I am, at heart, a comic book kid. When I was younger, comics were what I read when I wouldn't read anything else. It will come as no surprise then that I was ecstatic that Jerry Craft won the Newbery Medal for New Kid (Quill Tree Books 2019). At the same time, I was telling our students about an upcoming author/illustrator visit from Judd Winick, creator of the Hilo series. These events helped spur my explorations around how students interact with graphic novels—reading them and creating them.
You may already teach elements of reading graphic novels. Simple skills such as viewing the story left to right and top to bottom help students read graphic novels. Simple vocabulary such as panels, speech bubbles, and captions help students talk about the graphic novel they are reading. I introduce these basic elements of graphic novels to my first-grade students as they are introduced to their first books in the format. We also carry over skills from reading picture books and illustrated early readers such as looking at body positions and facial expressions to help better understand the character.
There is an argument to be made that as students grow as readers and have more experience with graphic novels, they should also be acquiring tools to help them deepen their understanding of these texts. My students study the structure of informational nonfiction books. They take notes and discuss the story and character elements around different chapter book genres. But my district does not have a curricular call to more deeply explore the storytelling format in graphic novels.
One resource that has been helpful to me is Scott McCloud's book Understanding Comics (Tundra 1993). I do not see it as a book for elementary students. The ideas in McCloud's book can be complex and contain cultural histories that many elementary students may struggle with. For a librarian though, there are ideas that McCloud explains that can be transformed into teachable lessons with students.
Paired with examples from graphic novels on elementary library shelves, students can explore how the graphic novel format expresses ideas in:
- Panel-to-panel transitions
- Expression of time
- Showing movement
- The interplay between images and text
- The impact of color in comics
These explorations do not need to be an exhaustive look at a graphic novel. Instead, they can reveal visual approaches that graphic novel illustrators use. That can encourage those readers to spend more time with the visual elements of graphic novels to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the story.
Using the library's current collection of graphic novels, students can explore these specific elements in a graphic novel. Judd Winick's HiLo series shows how use of color behind the panels can express a change in time of the storytelling. Jeff Smith's Bone series shows how time can be slowed down across panels. Shannon Hale and LeYuen Pham's graphic novel Best Friend (First Second 2019) shows the reading of text and visuals that need to take place between Shannon's inner voice as the storyteller and the visuals of what she is experiencing. Any graphic novel will connect with lessons around visual and textual expressions.
I also have a few students who create their own graphic novels and comic strips. I see them working alongside friends during indoor recesses or bringing in final pieces to share with me and others during library visits. They are developing expertise in that form of storytelling. Many of the lessons above are ones that they have learned and can express in their work even if they can't explain them.
But what about my other students? I do occasionally see teachers give students the option to use comic panels to share information as part of a final project. Is that a realistic option for most students? Most do read graphic novels, but if they haven't been intentionally exposed to visual storytelling elements, can we expect students to implement them in their own work?
As with other writing and storytelling, students will likely mimic those stories that they love and connect to. There is a group of students who are currently writing a comic called Super Baby. It is apparent that they are fans of Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants series. Much like student writing, their graphic novel creation will mimic the work of an author and illustrator that they admire and understand.
We can build on students' understanding by:
- Continuing to not only purchase graphic novels for our elementary libraries, but promote them as well. (I sometimes fall into the thinking that students will be naturally drawn to the format so I don't have to promote specific titles.)
- Intentionally talking with students about the visual storytelling techniques used in a graphic novel as we promote it to students.
- Work with reading specialists and teachers to encourage them to read more graphic novels.
- Inform colleagues of the unique storytelling techniques employed in the graphic novel format.
- Encourage graphic novels to be choices in book discussions and book groups that take place in classrooms.
- Continue to support the use of students' storytelling with graphic novels while providing mentor texts and mini-lessons to grow students' understanding of storytelling with the format.
I've included a lesson, "Developing Visual Literacy with Graphic Novels," that can be used either to assist students in a more in-depth reading of graphic novels or to support their storytelling when using the format. While it uses a specific graphic novel as a mentor text, the title can easily be exchanged for another depending on your focus and collection. Elementary librarians can support the use of graphic novels, in reading and storytelling, by helping students build a tool box that will enrich their experience and further their enjoyment of this genre.