Graphic Novels Go Big

Graphic novels may seem like a new trend that emerged in the last few decades, but humans have been expressing themselves through art long before we had alphabets or written languages to tell our stories. In fact, Federico Zanettin argues that graphic novels emerged from a long line of visual storytelling that begins with "ancient cave painting, Egyptian hieroglyphic inscriptions, European medieval tapestries, early Chinese woodprints, [and] Japanese Buddhist scrolls" (2018). Today's graphic narratives have deep roots that speak to our desire to capture stories visually as well as through text and language and young people are responding with enthusiasm. Ellen Gamerman (2018) reports that the sales of children's and young adult graphic novels continue to grow, climbing to 7.2 million copies sold in 2017 from 5.8 million in 2016, according to NPD BookScan.


Graphic novels are not only popular, they're award-winning, too. The Holocaust narrative Maus by Art Spiegelman became the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize in 1992 and several have been recognized with National Book Awards and Printz Awards including American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang and March: Book Three by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. In fact, there are three awards for excellence specifically within the graphic novel community including the Eisner Award (the "Oscars" of the comics world), the Harvey Award given by graphic novel artists, and the Ignatz Awards for achievement in comics and cartooning. In the world of children's and young adult literature, there are several lists of recommended graphic novels including YALSA's "Great Graphic Novels for Teens" and the Maverick List and Little Maverick List (K-5) of graphic novels selected by librarians and published by the Texas Library Association. And you can find other recommended lists of graphic novels on a regular basis at Horn Book, School Library Journal, and even Pinterest and Instagram!


Graphic novels are not a genre of literature, but rather a format that can cross many different genres. Gamerman (2018) believes the market is "rearranging itself" and cited Eric Stephenson, publisher at Image Comics, who observed, "There was a point not too long ago when the market for graphic novels was split between superheroes and more-literary work, but there's a great deal of space in between and we're seeing more and more material that occupies that middle ground." In her updated book The Readers' Advisory Guide to Graphic Novels, (2017), Francisca Goldsmith deconstructs how the format is constructed and why illustrated works appeal to readers. But she also argues that graphic novels are not just for children with low literacy skills or low motivation, but in fact require multiple literacies since this format combines written and visual cues to convey meaning. Goldsmith's invaluable resource provides 350 annotated recommendations of all kinds of graphic novels, complete with descriptions of plot and visual style.

Best Books: A Sampling

The abundance of graphic novels available is impressive. From the humorous Bone books by Jeff Smith to the sophisticated story The Arrival by Shaun Tan to the popular Babymouse Tales by Jennifer Holm and Matthew Holm to the playful Lowriders books by Cathy Camper and Raul III, to the girl-centric Smile (and others) by Raina Telgemeier, among many more. Authors and illustrators are bending and breaking the rules and creating new forms that blend text and visuals in innovative ways like Brian Selznick's Caldecott medal book The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) or his Schneider Award book Wonderstruck (Scholastic, 2011). Even memoirs have been captured in graphic novel form such as El Deafo by Cece Bell and Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka, who is best known for his tongue-in-cheek Lunch Lady graphic series.

Many traditional narrative novels are now getting the graphic novel treatment such as A Wrinkle in Time, The Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Wizard of Oz, The Boxcar Children, and even series books such as The Babysitter's Club and the Goosebumps books. Some epic tales such as the Odyssey, the Iliad, and Beowulf are also now available in graphic novel form retold and illustrated by Gareth Hinds, Diego Agrimbau, or Fiona MacDonald. Zanetti (2018) makes a strong case for the potential of international crossover with the translation of graphic novels into many different languages such as the Tintin series and Asterix series. Publishers are even creating new imprints such as Graphix to feature graphic novels exclusively and many television shows (e.g., The Walking Dead) and feature films (e.g., the many Marvel character films) are based on comics and graphic novels.

Collection Development

In their article, "Got Graphic Novels?" Zahra Baird and Tracey Jackson offer these helpful tips for librarians on collecting this graphic novel format:

  • Include graphic novels in your library's collection development policy or statement
  • Become knowledgeable about the genre through professional resources on this topic
  • Read graphic novel reviews in library and education journals and preview books to help in the selection process
  • Budget wisely and set aside funds to start up and maintain a viable collection, keeping in mind replacement costs
  • Consider cataloging options, a separate place to house the collection with a graphic novel suffix
  • Have a solid reconsideration and intellectual freedom policy
  • Choose a well-placed display area with face-out shelving
  • Be open to receiving suggestions from young people (2007, p. 6)


Other helpful tools for developing graphic novel collections and for sharing graphic novels with young people include:

Abate, Michelle Ann and Gwen Athene Tarbox. Graphic Novels for Children and Young Adults: A Collection of Critical Essays. University Press of Mississippi, 2017.

Gorman, Michelle.Getting Graphic! Using Graphic Novels to Promote Literacy with Preteens and Teens, Volume 2. Linworth, 2012.

Jaffe, Meryl. Worth a Thousand Words: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Visual and Verbal Literacy. Jossey-Bass, 2018.

Pawuk, Michael and David S. Serchay. Graphic Novels: A Guide to Comic Books, Manga, and More. Second Edition. Libraries Unlimited, 2017.

You'll find additional "educator resources" at the Reading with Pictures website here:


Some libraries have had great success with comic, manga, and anime clubs devoted to this special niche. Check out the Graphic Novels Core Collection, published regularly by H.W. Wilson, as well as recommended core lists at and other sites. The visual book format of the graphic novel has drawn many new readers to book clubs, particularly 'tweens and teens. Plus there are graphic novels in nearly every genre, from realism to fantasy to historical fiction to nonfiction. Children immersed in the visual culture of television and the Web are often drawn to the visual qualities of art and literature found in graphic novels. We're missing an opportunity to reach new readers if we ignore this important and innovative form.

Works Cited

Baird, Zahra M., and Tracey Jackson. "Got Graphic Novels? More Than Just Superheroes in Tights!" Children & Libraries 5, no. 1 (April 2007).

Gamerman, Ellen. "Graphic Novels Get New Respect." Wall Street Journal (August 4, 2018).

Goldsmith, Francisca. The Readers' Advisory Guide to Graphic Novels, Second Edition. ALA Editions, 2017.

Zanettin, Federico. "Translating Comics and Graphic Novels" in The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Culture by Sue-Ann Harding and Ovidi Carbonell Cortes. Routledge, 2018.

About the Editor

Sylvia Vardell is Professor in the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University and teaches courses in literature for children and young adults. She has authored or co-authored more than 100 published articles, more than 25 book chapters and given more than 150 presentations at national and international conferences. She is the author of Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide, Poetry Aloud Here!, The Poetry Teacher's Book of Lists, Poetry People, co-edits The Poetry Friday Anthology series (with Janet Wong) and maintains the PoetryForChildren blog and poetry column for ALA's Book Links magazine.

MLA Citation Vardell, Sylvia M. "Graphic Novels Go Big." School Library Connection, December 2018,

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Entry ID: 2182299

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