When I first became a teacher, I was a snob about books. Classics, I say! Shakespeare! Gatsby! I was, of course, parroting my own experiences as an English major, and as a lover of literature. These, after all, were in the proverbial canon of U.S. and British Literature. So, of course I would regale my students with these beautiful stories!
Prior to becoming a teacher, I worked in a bookstore for several years. I was able to explore all kinds of books just by shelving them, or by helping a customer find their new favorite. I became familiar with new-to-me genres, including graphic novels. This book format was usually purchased by people who seemed to like comic books and role-playing games. The covers were dark and foreboding, and there was always some sort of “demon” or “dark lord” in the title.
Not my thing.
I discovered Maus 1 and Maus 2 by Art Spiegelman in the bookroom as I was putting together my syllabus for my first year of teaching. I was intrigued, and read them in two days. I was incredibly moved by the images and words of the persecuted people who were Jewish and the arrogant Nazis, depicted by mice and cats, respectively. I was hooked.
So were my students. They asked me for more books. I gave them American Born Chinese, and shortly after that, Persepolis 1 and 2. American Born Chinese was a commentary of how Asian-Americans are still victims of stereotyping, and one boy’s need to understand his identity. I realized that Persepolis required more background knowledge on the Islamic Revolution, an event I remembered from my childhood. My students gobbled them up and read them so fast that I asked them to re-read to make sure they didn’t miss anything!
They expressed a reverence for the stories and characters within these graphic novels. Even though the images helped tell the story, they recognized the depth of plot, controversy, and emotion in the text. They could truly connect, and they felt accomplished when they could finish a book and respond with a critical eye.
Graphic novels have brought me and my family joy, too! My children connected me to Inkling and Measuring Up. Inkling tells a story about a blob of ink with emotions and personality as the images allow it to twist, turn, and change facial expressions. Measuring Up is a story of familial expectations and a desire to meet a challenging goal, through the cooking of Taiwanese dishes. My daughter said she loved this book- rare and high praise indeed.
On a personal note, I love to find graphic novels with topics I can relate to! Hyperbole and a Half is a look into the mind of Allie Brosh, who suffers from anxiety, social awkwardness, and depression. The illustrations here capture the ups and downs of mental health and she nails the thought process many of us follow as we ruminate about our lives. It’s funny and heartbreaking, and it normalizes talking about mental illness. The belly laughs are plentiful!
I’m not suggesting graphic novels take the place of the classics, but the genre brings the question to mind: how do we determine what we should teach? How do certain genres expand our thinking and take their place in the canon of essential literature? Students need books they can relate to, in a format they can understand. Images and a beautiful story work together to depict real life issues and challenges, especially as our students search for and develop their identity. I know this to be true: there’s room for both graphic novels and The Great Gatsby on students’ reading list. Consider including graphic novels, and watch your students get hooked.