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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Graphic Novels and New Literacies

Graphic Novels are not Picture Books. I know that. But since they are more alike than different, please allow me at least one post to win over the skeptics.

Who are the skeptics? Teachers who dismiss this literary form with a wave of the hand, saying any one of the following:
  • Kids can read comic books on their own time.
  • There's way too much violence in those books.
  • Most of those books are inappropriate for my age group.
  • I don't want kids reading dumbed-down versions of classic literature.
  • Aren't all those books just about superheroes on steroids, stuffed into spandex?
  • (add your own here)
The fact is, graphic novels are incredibly varied in genre. Sure, some graphic novels feature superheroes, but an even greater number concern themselves with history, historical fiction, biography, science, science fiction, and realistic fiction. In my fourth grade classroom, Jeff Smith's Bone is a big hit, as well as the hybrid Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Babymouse.

Ask about the origin of the graphic novel, and you're likely to start a feud equal to that of the Hatfields and McCoys. Its origins surely link back to traditional comic strips and dime store pulp novels. But most fans of the form will agree that it was Art Spiegelman's Maus which finally brought credibility to the art and its creators.

I can't even begin to scratch the surface of what's appeared out there since the time of Maus' publication, so I'll share just a few titles that I've recently read and enjoyed.

Capstone Press and Stone Arch publish short, colorful, highly engaging graphic novels depicting historical persons and events. Capstone's Graphic Biographies, for example, introduce students to Wilma Rudolph, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Cesar Chavez, and Matthew Henson. Stone Arch also publishes shorter books on historical events, such as Ropes of Revolution, a graphic interpretation of the Boston Tea Party.
Kids Can Press has recently released the Good Times Travel Agency series, featuring the adventures of Josh, Emma, and Libby Binkerton in Ancient Greece, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, and the Middle Ages. These books are a clever balance of traditional comic strip narrative and background information provided via the pages of Julian T. Pettigrew's Personal Travel Guides. For readers who have outgrown The Magic Tree House, this is the next step in their reading journey! Also an excellent introduction to any of these cultures.

One of the most well-rounded and highly regarded publishers in the business is First Second. Their books are extremely well designed and well constructed. My students, in fact, treat these book with great reverence because they just "feel" so different (read: "better") from the standard paperbacks put out by other publishers. One of First Second's most well-known books to date is Gene Luen Yang's excellent American Born Chinese, which was awarded numerous honors including the Michael L. Printz Award. In this book meant for older readers, three tales intertwine in what is at first an unlikely union. To look at the stories, so unlike in artistic style and handling, one would think that three different artists had collaborated on the project.

American Born Chinese is equally entertaining and powerful, and tackles some difficult to discuss topics in a way that is both unique and inviting. How to put it to use in the classroom? Glad you asked. The folks at First Second have created lesson plans for some of their graphic novels, including American Born Chinese. Gotta love it. (FYI, Gene's newest book, The Eternal Smile, has just been released).

Another First Second title I loved is Robot Dreams by Sara Varon. This is a wordless graphic novel, and is thus by definition simple, right? Wrong. This book challenges the reader to construct the story behind the pictures. I witnessed two students view the same six frames and take away entirely different perspectives. That's one of the powerful challenges to be found in comic books and graphic novels; the reader must supply the story between the frames (an important critical thinking skill). Depending upon students' schema and personal experiences, their story interpretations may vary widely.
Somewhere between American Born Chinese and Robot Dreams is Sardine in Outer Space, a colorful, traditional comic adventure created by France's Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar. Kids in the 8-12 group will appreciate the slapstick humor and outrageous situations. The misleading simplicity of Sardine will also inspire children to think, "Hey, I could do something like that." (Lesson plans available for this title as well).

While there are still dozens more books I'd like to discuss, there's simply not time. But one more title that really stuck with me is Shawn Tan's The Arrival. This larger format wordless book is incredible in its illustrations, which seem so new and fantastic yet so familiar at the same time. The Arrival is an immigrant tale that echoes American immigration stories in so many ways. Rather than fail miserably at describing the book, I'll instead recommend that you get to the library or bookstore to see it for yourself.

Want more information about teaching graphic novels? Don't ask me. I'm in way over my head. Instead, start with Scott McCloud. His incredible tome titled Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is a masterpiece which is required reading for anyone remotely interested in understanding the history, conventions, and future of comics in particular, and art and language in general.

One would expect NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) to blast graphic novels as pedestrian and unworthy of respect as literature. Quite the contrary! Search their site and you're rewarded with numerous articles and blog posts (166!) about how to use graphic novels in the classroom. (I would also suggest this site to find like-minded educators who can point you in the right direction on this topic).

The Graphic Classroom is a blog devoted to using comics in the classroom. Chris Wilson (aka Jack) and his staff really have their act together. You'll find recent reviews, lesson plans, and recommended lists by age level. I especially love Chris' disclaimer, to which all teachers should take heed: "Some comic literature is not appropriate for every classroom, or every community. Some are not appropriate for any classroom. You need to review any piece of comic literature for yourself and determine if it is appropriate for your grade, class, curriculum, goals, school and community." I can hear some teachers saying, "See, Keith? I told you some of these comics aren't acceptable!" Yeah, and some novels aren't acceptable for classroom use either. That's why we need to read them first, people!

New Lits has a decent wiki page on Graphic Novels in the Classroom which is worth a look. Lots of links including several graphic novels that can be read online. The New Lits site seems like pretty good reading overall: is a wiki space created to collaboratively develop a rich range of specialist resources for middle school language arts/literacy educators (typically Grades 5 to 8). These resources focus variously and broadly on new literacies and digital technologies.
If you're a fan of the form, or a teacher using graphic novels in the classroom already, please share additional sites and ideas by leaving a comment here!