Graphic novels often get a bad rap. Some consider them to be inferior quality reading material even though many people read them in their childhood. But are they just ‘bathroom bumph’ or serious reading?
There is a long history of illustrated literature in comic form as being acceptable reading material in other countries. In France and Belgium, the bande desinée was popularised in Asterix and Tintin. Some historians say that in Japan manga originated in scrolls from the 12th century, but it is more likely that it was the 18th century (Kordic, Pereira, Martinique, 2016). The manga series ‘Astroboy’ was popular after World War II and influenced the future of the format. In the United States the comic book was born in 1933 when two employees at the Eastern Color Printing Company put together newspaper comic strips into a magazine format. In the 1940s and 50s, comic books were a popular form of reading with young people with 95% of 8-14 year olds and 65% of 15-18 year olds reading them (Sones, 1944 in Yang, 2011).
Progressive teachers started using graphic novels in the classroom until child psychologist, Dr Fredric Wertham, who did extensive work with juvenile delinquents, published his book ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ in 1954. Wertham believed that “comic books caused juvenile delinquency” because he noted most of the youth he studied read comic books. What he failed to notice, however, is that most young people at the time were reading comic books. According to Dr. Carol L. Tilley, it is likely that Wertham, “manipulated, overstated, compromised and fabricated evidence” (Itzkoff, 2013). However, the case went to court and although it ended inconclusively, the damage was done. (Yang, 2016) It wasn’t until the 1970s that a few brave educators started introducing them into the classroom again. (Yang, 2016) In the USA, superheroes came alive through the comic book. The scientific nature and science fiction creations challenging young readers with often complex and high level vocabulary. Even today, the average comic book has the same reading level as Time magazine and other mainstream publications.
What they are and why read them
Graphic novels are published in a broad range of subject areas including history, biography, science, as well as fiction genres including classics, mystery and horror, to name a few. (Get Graphic, 2017) They are similar to comics books in that they use sequential art to tell a story. However, they are often written as stand-alone stories with more complex text (Get Graphic, 2017) and often have subtle, involved and fascinating plotlines. (Krashen, 2004, p. 95)
Graphic novels are full of text that readers need to decode and analyse in order to comprehend the story. The images support the text and enable readers to understand what is on the page, and can help improve language and literacy development, particularly for those who may have difficulties reading or are learning a new language. (Crawford, 2004, Mascott, 2017) The images scaffold word and sentence comprehension, thus supporting a deeper interpretation of the words and story, and there is more rapid enjoyment of the reading experience, which also helps to build confidence. (Karp in Alverson, 2014)
Today, young people engage with visual information on a daily basis. Graphic novels provide a bridge between the media we watch and media we read by combining images and text. (Yang, 2008) Adding to this, research has shown that our brains process and store visual information faster and more efficiently than verbal information, so when we couple images with text, we are also building verbal skills and memory. (Jaffe in Alverson, 2014) In the same article, Esther Keller, a librarian in Brooklyn also reminds us that: “Images are a part of today’s culture... if we are not teaching students how to read images, then they are not getting a rounded education.”
Over the last decade more research has been done about the benefits of reading graphic novels. More titles have been published across all age groups and are being promoted in public libraries, school libraries and the classroom. (Alverson, 2014)
Krashen believes that the most powerful way to encourage children to read is to expose them to light reading and suspects this is the way nearly all of us learned to read. (2004, p. 92) Furthermore, Crawford (2004) maintains that adding graphic novels to a school’s library collection is an effective way to foster students’ love of reading, and that providing them with diverse reading materials enables them to become lifelong readers.
So, next time your child brings home a graphic novel, why not sit down with them and read their selection together. You might just be surprised by the rich language and visual cues that will help you read the story in a deeper way, and perhaps take a trip down memory lane.
Alverson, B. (2014, April 1). Teaching with graphic novels. School Library Journal. Retrieved from
Crawford, P. (2004, Feburary). A novel approach: using graphic novels to attract reluctant readers. Library Media Connection. Retrieved from
Get Graphic.org. (2007). Retrieved from
Kordic, A., Pereira, L., and Martinique, E. (2016). A short history of Japanese manga. Retrieved from http://www.widewalls.ch/japanese-manga-comics-history/
Krashen, S.D. (2004). The power of reading: insights form the research (2nd edition). Portsmouth
Mascott, A. (2017). 3 Reasons Graphic Novels Can Be Great for Young Readers. Retrieved from
Yang, Gene Yuen. (2016, December). Gene Yeun Yang: Why comics belong in the classroom | Gene
Yang | TEDxManhattanBeach. [Video file]. Retrieved from
Yang, Gene Yuen. (2011). Comics in Education. Retrieved from
Yang, Gene. (2008). Graphic novels in the classroom. Language Arts; Jan 2008; 85, 3. 185-192.
Retrieved from https://www.ecu.edu/cs-lib/trc/upload/Gene_Yang_article.pdf
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