To be or not to be: Graphic Novels in the Classroom?

by Julia López-Robertson, Amber Hartman, Jennifer Judy, Lillian Reeves, University of South Carolina

Many teachers are very hesitant to use graphic novels in their classroom. Much of the hesitation has to do with a personal lack of familiarity with this specific form of literature. For some, the use of graphic novels in the classroom is foreign and scary, some might not even see it as “literature,” while others are actually beginning to see the great advantage of using them to supplement student learning.

One of the most important characteristics of graphic novels that the students picked up on – specifically from reading American Born Chinese (Yang, 2006) and the Yang (2008) and Boatwright (2010) articles – was the opportunity graphic novels allow for students to be present in the creation of their literacy experiences. As the articles pointed out, with the organization of the books, students choose not only how to read the words, but also how to arrange the images in their minds and to work as co-creators of story knowledge with the authors. Eliminating even some of the time it might take to translate just text for emergent bilinguals or any readers with a range of language abilities, can alleviate unnecessary frustrations and extend the “bridge” that Yang (2008) refers to as a way of leading all students fluidly between the media they watch and the media they read (p. 167).

From our group discussions, it is fair to say that we, too, were all somewhat hesitant about diving into the graphic novel aspect of teaching. Our hesitation was understandable, but it presented some new possibilities for student learning.
Michelle says, “To be honest, even after reading the entire novel, I was not sold on graphic novels.” Although she was not completely convinced by this idea, she did come to realize that graphic novels aren’t so bad after all as she notes, “Explaining graphic novels in the graphic novel format (Yang, 2008) was very powerful for me. I began to see how effective it could be in teaching children, because through reading it, I was learning and enjoying it at the same time.”

It seems that Becca has taken a few steps into the “graphic novel world” with her students and is eager to see how else she can incorporate more into future lessons while Carol was, at first, wary about reading graphic novels herself. After reading American Born Chinese, she has come to enjoy them and echoed Michelle’s idea that after reading Yang’s (2008) article “which was vividly brought to life by being in comic form, I was absolutely convinced of the value of graphic novels in the classroom. This media is an invaluable tool for students to understand complex social and political issues.

Boatright (2010) states that graphic novels provide a critical literacy framework in which readers are viewed as “active participants in the reading process, and invites them to move beyond passively accepting the text’s message to question, examine, or dispute the power relations that exist between readers and authors” (p. 470). Although Amber had never read a graphic novel before reading American Born Chinese, she would consider using them to teach in the classroom; “I can see how they make the more sensitive social, political, and economic issues easier for students and teachers to handle.

American Born Chinese was a graphic novel first for both Tracy and Amanda. They are less familiar with this particular literary genre than Stephanie and Jennifer. There was a brief discussion about Yang’s second-generation point of view, which is different than the other YA novels that we’ve read in class which were first generation accounts. In this story, we see that students who have spent their entire life in the US experience some of the same identity issues as our new arrivals. Tracy was concerned that Yang’s use of humor to present such a serious subject may cause students to take these issues too lightly.

After much discussion, we all believe that American Born Chinese is a wonderful graphic novel that highlights the issue of immigration and shows us the impact it has on a number of people. We feel that this novel is extremely appropriate considering all that is going on with immigration around the world, and in today’s society. We know that a key trait to graphic novels is that they introduce “intricately complex, social, economic, political, cultural, and historical realities” (Boatright, p. 468). Graphic novels are a great way to showcase these events and prompt meaningful discussions and learning. Although there was some reluctance and uncertainty about using graphic novels as a teaching tool in the classroom, we have reached an agreement that they can be a pleasurable and valuable asset to student learning.

Yang (2008) suggests using graphic novels to express vivid experiences is a political choice. Award winning graphic novels, including Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006) and The Complete Maus (2003) have further political implications for breaking down access barriers that have traditionally excluded language learners. However, when graphic novels are successfully used to engage readers with issues of identity, conformity, relationships, and other social experiences, young people can position themselves as activists and conscientious consumers of the media they watch, the media they read, and, most pressingly, the media they produce. Most young people hear the call for stories; we don’t know any children who haven’t imagined themselves as a hero or heroine at some time or another in their lives. Broadening the visual and textual formats through which we come to know and understand the motivations of characters — characters like ourselves and like others we don’t yet know — has explicit implications for building and sustaining more accepting classrooms and for creating a space for new heroes and heroines to emerge undauntedly.


Boatright, M. D. (2010). Graphic journeys: Graphic Novels’ representations of immigrant
experiences. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(6), 468-476.
doi: 10.1598/JAAL.53.6.3

Yang, G. (2006). American Born Chinese. New York, NY: First Second Books.

Yang, G. (2008). Graphic novels in the classroom. Language Arts,85(3), 185-192.

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3 thoughts on “To be or not to be: Graphic Novels in the Classroom?

  1. yoo kyung sung says:

    I am curious how students understood the monkey king in this graphic novel. Monkey king seems to have a strong cultural attachments that it seems to take some background knowledge.. I am curious how the Monkey King is interpreted…

  2. Sam Li says:

    I love what you said about children feeling present in their educational experience when diving into the world of graphic novels. Graphic novels can be very entertaining, and they allow people to improve their overall literacy. My brother loves graphic novels, so I’ll make sure to find one that suits his interests for a birthday present.

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