Building Empathy: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Critical Literacy

Panel from The March by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, & Nate Powell

I was asked by Teaching Tolerance to write an article about how educators can use graphic novels in the classroom to teach social justice issues. This will appear in their fall issue as a companion article to the piece that Andrew Aydin is writing about the history of Comics in the Civil Rights Movement and about the Graphic Novel, The March, that he co-authored with Representative John Lewis and GN veteran Nate Powell.

So I picked up The March for the first time and was struck instantly by just how close I felt to the experiences of the young John Lewis and the other early Civil Right’s activists. I have read many wonderful books about the Civil Rights movement and about the children’s role in it, but none made me feel it viscerally like this one. Which made me wonder why? It’s not just the first-person narrative or the charm of John Lewis, himself. There is something about the Graphic Novel format, the visual element, that forged an instant closeness to the material. And I’m wondering how that works?

From The Wall by Peter Sis

That was where the original thought for this post came from. I would love to talk about that and figure out why graphic novels work like that and what lessons we could take from them to incorporate into our fiction to help build reader empathy. But I also discovered something else kind of huge in the research for this piece. In working on this article, the editor asked me to think about the topic of Critical Literacy–how we teach our students to be aware of the POV biases underlying a work–and why Graphic Novels are uniquely cut out to teach this.

From The Arrival by Shaun Tan

I started to think about it and realized that there are a lot of diverse voices and stories right now in the Graphic Novel world. Alison Bechdel writes freely about GLBT issues. Maus by Art Spiegelman is about being a Jew during WWII. Nate Powell, Nadia Shivak, David Small, and Phoebe Gloeckner (among others) are all writing about mental illness and/or child abuse. Racial minorities are well-represented: Gene Luen YangCynthia Leitich-Smith, Spain Rodriguez . . . And the number of international authors represented or American writers telling stories about international issues is staggering: Shaun Tan, Joe Sacco, Emmanuel GuibertJoann Sfar, Herge, Marjane Satrapi, Peter Sis, and of course all manga.

So why is this? In a time when the traditional publishing world is struggling to put out any diverse narratives, why is the Graphic Novel world so very different? I asked a lot of people this question and got no satisfying answers. I looked at the history of graphic novels in our country and that didn’t help. DC and Marvel are a total old boy’s network. There are relatively few diverse voices (or even woman’s voices) there. So where are all these different narratives coming from? I started looking at the publishers and publication dates of these stories and I discovered something that sent me staggering. Wait for it. . . .

The SAME PUBLISHING HOUSES that aren’t putting out traditional text-narratives by minority writers because they don’t believe they will sell, are publishing radically diverse and risque narratives in Graphic Novels.  The very same houses. I discovered that nearly all of these authors/narratives have been published or re-printed in the past 8–10 years. So what is going on here?

From American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Here’s my theory: Graphic Novels are booming right now. The demand for them is huge. So all of these traditional publishing houses are trying to get in on the action. Many are starting whole new imprints for graphic novels–Scholastic has Graphix, Macmillan has First Second. And then some, like Top Shelf, are relatively new independent presses catering to this market. But unlike DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and all the other old school US comic-book publishers, the traditional children’s and YA publishers don’t really know exactly how all of this works and there aren’t nearly as many authors and illustrators who can do it well yet. So I think they are much more likely to publish non-mainstream voices and narratives.

So my take-home from all of this? If you have a strange narrative that mainstream publishers don’t want to touch or you are having trouble getting in the door as a minority writer . . . find an artist, tell it graphically. I’m serious.


Let’s talk about this disparity this month. About Graphic Novels, how we write them, how they capture reader interest and make unfamiliar experiences feel real. About Critical Literacy and teaching. About how we can actually do this . . .

I’ll review The March later this month and have Andrew Aydin on here to talk about it. And I’ll send a copy to the person who comments the most. OK, 1, 2, 3 . . . Go!


About pamwatts

Writer, Reader, and Children's advocate
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