Graphic Novel Outreach: A BookShelf Roundtable
By Peter GutiƩrrez

At a recent school library conference I was asked what one should say to a language arts teacher skeptical of graphica’s benefits. I didn’t mean to be flip, but I suggested that, unlike a few years ago, it could just mean that the teacher isn’t paying attention. Indeed, at its 2008 convention, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) presented more than eight programs related to the medium.

Still, a little voice cautions that such opportunities are appreciated largely by the same self-selecting group of educators. Indeed, what if all the great online lesson plans and professional development books published recently simply represent a case of “preaching to choir”?

Certainly the availability of such resources (soon to bolstered, one hopes, by learner verification studies) over time serves to grow the choir itself… but which ideas and key concepts are missing from the general consensus that could accelerate it towards a tipping point? With this in mind, I asked leading comics-in-education advocates for their best elevator pitch to the unconvinced.


“Skeptics would do well to consider the historical and cultural bases that underlie the lingering misconceptions about comics and their appropriateness for classroom use. In doing so, those same teachers will no doubt find surprising evidence from educational research that disproves such myths while offering support for the use of comics to motivate and engage readers from all ability levels and backgrounds. Recent research has shown that comics can help facilitate traditional reading, be used to teach a multitude of reading strategies and skills, and - more times than not - are actually preferred by struggling readers. This last element alone should be enough to make reluctant instructors sit up and take notice.”
--Terry Thompson, K-5 Literacy Coach in Humble, Texas; author of Adventures in Graphica: Using Comics and Graphic Novels to Teach Comprehension, 2-6 (Stenhouse)

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"As for those who are interested in teaching literacy, or specifically, English, I think I would mention to them that the English Language Arts are defined by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association as reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and visually representing. So, there is a strong possibility that if one is not utilizing texts like comics and graphic novels and film and multimedia with his or her students, by definition, one is not truly teaching the English Language Arts."
--Dr. James Bucky Carter, Assistant Professor of English Education, University of Texas at El Paso; scholar of the connections among literacy and comic art

“At minimum, comic books and graphic novels are an effective bridge from popular visual media like animation and film to books. In this age of declining pleasure reading, that should interest even the most ardent skeptic.

That doesn't tell the whole story, though. ‘Comics as a bridge’ is a good place to start, but the very idea of ‘bridge’ implies that comics itself isn't a destination, and I believe it is. Stories told in comics can be as engaging, informative, and life-changing as stories told in any other medium. Take a look at Maus or Persepolis, for example. The interplay between pictures and words offers rich, sophisticated storytelling possibilities to both the cartoonist and the reader. Comics as a medium sits at the crossroads of visual and traditional literacy.”
--Gene Yang, Bishop O’Dowd High School, Oakland, California; author of the forthcoming The Eternal Smile (First Second)

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“In a world with increasingly complex and varied media, students need to develop multiple literacies to be lifelong learners capable of adapting to a rapidly changing society. Graphic novels and comics develop visual and symbolic thinking in a way that complements traditional text. Rather than being an ‘either/or’ situation in which educators must choose between traditional print and newer visual materials, the wealth of resources in all formats increases the opportunity for instructing various literacies within the school curriculum. In this way, students can develop flexible thinking skills that prepare them to meet the demands of the global setting in which they will learn, work, and read for pleasure.”
-- Kimberly Dyar, Nationally Board Certified ELA Teacher and media specialist; recipient of the 2008 Maryland Association of School Librarians School Library of the Year Award

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“Reading comics is reading -- the verb choice is deliberate and accurate. We don't say watching (like we do for movies or TV) or listening (like music or the radio). We call it reading because
that's what you do with a comic book or graphic novel. And that implies at least three important things: a medium that can tell any kind of story or instruct on any topic; active engagement with those stories or topics; and a medium that requires readers to interpret words and pictures and the interplay between the two. There are a lot of comics that don't aspire to do anything beyond entertain, and many don't even do that well. But that's true of movies, TV, music, radio... and yes, books. There are plenty of comic books and graphic novels that do much more than entertain, and do it as well as the best books you can think of.”
--Jim Ottaviani, writer and publisher of true stories in graphic form about scientists and their work for over a decade

“Common misconceptions range from ‘it's dumbing down the curriculum’ to ‘there's too much for students to know in order to understand graphica.’ Responding to this range of protestations can be daunting unless one gets to the heart of the issue—students making meaning of the concepts being taught. Both theory and practice confirm that involving multimodal texts in fact raises the bar of understanding. My own experience in using graphica with tenth graders proved that actually students were doing MORE work, and more sophisticated work, when allowed to explore meaning-making. As for difficulty, most students have an innate understanding regarding the ‘rules’ of reading multiple texts. When they’re made explicit, students are empowered with an entirely new set of tools with which to make meaning.”
--Dr. Jennifer Powers, Assistant Professor of Education, Green Mountain College

“In good graphic novels, the images don't simplify; they comment, problematize, and run in counterpoint to the words. The ‘meaning’ of comics is found in the joining of two distinct media.

And after all, literacy itself lies in parsing the relationship between elements of a text, especially in multi-media texts. The ‘meaning’ of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is found in the marriage of words to music; the ‘meaning’ of King Lear is found in the marriage of production to language. The art in graphica gives them a depth that makes them powerful choices for classroom study.”  
--Len Schiff, teacher, English and American Culture Studies, North Shore High School, New York

"The beauty of comics is that they actually make it harder to not absorb the content of the page. While traditional text can require a significant effort just to meet a minimal level of comprehension, comics leap right past that step. The whole learning process is opened up as students are freed to jump right into more in-depth critical analysis of the subject matter. Students who are more purely visual learners are then afforded a chance to shine, gaining confidence and interest in subjects in which they may have previously accepted themselves as mediocre."
--Adam Staffaroni, Center for Cartoon Studies MFA '07; presenting on "Reclaiming the Comic Book Canon" at the Northeast Modern Literature Association conference, 2/09

“When I was four, my mother would read to me every night. Once she was reading me a comic book, Transformers to be precise, only to lose her voice halfway through. This was utterly unacceptable – Optimus Prime was in a lot of danger and I had to make sure he was going to be okay. I looked up every word in that comic I didn’t know, and with the pictures providing me extra visual context, I was able to finish it on my own. I had just taught myself how to read, and comics have been my constant literary companions ever since. I was reading at the college level before I left elementary school. Now I’m a professional writer. Comics taught me to read, and more than that, they taught me to love reading.”
--Josh Elder, Director of Operations of Kids Love Comics; creator of the Mail Order Ninja graphic novel series and nationally syndicated comic strip

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“Children and teens learn in different ways; visual learners need images and text to process information, reluctant readers often need a hook to get them engaged or images to help them be active participants in the reading process, English language learners often need visual context clues to decipher meaning, and some readers simply have a hard time mentally connecting with print. Graphic novels help bridge the gap for non-readers, new readers, and frustrated readers. If our job is to help develop readers, then I cannot imagine a reason why we would not have books created in a comic format available in all libraries that serve young people.”
--Michele Gorman, librarian and consultant; author, Getting Graphic!: Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy with Preteens and Teens and Getting Graphic! Comics for Kids

“Not only do graphic novels often appeal to reluctant readers (my self-described non-readers will pick up the comic books I have in my class without my prompting), but comics also touch on themes that students themselves see as important, such as the difference between legal justice and street justice in Watchmen, for example.  Equally important for today, the terrorist attack on New York that kills millions at the end of the novel, while a terrible crime, serves to make the world an ultimately safer place. That disturbing end allows for an honest and searching discussion of what exactly terrorism is and what its goals are.

Other comics, such as Kingdom Come, ask similarly important questions. While Superman tries to control rogue superheroes, his attempts to make the world a safer place leads to a kind of fascim that endangers everybody. The reader discovers through this graphic novel the dangers that lurk in our quest for a safer world.  

Why do I teach graphic novels?  Not because of the pretty pictures or the capes, but because, like Hamlet, or Brave New World, or The Canterbury Tales, they show us that the world is a messy place, and that there are no easy answers the questions they pose.”
-- Dr. John C. Weaver, English Teacher, Williamsport Area High School, Williamsport, PA

 Peter Gutierrez, an Eisner-nominated comics creator and  NCTE spokesperson, frequently delivers professional development and consulting around graphica in K-12 schools. He currently teaches "Super-Powered Comics Reading" in Montclair, NJ, and recently created lesson plans for Toon Books' fall titles, including Art Spiegelman's Jack and the Box. Peter can be reached at fiifgutierrez@gmail.com.