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Teaching Nonfiction Graphic Novels in English Language Arts and Social Studies

Dr. Katie Monnin, an assistant professor of literacy at the University of North Florida and author of  upcoming book Teaching Graphic Novels: Practical Strategies for the Secondary ELA Classroom from Maupin House, highlights how teachers can start to use different types of nonfiction graphic novels in English Language Arts and Social Studies classrooms. 

Over the years, I have heard many teachers ask it. And, over the years, I have often thought about how to answer it. Below is my response to all teachers who ask: “How can I get my students to read more nonfiction?”

Nonfiction graphic novels, which have been on the rise with young adults for over eight years, can be used in both the English Language Arts (ELA) classroom and the Social Studies (SS) classroom. Perhaps even more importantly, nonfiction graphic novels will align to the standards (or themes) in both content areas. 

In ELA, the nonfiction graphic novel relates best to the standard for teaching nonfiction/informational texts.  In SS, the nonfiction graphic novel relates best to the Humanities theme. So if you are looking for a way to engage your students to read more nonfiction in your content area, you might have just come to the right place. This article will highlight how teachers can start to use the two types of nonfiction graphic novels in ELA and in SS. Ultimately, it is hoped that once we better understand the two types of nonfiction graphic novels, we can better choose the type that is most appropriate for our students and our content area.

Let’s start with a discussion of the two types of nonfiction graphic novels (See Figure 1).


Figure 1: Two types of nonfiction graphic novels.

Informational Nonfiction Graphic Novels Creative Nonfiction Graphic Novels
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While an informational nonfiction graphic novel focuses on historical facts, events, people and/ or places, creative nonfiction graphic novels focus on a blend between historical facts, events, people and / or places and author storytelling. In short, the difference between the two types of nonfiction graphic novels lies in the amount of creator involvement. In an informational nonfiction graphic novel, the creator stands back and attempts to have little to no presence. In a creative nonfiction graphic novel, the creator is actively involved and filters the historical facts, events, people and / or places through his or her own storytelling perspective.  

To better understand the difference between the two types of nonfiction, we can look at an example of each type.

Informational Nonfiction Graphic Novels

C.M. Butzer’s (2008) Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel is an excellent example of an informational nonfiction graphic novel that can be used in either ELA or SS classrooms (http://www.cmbutzer.com/). Because it relies on primary sources, such as letters, diaries, speeches and so on, Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel has as its focus a strict appreciation and adherence to the facts, events, people and/or places of this time in American History.  For instance, let’s look at page 50 (shown below in Figure 2):

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Figure 2: Page 50 of Butzer’sGettysburg: The Graphic Novel. Used with permission from HarperCollins

On this page, readers are offered a visual and a verbal (two of Gardner’s Mulitiple Intelligences) opportunity to witness perhaps the most influential speech in American history, “The Gettysburg Address.” In terms of verbal literacies, Butzer uses the literal words spoken by President Abraham Lincoln, showing readers how a creator of an informational nonfiction graphic novel relies on facts instead of author storytelling. As for visual literacies, Butzer pairs the speech with images of America’s Civil Rights history – starting with the American Revolution. This style of strict appreciation and adherence to the historical record is typical of an informational nonfiction graphic novel.

Creative Nonfiction Graphic Novels

While an informational nonfiction graphic novel tries its best to rely solely on the facts or information it intends to convey, a creative nonfiction graphic novel blends fact and/or information with creative storytelling. In other words, while the creator of an informational nonfiction graphic novel stands back from the story as much as possible, the creator of a creative nonfiction graphic novel becomes actively involved in telling the story. One of my favorite examples of a creative nonfiction graphic novel is Nick Abadzis’ Laika (http://www.nickabadzis.com/). In this true story about the first earth creature sent into orbit, Abadzis blends his own storytelling with in-depth, factual research. Abadzis explains, “I could’ve taken an entirely documentary approach, but I felt that dramatizing it . . . gave me more scope to explore all the characters. Although I was pretty rigorous in all the reading and research I did, ultimately I’m a storyteller so I choose to fill in the missing parts.”[1] By filling “in the missing parts,” Abadzis highlights the critical connection between factual information and creative storytelling imperative to a creative nonfiction graphic novel. Specifically, in the case of Laika, Abadzis explains that while he significantly researched the Soviet Union’s Cosmodog Program and the training of Laika, he had to imagine Laika’s early life as a stray, before she was recruited into the program. The story of Laika’s path into the Cosmodog program, then, is fictionalized, and in fictionalizing this part of her story, Abadzis is able to take the reader on a more complete journey of her life.

Now that we have a better understanding of the two types of nonfiction graphic novels, let’s take a look at how each can be taught in the two content areas.  

Nonfiction Graphic Novels in English Language Arts

The wording for the ELA standard for teaching nonfiction texts is informed by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). NCTE’s Standard 2 begins by stating that “Students read a wide range of literature.” Nonfiction is one type of literature. Thus, ELA teachers need to first place value on nonfiction and then consider, NCTE continues, this literature “in many genres,” so that students may “build an understanding of the many dimensions . . . of human experience”
(http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Books/Sample/StandardsDoc.pdf). 

In order to build an understanding of the nonfiction graphic novel, and its exposure of the many dimensions of human, ELA teachers can adopt a reading strategy called the Nonfiction Collaboration (for printable handouts of these reading strategies please go to the following link: http://teachinggraphicnovels.blogspot.com/).

While the informational nonfiction graphic novel works best with the Nonfiction Collaboration Stair-Step, the creative nonfiction graphic novel works best with the Nonfiction Collaboration Journey. In the Nonfiction Collaboration Stair-Step, ELA teachers can focus on the steps students take when gathering more and more factual information. In the Nonfiction Collaboration Journey, ELA teachers can focus on the semi-fictionalized journey students take when reading a creative nonfiction graphic novel.   

Nonfiction Graphic Novels in Social Studies

There are actually two standards, or what the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) refers to as “themes,” that fit well with the Nonfiction Collaboration reading strategies (www.socialstudies.org). They are Culture, & People, Places and Environment. 

First, NCSS writes that when we teach culture we “include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.” There are many, many nonfiction graphic novels, whether informational or creative, aimed at young adults and multicultural teaching and learning. One creative nonfiction graphic novel that I would recommend for teaching SS and multiculturalism is Gene Yang’s (2006) American Born Chinese. When students read American Born Chinese alongside the Nonfiction Collaboration Journey reading strategy, they will probably gain a stronger understanding of Chinese American culture. 

If reading an informational nonfiction graphic novel in SS, teachers can use the Nonfiction Collaboration Stair-Step. Many of the graphic novels published by Capstone Press’s Graphic Library series fit well with the theme of People, Places, and Environment in SS. (http://www.capstonepress.com/aspx/pIndex.aspx?EntityGUID=63510784-8d61-48c3-b3af-3b20b7be5ecd).

Final Thoughts

While the graphic novel continues to rise higher into the noonday sun of our students' reading interests, it is time for more ELA and SS teachers to think about how they can generate reading engagement with graphic novels. One way to create stronger reader engagement in our two content areas is to place value on and teach the nonfiction graphic novel.

Written by Katie Monnin, PhD, author of the new title Teaching Graphic Novels (2010), published by Maupin House. 

To learn more about Teaching Graphic Novels or Katie Monnin, please go to this link: http://www.maupinhouse.com/monnin.php.



[1] Quote taken from a Publisher’s Weekly interview conducted by Chris Barsanti and published on September 18, 2007.