Until last year, Kevin Yu’s now 8-year-old daughter, Olive, wasn’t really into reading books for pleasure. But then, Olive discovered the graphic novel series Dog Man, and everything changed.
“We would catch her reading in bed at night by herself, and were like, ‘I'm proud of you, but go to bed!’"
She now begs her parents for new graphic novels at the school book fair, and rereads all of the Dog Man books and Captain Underpants, too. She’s also started creating her own comic-style drawings. And recently, says Yu, she brought home her first non-graphic book from school.
“I used to look at graphic novels as the junk food of reading,” says Vicki Fraser, an elementary school teacher in Rosemère, Quebec. But that changed when she was introduced to a graphic novel biography of French-Canadian strongman Louis Cyr that she couldn’t put it down. “I was quickly pulled into the story, and the images helped to guide me, keep me focused, and make the story more clear,” she explains.
Now, graphic novels are an essential part of her grade 5 classroom and she highly encourages her own daughters, who are 12 and 14, to read them.
She says graphic novels actually help her students become more sophisticated readers, thanks to visual cues, like the font used, which helps to communicate a character’s emotion, for instance. This teaches them to pick up on a book’s tone, which is a skill they are able to use with non-graphic texts, too.
Another skill that graphic novels teach kids is the ability to make predictions about what’s to come in the book they’re reading. “There’s a lot of thinking that’s required to connect different portions of the text together or even frame to frame,” says Sean Henderson, a high school teacher in Toronto who has incorporated graphic novels into his classroom. “A lot of inference skills are needed to read a graphic novel.”
And just because they’ve got pictures, it doesn’t mean the vocabulary isn't challenging. “Sometimes the vocabulary is pretty tough in some of the graphic novels, too, it's not just all simplistic language, but they can rely on that visual to kind of help them along. And sometimes the visuals really tell the story themselves. You don't even need the words there,” says Fraser.
Another benefit that both Fraser and Henderson have noticed is graphic novels are a great way to introduce all kids, no matter their reading abilities, to challenging topics like racism or poverty, or even historical events they may not have been keen to learn about from a heavy tome. “They allow students to connect to issues in a more meaningful way because they’re able to see a character and what their struggle is like,” Henderson explains. “It's more immediate and they’re more able to picture and really understand problems within our society, or problems that a character’s undergoing,” he says.
Graphic novels are also thoroughly entertaining, which is why they appeal to kids who are voracious readers, as well as those who may have a harder time with this skill. This can boost the confidence of the struggling readers when they see they’re reading the same books as the bookworms says Fraser.
Kathryn Byrne, an elementary school vice principal and a literacy specialist, agrees. “Graphic novels offer all different kinds of readers access to the same level of story and inferencing and imagination, and that wonderful way a story takes you away, regardless of their decoding ability,” she says.
That’s why she’s completely fine with her 10-year-old daughter devouring graphic novels like Real Friends by Shannon Hale and illustrated by LeUyen Pham, while being reluctant to read traditional chapter books. “One of the most important predictors of future reading ability is the volume of and time spent reading,” she says. “As long as she is reading stuff, I know that that is contributing to her reading ability, and improving her decoding, even if it doesn’t look like what I read when I was 10 years old.” Byrne is conscious of providing her daughter with a wide range of types of graphic novels, including a variety of genres and books for different age ranges, as well as those that feature female protagonists and male protagonists.
When looking for graphic novels for your own kid, head to an independent bookstore and ask staff to make some recommendations. Librarians are great guides, too. Remember that even though they look like comics, it doesn’t mean they’re all kid appropriate. Before giving a graphic novel to your kid to read, Fraser suggests you flip through the book or read it, since some have mature content. And don't be judgy about the content—the best books are those that keep kids reading, so let them go for whatever appeals to them.
While graphic novels can a stepping stone toward longer chapter books, something both Henderson and Fraser have seen with their students, all of the educators in this story agree they have standalone value and help create passionate independent readers. “Graphic novels really open up the world of reading to an audience that maybe would never have been a genuine, true reader without it,” says Byrne.
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