The Case for Graphic Novels in Education

Use students’ visual vocabulary as a learning tool

August 1, 2011


Perhaps we’re past the point of having to explain that graphic novels, with their knack for attracting reluctant readers and hitting developmental sweet spots, have a legitimate place on library shelves. Perhaps. But what about the idea that graphic novels encompass such a wide range of themes and create such layered experiences through word and art that they actually belong in classrooms? Because contemporary students have a much wider visual vocabulary than we did growing up, I contend that the format offers great opportunities to teach as well as to entertain.

My own experiences as a teacher and a librarian bear out the medium’s potential. It will come as little surprise to anyone who works with children and young adults that graphic novels disappear from library shelves faster than anything else (except, maybe, vampire novels) and are the topic of eager discussion whenever they find their way into classrooms. This interest isn’t solely among kids looking for a fun, colorful story. Equally interested are the graduate students in my class at Pratt Institute, as well as many educators at LREI, the independent school in Manhattan where I work. Fascination with the history and language of the form as a vehicle for education is clear.

Funny books and American culture

Comic books have long had a reputation for being disconnected from legitimate educational concerns. They were supposedly fluffy things, good for a laugh at best, agents of desensitization and proponents of violence at worst. Thanks to the graphic novel, educators and librarians are gradually finding that not to be the case. Professionals I have spoken with are astonished and delighted to discover that the history of the comic book is the history of American culture (and not just popular culture); that the medium’s development reflects our own cultural growing pains over the last century; and that it defines certain aspects of the American psyche more trenchantly than any other art form around.

The superhero, comicdom’s most famous (and infamous) invention, is a prime example of a potent cultural symbol long overlooked for what it has to say about the evolution of America’s view of itself. Created as we came out of the Great Depression and World War II was on the horizon, the superhero character so potently reflected the American can-do spirit and penchant towards confidence and arrogance (then and now) that entire curricula could be developed around it.

Many colleges and universities already recognize the production end of the medium as a valid form to pursue in education and as a livelihood. The Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design offers one of the top education programs in graphic novels in the country, but far from the only one. The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art in Dover, New Jersey, has been devoted exclusively to the study of the form since 1976.

The point of all this is that sequential art (the form of expression that fills graphic novels) is a form with something to teach us. The graphic novel is no longer just a format suitable to learn about. It is also starting to be used as a tool to educate. Beyond simply learning about the production and history of the format, the content and the way it is conveyed are becoming part of curricular infrastructure. Art Spiegelman’s MAUS and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis are frequently drafted as supplements to history and social studies curricula. They are great books, to be sure, but the format is teeming with other, wholly unexplored possibilities. Let’s have a look at a newer, very different kind of graphic novel and how it can be used in a library or classroom discussion.

A sample lesson: The Arrival

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2007), tells the archetypal story of a man who travels to a strange land. Using wordless narrative to exemplify the isolation of his protagonist and visual metaphor to lend universal power to the journeys of other immigrants in the story, Tan gives the tale a deeply emotional tone. At the same time, he relates experiences by means of a physical object, which, through deft use of color, texture, and page composition, resembles an old photo album, suggesting that we are looking back through the years at an actual life.

Immigration is a common and relevant area of curricular concentration, and textbooks and classics cover much information on the topic. But a graphic novel like The Arrival, with a narrative deepened through visual art, creates a layered experience that affords the opportunity to expand the emotional understanding of the subject and inspire empathy—something most history texts don’t—or can’t—do. Using a graphic novel to begin discussion of a subject may be unusual, but studying a subject through narrative content certainly isn’t. Try reading The Arrival with 6th- through 8th-graders and opening discussion with questions such as these:

  • Why aren’t words used in The Arrival? What effect does this have on the reader?
  • Is The Arrival a colorful book? In what way? When and why does the color change? What effect does the use of color have on the overall reading experience?
  • The city the immigrant arrives in isn’t real, but what sort of a city is it? Is it meant to suggest a contemporary or a historical place? In what way does it suggest that place?
  • How is visual metaphor used? Are the immigrants who tell their stories really running from giants with vacuums or through vast mazes? What are these things meant to represent? Why do you think the main character left his own homeland?

How sequential art communicates

What if we expand our purview a bit? Instead of the narrative content, why not focus on the manner in which the art communicates?

Sequential art combines words, which appeal to the intellect, and pictures, which appeal to the emotions, in a way no other art form does. Unlike picture books, the words and illustrations in sequential art coexist in one conceptual space (the panel) and are joined into a single piece, most commonly by word balloons. Television and movies demand the use of two senses, our eyes and our ears. But to process sequential art (comics and graphic novels), we use only our eyes and we absorb the material at our own speed, not the pace dictated by the filmmaker. The following ideas give a sense of how graphic novels work. They can be adapted for students in grades 1–7 for use in the classroom or in the library.

Telling a story without words. To demonstrate how narrative operates in its most stripped-down form, have each student illustrate the following story: A man (or woman) is hurrying to catch a train. He runs. He runs faster. He runs faster still. He either boards the train or misses it. He reacts to his success or failure.

Students must tell the story in six panels (no more and no less). They can use body language, facial expressions, color, and symbols such as speed lines, but they cannot use words. When everyone is finished, compare the ways the completed stories show the character’s various actions and final reaction.

Depicting emotion and action. The following two activities give students an understanding of the various ways emotion and action can be portrayed. When the drawings are completed, ask the group to discuss the artists’ chosen perspective and style.

1. Have each student draw five different depictions of “sad.” They can use facial expressions, body language, words, color, or metaphor (i.e., a wilted flower), but each image must be limited to a single panel.

2. Have each student draw three different depictions of a character jumping. The jumps can be small or large, up, down, or from one surface to another (one roof to the next over a sprawling cityscape). The students can use words, color, symbols, etc., but each depiction must be limited to two panels (for instance, the beginning of the jump and the end of it).

Translating a scene. This activity explores the choices inherent in the construction of a narrative.

Choose a passage from a book that is familiar to the students. The passage should be no more than a few paragraphs and depict a limited number of specific actions. It may contain (but should not be limited to) a brief conversation.

Ask the students to translate the passage from prose into sequential art, using words and other devices mentioned above. This time, however, ask them to make extensive use of the gutter, the space between the panels. The combination of the moments the artist puts on paper and those he or she purposely leaves to the reader’s imagination (in the gutter) is what determines a visual narrative’s success. Compare the completed stories in terms of their perspective, how the characters looked and felt, how actions were carried out, and what specific actions were left unseen between the panels.

Years ago, when I began experimenting with graphic novels in classrooms, I used an exercise similar to the one I’ve described above with a 3rd-grade class. In an effort to show the children how passage of time was conveyed in sequential art, I asked them to create, on the spot, a two-panel narrative within the space of about three minutes. Many students I’ve worked with don’t want to share their personal work, especially impromptu creations like the ones these students were directed to produce. But when I asked for volunteers to show their panels, every single hand in this class went up. Every single hand.

I get similar results again and again when I talk about sequential art and use graphic novels with students. The form reaches young people in a way no other can, and thanks to graphic novels, I’ve seen students’ imaginations (and interests) soar. Take advantage of the incredible potential these books offer. Use your students’ enthusiasm to help them make a powerful investment in their own education. Why leave any resource untapped?

JESSE KARP is a librarian at LREI (Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School) in Manhattan and can be contacted at jkarp[at] He is also the author of the YA novel Those That Wake. This article captures some of the ideas in his forthcoming ALA Editions book, Graphic Novels in Your School Library, which will be published this fall.