It is undeniable that we live in a new media age. In this age, literacy requires students to be able to make meaning from information in a wide variety of formats, one of the most prevalent being visual. The Australian Curriculum identifies the important role that visual literacy plays in contributing to a student’s overall literacy level, so much so that it forms one of the four major building blocks within the Literacy Capability.
Within this context, the graphic novel is perfectly poised to provide a powerful teaching tool, which enables students to develop literacy skills. As Di Laycock identifies, graphic novels can be considered the ‘holy grail’ of literature, as they are truly multimodal texts, encompassing all five semiotic systems.
What is a graphic novel?
Graphic novels are often seen as ‘not real literature’ or as an easy way out for readers who don’t want to engage with ‘proper’ texts; however as Will Eisner points out, reading graphic novels challenges readers in ways perhaps educators haven’t considered:
“The format of the comic book presents a montage of both word and image, and the reader is thus required to exercise both visual and verbal interpretive skills. The regimens of art (e.g. perspective, symmetry, brush stroke) and the regimens of literature (e.g. grammar, plot, syntax) become superimposed upon each other. The reading of the comic book is an act of both aesthetic perception and intellectual pursuit.” Comics and Sequential Art, p.8)
You will note that in this quote, Eisner speaks about comic books as opposed to graphic novels. The difference is defined as one of serialisation; comics and graphic novels share the same format, however a comic is generally one part of a larger sequence, with a continuity plot that extends over multiple issues, whereas a graphic novel is a complete and extended narrative (Laycock, 2014). While we are in definition mode, let’s turn to the work of Scott McCloud whose amazing work Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art gives a terrific explanation of what distinguishes this format from others such as picture books or movies.
This definition focuses on the fact that it is the juxtaposition of images, which have been deliberately sequenced in order to make meaning, which differentiates graphic novels or comics from other multimodal formats such as picture books or movies. Watch this fascinating Ted talk where Scott McCloud explains this in more detail:
Using graphic novels in the classroom
Di Laycock’s research has led her to work with many teachers using graphic novels in the classroom. One of the things that she has noted which may make graphic novels less appealing is a possible lack of familiarity with this type of text. Many teachers and students simply don’t have the metalanguage required to ‘talk about’ graphic novels, and indeed, many may need explicit instruction as to how to read a panelled page.
Fortunately quite a few terrific resources exist to take both teachers and students into the world of the graphic novel. Aside from the books which give an indepth foundational understandings of this form, such as Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art: Principles and Practices from the Legendary Cartoonist and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, there are also books that focus more specifically on how to include graphic novels as part of the curriculum:
For those who like to use digital resources, generously shared graphics such as the one below also provide a fantastic introduction to the format:
Choosing graphic novels: for the library and the classroom
Another challenge for teachers and teacher librarians who want to introduce graphic novels to the curriculum is identifying which are quality texts. There is a growing number of graphic novels for sale, but evaluating these for use in teaching can be time-consuming and overwhelming for someone not familiar with the format.
Just as there are novels that you might choose for a trashy ‘summer’ read, and others which you might choose for their literary merit, so too are graphic novels published for many different reading purposes. Thankfully there are a number of resources online which assist in this area of selection. Selecting graphic novels for inclusion in a general borrowing collection for a school library is also different to selecting texts for inclusion in the curriculum. For teacher librarians looking for advice on how to develop a quality collection of graphic novels for students to borrow, I would direct you to Di Laycock’s excellent article from Synergy (PDF download).
Unfortunately at the present time there are few evaluation sites for graphic novels run by Australians for an Australian audience (if they do exist, please let me know in the comments section!). Nevertheless, there are some fantastic sites for teachers and TLs getting started – one of the best is Getting Graphic, by Canadian teacher Kym Francis. This website has an excellent introduction to using graphic novels in the classroom, as well as an extensive vocabulary page which is good for building up ‘metalanguage’ skills, as well as a page devoted to evaluation processes for choosing great graphic novels. Another fantastic source of up to date information is Comics in Education, which has a very comprehensive site, and which tweets a lot of good information for educators wanting to keep up to date in this area. Follow them at @teachingcomics on Twitter.
There are other good information sites also; some of the best are pinned on my Pinterest board about graphic novels.
Of course, no post on graphic novels would be complete without a few suggestions for fabulous titles to consider. Here at ResourceLink, we have been fortunate enough to be able to build up a small graphic novel collection, so I have had the pleasure of reading quite a few titles recently. The graphic novels below are now available to borrow by BCE staff!
Great graphic novels to investigate:
Maus is an incredibly powerful tale of two generations, and the impact of the Holocaust on both. Cutting between the father’s story of his survival as a Jew in Poland during World War II, and the son’s story of his difficult relationship with his father, as he tries to learn about his family history, Maus has themes of racism, guilt, masks, imprisonment and family. From the Puffin teaching notes:
The comic book is able to depict the events of the Holocaust in a less confrontational way than photographs or films, especially with the distancing element of the characters being depicted as animals. However, Spiegelman did meticulous research and based his drawings of Auschwitz on photographs and plans.
An array of teaching resources to support Maus in the classroom is available on the Melbourne High School website.
This graphic novel would be best suited to students in Year 11 and 12.
Another graphic novel which uses anthropomorphism is the recently published An Anzac Tale by Ruth Starke and Greg Holfeld. This title retells the Anzac Story from the perspective of Wally and Roy, two young larrikins who sign up for adventure and to earn some extra money for the family. An author’s note inside the front cover notes that the animal representations were chosen either for their indigenous associations with the country (kangaroos, wombats and koalas) or for their symbolic association with the country (e.g the British Lion, or the Bengal tiger of India). Terrific teaching notes are available from Working Title Press. This retelling would be suitable for middle primary students and above.
Blue tells the story of Christian, as he looks back on his youth growing up in the fictional industrial town of Bolton. While some of the language is ‘colourful’, it is necessary to the authenticity of the story, which the author describes as a combination of Stand by Me and District 9. This graphic novel has themes of racism and immigration, which lends itself to classroom discussion, and the entire book can be accessed online at Pat Grant’s website, for further discussion on how the book translates into the digital medium. Best suited for students in Year 9 and above.
So where do I start?
Like anything in teaching, it is the pedagogy that is the most vital part of the puzzle. Don’t include graphic novels in the curriculum simply because you can; include them because they are the best tool to use. A great deal of the Australian English Curriculum focuses on multimodal texts – either working with them or creating them – and so familiarity with this format is an awesome way to develop student’s skills in multiliteracies.
An example of how graphic novels might be used in a series of lessons for Year 8 is available here. These simple lesson plans have been developed by myself and our Education Officer – English, Kim Summers, as a way of introducing teachers to the possibilities in using this format in the classroom.
Start just by sharing a graphic novel with your students. Consider a graphic novel version of a text you might usually teach, or better still, deepen your teaching by using both traditional and graphic novel format. Investigate having students create a graphic novel (or part of one) as a writing task. Almost all literature strategies equally apply to graphic novels, but check out this list of easy to implement strategies for graphic novels for more ideas.
Teachers in Brisbane Catholic Education are welcome to borrow from our range of resources to support their investigation into graphic novels. For all other readers, check out our Pinterest Board of resources.
If you have used graphic novels in your library or classroom, share your experiences or advice in the comments below; we’d love to hear from you!