February Best Practice of the Month: Develop the Graphic Novel Collection

Jeannie.Standal's picture

Hurray! The 2015 Youth Media Awards were announced earlier this week at the ALA Mid-Winter meeting! Another hurray! There were a couple of graphic novels that made honors lists! El Deafo by Cece Bell earned a Newbery Honor and This One Summer by Julian and Mariko Tamaki brought home both a Caldecott and a Printz Honor (that's not something that happens every day). For years graphic novels have been racking up quite a few prestigious awards, and not just from ALA.  In 1992, Maus by Art Siegelman won a Pulitzer Prize, and more recently, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast was a finalist in 2014 for non-fiction National Book Award, to name a few. The perception of graphic novels and comics has moved from cheesy superhero and Loony Toons with questionable value, to real literature for children and adults.

There is a good reason graphic novels are wildly popular with students young and old, teachers, and librarians; the combination of the visual impact and the concise text pack a powerful punch. Teachers, too, have discovered the value of this genre in the classroom for all grade levels. Graphic novels introduce new and rare words to readers at a higher rate (53.5 per 1,000 words) than even adult level books (52.7 per 1,000 words).1 Further, graphic novels include nearly 20% more rare words than a typical childrens chapter book.2 They engage the brain in more ways, promoting more learning. Far from the narrow subject matter we might remember from our youth, they now cover topics from autobiography to zombies (and maybe even a zombie autobiography) for ages Pre-K to adult.

Librarians know that graphic novels circulate like mad, and can positively affect the circulation of prose books, as well.  Libraries report that  overall circulation increases 25% after adding graphic novels to the collection3.  Readers, especially reluctant readers, will select graphic novels, but then go on to other books. Consider them a gateway read, if you will, leading to reading more types of literature. More students reading more books?  Sounds good.

The elements that draw readers to the genre, strong visual elements along with concise text, can also make graphic novels more susceptible to challenges. The content that might trigger a challenge to a prose book is the same content that can cause someone to challenge a graphic novel; profanity, drug and alcohol use, violence, sex and sexual orientation, and racial issues are some of the most common reasons cited.  The difference is that in the graphic novel format, the offending subject might also pictured.  The School Library Journal article, "Teaching with Graphic Novels," illustrates the concept using what researcher Steven Cary has coined the "naked buns" effect.  Cary says, "It's the rare student or parent who objects to the words 'naked buns,' but an image of naked buns can set off fireworks."4

To avoid a challenge, develop a graphic novel collection using the same tools used for the rest of the collection: be sure the items in the collection are appropriate for the students' age; read reviews, or better, read the book; remember that awards indicate quality, not age or interest level; and most importantly, have a strong reconsideration policy and procedure in place. 

This is not to say that the graphic novel should replace the prose novel.  On the contrary, the two genres complement one another in the best way.  Graphic novels and comics can be valuable scaffolding tools for struggling readers, or students learning English. For all students, they can help develop a love of reading.  And really, that's the goal: a lifelong love of reading and learning.

For more information about graphic novels and comics, visit:
Good Comics for Kids: National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)'s article:
 1Hayes, D.P. & M.G. Arens. (2009). Vocabulary Simplification for Children: A Case of "Motherese." Journal of Child Language, 15, pp. 395-410.
2 Betts, Anastasia. GN101 - The Presentation. Graphic Novels 101 website.  Accessed 2-3-15 at http://wwww.graphicnovels101.com/uploads/4/7/0/8/4708746/gn101.part_iv.research.pdf.
3,4 Alverson, Brigid. Teaching with Graphic Novels. School Library Journal. September 8, 2014.  Accessed Feb 2, 2015 at http://www.slj.com/2014/09/books-media/graphic-novels/the-graphic-advantage-teaching-with-graphic-novels/#.