acceptance was paved further in 1992 when Art Spiegelmen won the Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel Maus, a frame narrative of Spiegelman interviewing his father about being a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. Despite the proven merit of the graphic novel format, many educators and librarians are reluctant to treat these texts with the same value as the classic novel, believing the instances of literary acclaim do not represent the format as a whole.

For readers unfamiliar with the comics industry, it is easy to write them off as simple works of fiction revolving around superheroes considering the over-saturation of the trope in everyday media. However, comics and graphic novels have overwhelmingly expanded into a wide variety of content. Oni Press is a Portland-based comic publishing house most well-known for publishing Scott Pilgram and the Adult Swim comedy Rick and Morty. Along with these bestsellers, Oni Press is also known for providing high quality middle grade and young adult graphic novels appropriate for the classroom. Princess Princess Ever After by New Zealand cartoonist Katie O’Neill immediately gained popularity among educators and librarians after its release in fall of 2016. This all-ages LGBTQ friendly tale begins as any other damsel in distress story with Princess Sadie being locked in a tower.

Hearing cries for help, the adventuring Princess Amira finds the tower and attempts to rescue the imprisoned maiden. With clever banter and some ingenuity, Princess accomplishes what no prince before her could and releases Princess Sadie from the walls of her prison. The two begin travelling together learning to solve problems with more than just hack and slash sword tricks seen in other fairy tales including compromising with an ogre to stop destroying a city in exchange for dance lessons and saving a young prince from a tree. Not only does this modern fairy tale explore the world of problem solving and gender roles, it also touches on the ideas of body shaming and self-image when Princess Sadie confronts her thinner and more conventionally attractive sister in an attempt to take back a kingdom that rightfully belongs to her. Katie O’Neill’s Princess Princess Ever After challenges the stereotypical damsel in distress story arc, and her story is only amplified in its ability to hook the reader and explore various themes because of its use of the graphic novel format. The School Library Journal describes O’Neill’s unique and thought-provoking story as being “filled with empowering messages about friendship, gender roles, identity, heroism, and the importance of staying true to oneself.”  

Along with analyzing the subtle stimulating themes laced throughout the stories presented within graphic novels. The physical format also poses several academic values that encourage critical thinking and deep reading of a text. In the fourth edition of The International Literacy Association’s (ILA) Children’s Literature in the Reading Program, Stergios Botzakis writes an analytical exploration of the features present in a graphic novel that lend themselves useful to academic instruction. According to Botzakis, an Assistant Professor of Adolescent Literacy in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Tennessee, there are three key elements in graphic novels that are valuable to education and unique to the medium: transitions, contextual information, and visual permanence (http://ow.ly/wq4O30ay8fc).

“Reading graphic novels requires readers to make connections between images set apart by panels and gutters” leading readers to constantly make inferences and assume actions that are occurring between the panels. Filling in the actions taking place between panels forces readers to engage in higher level thinking skills that can easily be revisited and reinforced later with traditional texts after graphic novels have laid down the foundation. Along with transitions, what Botzakis terms “visual permanence” allows readers to determine how fast or how slow to read a text as well as to what degree they attend to the words and pictures. Graphic novels provide an illusion of time passing while allowing the reader to easily rewind and revisit information in a manageable way. Using graphic novels to practice and hone this skill allows for them to better parse through traditional texts, therefore making them better critical thinkers.

Finally, Botzakis explains that “the illustrations in graphic novels provide contextual information that can assist or enhance a reader’s ability to engage with a text.” This feature has gained popularity among readers learning English as a second language as it allows them to take the connections they make between words and images and translate it into their everyday conversational and academic use of the language. Being able to make these connections and use the images as a way to comprehend the textual story has also allowed struggling readers to develop their reading skills and in turn use them to critically think about and understand classic texts. Botzakis’ exploration of these elements in depth further details how each one can lead to higher literary engagement, increased reading fluency, developed vocabulary awareness, and an increased interest in reading. Not only are graphic novels often appealing to young readers, educators are able to actively track students’ understanding of a text and measure their growth.

Many studies revolving around the academic benefits of graphic novels focus on the effect they have on reluctant readers, but as Botzakis’ analysis showed, graphic novels have also proven to have a positive impact on English Language Learners (ELLs). In 2007, the National Center for Educational Statistics reported over 11 million ELLs in the United States with 7.3 million being students in kindergarten through eighth grade, making the goal of closing the gap between ELLs and native-speaking students imperative. According to Amy Baker (University of Central Missouri), because graphic novels deal with the English language in a different way than traditional texts, many students embrace the format because they “are viewed as being more manageable than text-only literature” (http://ow.ly/2Jaj30akDAi).

ELL’s face many challenges that are unrelated to the struggles seen by reluctant readers. Not only must ELLs learn the English as a social language – conversational English also known as Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills – which includes regional dialect and slang, they must also learn academic language – or Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency which includes vocabulary and reasoning skills. Having multi-faceted needs in making up for lost time in language acquisition, the use of reading and creating comics as a teaching tool has visual appeal, less text, and familiar characters that bring a higher sense of comfort and understanding to students. Fostering a welcoming platform for literacy and language acquisition is not only important for the initial foundation for ELLs, but also for their excitement to continue reading English texts beyond comics.

In her analysis, Baker goes on to describe several programs that specifically use comics to teach English including parts-of-speech comics, read and listen comics, and vocabulary focused comics. Not only do these resources help develop academic proficiency of the spoken language, Baker reported the exercises had a positive influence over the writing skills of the students. To support educators working with English learning students, bilingual graphic novels such as Oni Press’ Booger Beard have helped smooth out the transition from Spanish to English. Using both bilingual and English graphic novels in the classroom have allowed ELLs to develop both basic interpersonal communication skills as well as cognitive academic language proficiency.

While most studies agree comics should not replace traditional texts in the classroom, the support of the format as supplementary reading is overwhelming especially during early education and middle grade. Graphic novels are unique in the literary skills they encourage students to develop and because most students find them appealing to read. In a meeting in March 2017, industry professional gathered with the Children’s Book Council (CBC) to further discuss the young adult graphic novel phenomenon and the effects it will have over the rest of the year and years to come. Provided through their CBC Forum Series, the panel consisted of Erin Berger (VP and Creative Marketing Director of Penguin Random House), Cristin Stickles (Children's and YA buyer), McNally Jackson Books, and Chantalle Uzan (Senior Young Adult Librarian at New York Public Library) with Matthew Baldacci (Director of Business Development at Shelf Awareness) moderating.

During the forum, the panelists gave with an overview of 2016 trends paired with expectations for 2017 with Stickles reporting that young adult readers have a strong interest in books described as "emotional tool kits," or titles that address readers' emotional or psychological well-being while parents often focused on that focused on sight words with authentic voices representing diverse experiences. These observations quickly led into the discussion of discussed the dramatic rise of young adult graphic novels. The panel unanimously agreed that the format is the "fastest growing, best performing category" in children's books. Young adult graphic novels have been coined as the “missing link” between picture books and traditional texts. Both among academic critics and industry professionals, the young adult graphic novel category has been recognized as the fastest growing in the print market as educators, librarians, and parents continue to see the influence they have on a student’s overall education and desire to continue reading beyond the classroom.