Superheroes to the Rescue: Graphic Novels Can Bridge Literacy Gaps

Hey y’all, sorry for the week-long hiatus. Life, I’m telling ya!

Anyway, I wanted to post about graphic novels (and not just because I’m a secret Captain Underpants fan.) When I was at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wrote four critical theses about graphic novels (because the first three weren’t good enough.) And it occurred to me during the final thesis that graphic novels, scorned as they sometimes still are, have a huge potential to heal literacy problems.

Literacy delays are a huge issue amongst many of the demographics that we’re talking about here. Immigrant children may not speak English in their homes and are less likely to have books in their houses, let alone books in English that would allow them to keep up with their native peers. Likewise, kids living in extreme poverty are less likely to have books in their houses, their parents are less likely to read to them (because they have less time), and if they live in really poor communities, they are less likely to have a good public library available, and their school’s resources are likely to be more limited, as well. Kids who are homeless, again, won’t have books, won’t have parents reading to them. But they also are not allowed to check out books from the library in most communities because they can’t get a library card without an address. And they are dramatically less likely to be in school.

And besides all of this, kids who are living through adversity simply have bigger fish to fry a lot of the time than learning to read and practicing. Their mental and emotional energies often, by necessity, are focused elsewhere. Which is a shame because it tends to perpetuate the cycles of adversity (kids who can’t read well are more likely to drop out, thus are more likely to stay poor, and are more likely to not seek out help that they might need, are more likely to get into trouble with drugs, even jail, as a result.) But also, books are a potent tool for coping (as in, say, reading fantasy–a far preferable coping mechanism to getting drunk) and for learning things about themselves and their world that would really help them, as many of the books I feature here would.

Any large-scale attempt to help kids cope with their hard lives through literature, needs to start by helping to bridge this literacy gap. There are wonderful organizations like CLiF that are already working on this, but it’s vital. Because what happens to a child is that, assuming she is in school at all, if she starts behind because she has no books at home, she is likely to perceive herself as a worse reader than the other students, and she is likely to quickly fall further and further behind because of an aversion to doing something she sees herself as not good at (and doesn’t see many adult role-models in her life doing, either–which may make her feel that it’s a skill that doesn’t have much to do with her life.) Then by the time she gets to high school, perhaps–if she gets that far–she is probably only reading at a fifth grade level and the books she could read have even less to do with her life, and in addition are stigmatized because they look like books for babies.

Now here’s where graphic novels come in. Because they can use pictures, as well as words, to tell the story, the stories told can be far more complex–hence relevant–to the girl than the books that match her written literacy level. And just because she can’t read well, doesn’t mean that she can’t think well. Take a teenager who has immigrated here with her family. When she gets here, she knows no English whatsoever, but perhaps she was an active, bright, and engaged thinker where she came from. She needs books that help her understand her world and teach her english literacy, but she may not be compelled to read See Spot Run.

And books that have pictures really can teach literacy skills. Even The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which has no words at all, has HUGE literacy lessons. I went through that book and could not think of one single literary device that wasn’t in it–it has allegory, hyperbole, POV shifts, backstory, rhythm, repetition, allusion, climax, metaphor, denouement, rising action, tension, personification . . . Additionally, it has chapters, and the same pacing and story-telling issues that any other story has, standing to reason that even if it isn’t teaching words, themselves, it IS teaching story and how it is put together which surely would translate to other types of stories.

And most graphic novels do have words. They don’t have as many words, for the most part, as non-graphic novels of similar scope and target audience, but the teen who can’t read Pride and Prejudice could, potentially, read American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. She’d find about as much meat to dissect and think about in either–she’d actually learn more about complex story structure and metaphor in American Born Chinese and she would be practicing reading words. Since she would be successful reading the graphic novel, she would be more likely to read more. She would be more likely to practice reading more and would be more likely to take pleasure in it . . . Hence the cycle starts spiraling upwards.

And one other huge factor that makes Graphic Novels invaluable in this struggle is that they don’t tend to be stigmatized. They look cool. They look fun. A teen reading a graphic novel is just not going to be teased as a baby in the same way that a teen reading a traditional early reader would. And, I’m just going to say that it’s so not an issue because the teen wouldn’t be caught dead reading the early reader in public. Period. But there might even be some status attached to reading, say, Manga. (And just as an aside, boys in particular have a whole host of literacy issues these days, and I think this is a big factor with them. If you want to find out more about this aspect of things, trot on over to Guys Lit Wire.)

So that’s why we should encourage graphic novels, in my opinion. And write them! And publish them. And include them in our collections and donate them to our schools. GO GRAPHIC NOVELS!

I’ve also found a hefty number of them that would be actively helpful for kids going through adversity. So here’s my list–feel free to add to it!

Graphic Novels Specifically about Adversity:

  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan (I believe this to be one of the most brilliant books ever created.) This is a wordless immigrant’s story. I understood more about immigration from “reading” this one picture-novel, than I ever learned from text books or news stories. Ageless. (Perfect).
  • American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (this was the first graphic novel to get a Printz award). Definitely high school age interest level. About immigration, cultural stereotyping, and being part of a racial minority.
  • The Savage written by David Almond, Illustrated by Dave McKean. (This is my favorite graphic novel. OK, I’m done with the asides now, I promise.) Middle grade, I’d say. About a boy whose father has died and his inability to express is emotions verbally.
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, a homeless, orphan who lives in the train station and works with automatons. Middle Grade.
  • Stitches by David Small, which is a powerful memoir about abuse and its effects. YA and older.
  • Fun Home by Allison Bechdel. Another memoir about abuse. But also about the formation of her sexual identity as a lesbian. YA and older.
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Again, YA. About her experience growing up in a totalitarian regime and eventually leaving.
  • Swallow Me Whole by Nate Powell. YA. About mental illness.
  • Inside Out: Portrait of an Eating Disorder by Nadia Shivack. YA. Eating disorder.

Graphic Novels that are just good and would be great literacy teachers:

  • the Bone series by Jeff Smith. Fantasy. Middle Grade.
  • the Owly series by Andy Runton. Early Reader. Deals with really important and universal issues like friendship and loss.
  • Robot Dreams by Sara Varon. Nearly wordless. About friendship. Early to middle grade interest.
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson. YA. Story of first love.
  • Little Vampire by Joan Sfar. French and funky. Probably elementary to middle grade interest level, but weird and sort of dark enough that you never know.
  • Travels of Thelonius (The Fog Mound series) by Susan Schade, illus by Jon Buller. Middle grade. These are half graphic, half chapter. Fantasy, delightful.
  • Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. Yes, I did say that. Elementary school interest level. Besides having delightful bouts of bathroom humor, these books teach an incredible amount about metafiction and story construction.
  • The Cartoon History of the Universe books by Larry Gonick. Really most ages. These are just really fun and informative.

That’s all I can think of for now. Please stop by and add more.


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
This entry was posted in Book Lists, Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Superheroes to the Rescue: Graphic Novels Can Bridge Literacy Gaps

  1. I have another recommendation for graphic novels about adversity, Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, written by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke, and published by Lee & Low. The fictional protagonist, whose older brother belongs to a gang in Chicago, narrates the (real) life of 11-year-old Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, who shot a girl to get into the gang and was executed by gang members when his act sparked widespread media attention. Based on a real tragedy that happened in 1994, this is a good book for helping young people question the allure of gangs and seek alternatives.

  2. Pingback: Teaching Literacy to At-Risk Youth | Strong in the Broken Places

  3. Pingback: Top 10 Graphic Novels of 2012 | Strong in the Broken Places

  4. Pingback: Great Graphic Novels for the Younger Set | Strong in the Broken Places

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