Shaping a Collection: Graphic Novels and the Needs of English Language Learners

Librarians should focus on building collections that reflect their communities. For our school in Albany, New York, that community is a hub for incoming refugees from all over the world, chiefly because of the presence of an U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) field office. USCRI helps displaced families make the transition to the United States by providing a wide range of services, including language classes, housing assistance, employment opportunities, and immigration services. As librarians, we can support students’ English language acquisition and literacy development through purposeful collection development and library services, including, as we have found, providing and sharing graphic novels.

Needs of ENL Students

English as a New Language (ENL) students have unique circumstances physically, emotionally, and academically. Our students from warmer climates arrive wearing sandals and without winter coats, unprepared for Northeast winters. In addition to language barriers, there are cultural differences regarding eye contact, shaking hands, greetings, clothing, gestures, religion, and even food traditions. This makes it crucial for educators to provide opportunities for personal engagement.

Academically, some incoming students have not learned to read in their native languages and are now encountering a new alphabet with new letters, words, and sounds for the first time. Some students read their native language from right to left. Some are coming from areas of conflict and their education has been interrupted for several years. Some school-age children have never attended any type of formal schooling. This influx of students has required that our district consider different measures to support these students and their families as they transition to life in the United States.

In our area, ENL students are enrolling in Albany City Schools at such a rate that our district is considering the creation of an ENL school. This surge informed the current proposal for a “newcomer school” for ENL students in grades 6-12 beginning in September 2017. The school would serve to acclimate students to academic expectations while recognizing the cultural transition. With projected enrollment data indicating a steady increase, this transition would provide a concentrated intervention.

Reading Materials for ENL Students

We know that traditional students spend kindergarten to third grade learning to read. After (about) fourth grade, students are reading to learn. Many high school-aged refugee and immigrant students arriving in the secondary classroom are several years behind and do not have the luxury of time that their younger siblings or counterparts have. Teachers and librarians who support ENL students must bridge this gap by using the best available reading materials to support students in acquiring English. Many of our students are able to decode well, but our most important goal is to help them create meaning from what they read and not just to acknowledge their pronunciation.

The use of graphic novels with our ENL students is related to the students’ immediate enthusiasm for the content, but a deeper reason can be found in the research. Overall graphic novels: 1) appeal to a variety of readers, 2) provide visual and contextual clues of new content, and 3) provide for reader engagement. According to research, when students engage with graphics and text simultaneously, new knowledge is connected to both elements, providing for stronger comprehension that crosses gender, age, and cultural divides (Chun 2009; Griffith 2010; Oz and Efecioglu 2015). Teachers and librarians working with reluctant readers or students reading below grade level focus their energy first on helping students to find reading meaningful. Additionally, because graphic novels may feel like “cheating,” students are likely to find them more agreeable.

Strategies for Collection Development

Please see our recommended titles list below and consider these suggestions

Ask language teachers. One strategy to build the library’s collection, aside from using professional journals and blogs, is to seek out guidance from the ENL instructional staff. Our first purchase of a publisher’s leveled reading series came from a recommendation from a teacher’s professional development experience. Instead of adding the books to her classroom library, she recommended the library purchase them to provide more access for all of our ENL students.

Purchase multiple copies of select titles. As a larger school with 2,500 students in grades 9-12, one of our ordering strategies is purchasing fewer titles but with multiple copies. We see what graphic novels are being circulated and listen to student requests. This strategy is especially useful when confidence is gained and students are recommending specific books to each other.

Reach out to the public library. Sometimes multiple copies aren’t feasible, so we also rely on a strong partnership with our public library system. Youth services librarians from the various branches visit regularly regarding their programming and library cards for students. This serves as outreach for the public librarians but also relieves the pressure to have class sets of popular titles on our shelves. One of the primary goals is to ensure that ENL students know they have public library access for services like literacy volunteers, language learning software such as Mango, and multimedia content during hours when we are not open. We strive to foster confidence in ENL students’ use of the library during class visitation for projects and readers advisory, and also in returning for relevant programming, quiet study, and computer access.

Diversify. Discovering what resources circulate regularly is one element, but other resources that students might not know exist yet or that scaffold their reading must be the next step in diversifying your collection. It is not enough to have multiple copies of heavily circulated or award-winning titles. You should include picture books, beginner chapter books, narrative nonfiction (especially lower reading level/high interest), bilingual texts especially with poetry, picture dictionaries that place new learning in context, and books with multicultural characters that represent the diversity of the student body. This is not easy, but it is an ongoing effort.


An ENL student who shares a success story about completing their first book cover-to-cover is to be celebrated. We aim to provide more options to scaffold her reading and the reading needs of all students. Ultimately, we set small goals each year for improving our collection based on staff and student feedback and trends. We visit ENL classrooms so that we can meet new students, take interest inventories, and introduce them to their public librarians for additional resources. We do this not only for them, but also their families. We want to be able to deliver relevant titles that have characters that look like them or have had experiences similar to theirs. It is not possible to change our collection overnight. However, incremental steps towards shaping a collection for needs of ENL students is possible and beneficial in creating an intersection of literacy and community.


ENL:English as a New Language (new term updated from English as a Second Language (ESL) as many students speak multiple languages) and refers to the student 
ELL:English Language Learners refers to the students who receive academic services based on their ENL proficiency
SIFE:Students with Interrupted Formal Education refers to students who have come from countries where they were not receiving formal schooling. Typically these students have fled from areas of conflict and resided in refugee camps.
Refugee:A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.
Immigrant:A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign (or non-native) country.


Works Cited

Chun, Christian W. “Critical Literacies and Graphic Novels for English-Language Learners: Teaching Maus.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53, no. 2 (October 2009).

Griffith, Paula E. “Graphic Novels in the Secondary Classroom and School Libraries.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54, no. 3 (November 2010): 181-189.

Oz, Huseyin, and Emine Efecioglu. “Graphic Novels: An Alternative Approach to Teach English as a Foreign Language.” Journal of Language and Linguistic Studies 11, no. 1 (2015).



Recommended Graphic Novels


Sunny Side Upby Jennifer Holm

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Comics Squad Lunch!

Comics Squad Recess!

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova

Baba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brogsol

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Deogratias: a Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Phillipe Stassen

Incognegro by Mat Johnson

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier

Drama by Raina Telgemeier

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Babymouse series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matt Holm

Lunch Lady series by Jarett Krosockza

Owly series by Andy Runton

Bone series by Jeff Smith

Amelia Rules series

Dragonbreath series by Ursula Vernon

Binky the Space Cat series by Ashley Spires

Squish series by Jennifer L. Holm

Sports Illustrated for Kids Graphic Novels

Scholastic Branches


My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

The Great American Dust Bowl by Don Brown

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

How to Fake a Moon Landing by Darryl Cunningham

The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell

Houdini: The Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Tomboy by Liz Prince

Hidden: A Child's Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, Marc Lizano

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner

Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by Greg Neri

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco

The Other Side of the Wall by Simon Schwartz

Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer and Randy Burke

Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History by Joel Christian Gill

Graphic Classics series

Graphic Spin series

Maus I by Art Spiegelman

Maus II by Art Spiegelman

March Book 1 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

March Book 2 by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Persepolis 1 by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi

About the Authors

Kristen Majkut, MSIS, is school librarian at Albany High School in Albany, NY. Kristen received her master's degree from the University at Albany. You can follow her on Twitter @kristenmajkut or follow her blog posts on the Albany Times Union Books Blog at

Alicia Abdul, MLIS, has worked as a high school librarian for the City School District of Albany since 2007 after earning her Masters from the University at Albany in Library Science. She currently reviews for Voice of Youth Advocates and facilitates the Young Adult Book Group for the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services. She is a contributor to Albany's Times Union books blog and has launched her own blog called Readers Be Advised on Wordpress. 

MLA Citation Abdul, Alicia, and Kristen Majkut. "Shaping a Collection: Graphic Novels and the Needs of English Language Learners." School Library Connection, April 2017,

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Entry ID: 2071413

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