Getting Graphic: A Closer Look at Graphic Novels

by Amy Bearce
published in Reading

Graphic novels are enjoying a great deal of popularity these days, with some of them taking home some significant awards.  El Deafo by Cece Bell, was named a Newbery Honor Book in 2015, the first ever graphic novel to win this distinction. The graphic novel Smile, by Raina Telgemeier, was an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book in 2011, a Kirkus Best Book of 2010, and also won the Will Eisner Comics Industry Award for Best Publication for a Teen Audience in 2011.

As a former comic book subscriber (X-Men 4evah, y’all), I’m glad to see this trend. Kids and teens have always loved graphic novels and their shorter, serialized cousins, comics. But now with more parents, teachers, and librarians realizing the very real benefits of reading graphic novels, it seems graphic novels have been ushered into the Big Time.

What is a Graphic Novel?

Graphic novels include both text and images in panels like comics. But graphic novels are distinct. They are longer, bound like books and not with staples like comics*, and tend to be more complex in plot and theme. They usually have one entire storyline completed in a single book, even if it’s a series…each book has its own problem and solution, just like with series novels for kids. (*Sometimes a series of comics are collected and bound into a graphic novel, just to make things confusing.)

By the way, the word manga refers to Japanese comics that are serialized like comics, but can be longer and more complex like a graphic novel. Traditionally, manga follows the pattern of Japanese writing: top to bottom and right to left. (Also, extra bonus info for you, to sound very in-the-know, pronounce it /mahn’ga/, with a soft /a/ like an old timey movie star saying daaaaahling, not the hard /a/ used in mango, the fruit).

Good for All Readers

Graphic novels (and comics and manga) are particularly wonderful for young readers and older reluctant readers. For these students, the combination of text and images allows them to read without feeling overwhelmed. The pictures help them decode and interpret meanings.  The faster speed with which readers can finish them also builds confidence.

For more advanced readers, though, there are still benefits. Graphic novels offer a different kind of reading experience, one that still requires a great deal of inference and often surprisingly sophisticated vocabulary and witty humor.  Through exposure to these kinds of books, students learn how to compact a lot of information into a concise number of words, which is much harder than it seems.

Want to Write a Graphic Novel?

It may be that you’ve toyed with the idea of writing a graphic novel. If so, this is a very good time to give it a shot.  The graphic novel Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics by James Sturn is for children, but like many how-to books written for children, I found it to be very informative and enjoyable to read. You should also listen to this wonderful interview with Neil Gaiman by NPR, during which he describes in some detail what it was like to write the The Sandman series, without being a visual artist himself. (And for encouragement about enjoying the process of creating art, read or listen to this Gaiman interview also by NPR.)

Want to see what the big to-do is about graphic novels?  Wondering if you’d enjoy writing one?  Then check out the following excellent books.

Great Graphic Novels to Study and Enjoy

For younger audiences:

Binky the Space Cat, by Ashley Spires. For young and new readers, there is limited text and the humor is outstanding.

Fashion Kitty series, by Charise Mericle Harper. Cute and fun about a kitty who becomes a superhero after being hit in the head with a stack of fashion magazines. Naturally, she saves other kittens from terrible fashion.

The Lunch Lady series, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka—Lots of gross and silly humor, this super hero is also the school’s lunch lady. Her weapons of choice are kitchen utensils and cooking equipment.  Fast and zany.

Zita the Spacegirl, by Ben Hatke.  An excellent book and series with Girl Power!  It’s also touching.

The Amulet series, by Kazu Kabuishi  The kids at the local 3rd-5th grade school have these books checked out all the time. The creepy cover brings to mind Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which has a graphic novel adaptation.

For older audiences (tweens/teens):

El Deafo, by Cece Bell. In this award-winning biography in graphic novel form, we follow along with Bell as she experiences hearing loss as a young child and then goes on to attend traditional school with the help of a special hearing aid that allows her to hear but sets her apart from others.

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier.   Smile is a memoir about when the author loses her two front teeth as a sixth grader and had to deal with a lot of trauma, both physical and emotional.

Sisters, also by Raina Telgemeier.  Sisters is a bittersweet memoir about her relationship with her little sister, set during a long car trip. Flashback is used to weave past memories with the current tale..

Ms. Marvel, by G. Wilson (author) and Adrian Alphona and Sarah Pichelli (illustrators). When 16 year old Kamala finds herself transformed into Ms. Marvel, she’s got the usual transformation issues to contend with, but Kamala is also a Muslim daughter of Pakistani immigrants, which brings its own cultural differences to work through as well.

The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. Technically this is one of those sets of Batman comic books that were grouped together, but it ushered in the dark, gritty kind of superhero story that’s so popular today. This one is aimed at older teens and adults. *Note, graphic novels abound for adults, to include the popular Walking Dead series.

What about you?  Do you read graphic novels?  Share your favorite in the comments!


Amy Bearce_1Amy holds a Masters of Library Science along with a certification in school librarianship.  She is a former reading and English teacher, mostly for 6th-8th graders.  Her debut book, FAIRY KEEPER, is an upper-middle-grade fantasy, now available from Curiosity Quills Press.  She currently lives in Germany with her family, though they still call Texas home. Her daughters are 9 and 11 years old. As you might imagine, middle grade books are a hot commodity around their house.

Amy‘s next book, MER-CHARMER, will be released May 9, 2016.

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