The comic book steps up as an aid to literacy

Back in the 50s and 60s, the comic book was in its heyday. Super heroes and super villains thrilled young boys. Younger children would spend their pocket money on the newsprint serials of Richie Rich and Archie comics. However, woe to the child who snuck one into class only to be caught.

I age myself when I say I remember buying Archie and Jughead comics at the corner Five & Dime. I spent my allowance on a 15-cent comic once a week. What I had left bought a nickel’s worth of gum and a dime candy bar. Sometimes the gum wound up on the end of my nose if, in the depths of the comic hidden in the pages my math book, I became too excited about the story and forget not to blow bubbles with my Bazooka! (Teachers frowned upon chewing gum during class, as well.)

This is a front cover of the Japanese manga Dash! Yonkuro Volume 1. This manga was originally published by Shogakukan in the late 1980's.

As all things do, comic books cycled out of style as children found other diversions. Publishers issued fewer new adventures and cover prices climbed. In the mid 80s, the comic book experienced rejuvenation. A new genre made an appearance in the West with the invasion of manga. These Japanese comic books took the comic book community by storm. They differed from the physical make up to the comic books of the 50s and 60s by being novel length series. Pages bound between covers with a spine instead of saddle stitched with a few staples, these comics featured highly stylized art and required reading from right to left. Most of the manga to arrive in the West remained written in kanji.

Artists and writers are innovative folks. It wasn’t long before home-grown versions of manga made an appearance. The books themselves still had the stigma of not being ‘real’ literature and remained banned from classrooms. It’s this image of comic book as contraband since the 1950s, when the Senate Judiciary Committee investigated the comic book’s sinister influence and potential to inspire juvenile delinquency, that prevailed for a long time.

This is no longer the case. No longer called comic books but going by a new moniker of graphic novels, they have become an essential component of public and school library collections for both children and teenagers, and they have enormous potential for classroom use. For the reluctant reader, they are absorbing and entertaining. For a struggling reader or the reader learning English as a second language, they offer a bridge with pictures for context, and hopefully a different path into classroom discussions for higher-level texts. They expand vocabulary, and introduce the ideas of plot, pacing, and sequence. According to a 1993 study published in The Journal of Child Language, comic books or graphic novels “introduce children to nearly twice as many new words as the average children’s book and more than five times as many as the average child-adult conversation.” That’s a lot of vocabulary words.

Comic books allow children to develop the same skills as reading a more traditional book:

  • connecting narratives to children’s own experiences
  • predicting what will happen next
  • inferring what happens between individual panels
  • tracking left to right and top to bottom
  • interpreting symbols
  • following the sequence of events in a story

I was able to speak briefly with Chris Wilson, the guiding force behind comic book and graphic novel review site:

Chris Wilson declares that all reading is good reading. Anything that gets a person into reading is a substantial thing. The duality of the text and image helps to convey more info of the story. A novel can be very daunting for a struggling reader. A comic will encourage a struggling reader as a bridge to reading novels by making reading engaging.

Students learn to trust the teacher’s advice on reading material because of enjoyment of a GN. A short novel or chapter book is the next step. Once a student is hooked, bigger pieces of literature are a given, because the student learns the love of reading. Comics should be savored and can teach good readers to slow down and experience all the nuances of the story.

He suggests the proper way to introduce the graphic novel into classroom learning by:

  1. Responsible use
  2. Effective use
  3. Study by subject not by form (i.e. study World War II using graphic novel, book, newspaper and video)
  4. Combine GN and text book study for a richness of given subject

Not everyone is as big a fan of dangling the comics as bait to lure new campus library patrons and foster a love of books. In an article available here:, Carol Jago, literacy specialist for the National Council of Teachers of English is quoted as saying she worries that schools will have lower-level classes and English learners reading the graphic novel of ‘Frankenstein’ and honors students reading the real thing. She is concerned such practices will further widen the gap between high and low achievers.

The detractors are by far in the minority, however. According to an article by the Canadian Council on Learning, comics have become a pervasive and undeniable aspect of popular culture. The CCL comments on findings in studies about comics, that such reading choices appeal a great deal to middle-grade boys, especially those who are often reluctant to ‘waste’ time reading.

Graphic novels are in huge demand and publishers are scrambling to feed the cry. Books of all kinds are now available, from original story lines like The Magic Pickle by Scott Morse and Ellie McDoodle by Ruth McNally, to remakes of such story classics as Shakespeare’s plays and The Little Prince, to reworked versions of popular current day novels such as The Twilight Saga. Old favorites like the Bone series by Jeff Smith are being rereleased.

As with any new media craze, sometimes choosing what is age appropriate is a challenge. This is especially true for the middle-grade reader. As the genre matures, this is becoming less of an issue as publishers are filling in gaps between the very young reader and the more mature reader.  Mr. Wilson’s site is a great resource in choosing what’s appropriate for middle grade readers. Reviews are broken down into recommendation by age group.

Wendy Martin spends her days drawing fantastical worlds. In the evenings she writes about them, then she visits them at night during her dreams.

Wendy Martin
  1. Please post a teaser of it to your blog with a link back here to read the full article. Thanks for reading!

  2. Thanks for this great post on the importance of graphic novels. I want to repost on it as a link if that is ok.

    Pragmatic Mom
    Type A Parenting for the Modern World
    I blog on parenting, education and chldren’s lit.

  3. This is great news. I always loved graphic novels and the demand for them is a good idea. Reading a book can have a message, but I just want the kids reading and having fun. Graphic novels with boys in mind as a major focus is wonderful.

  4. I grew up reading the old-school DC and Marvel comic books – my brother was a collector, and I was constantly raiding his collection and reading stuff I wasn’t supposed to. Did it have a deleterious effect on my reading habits? Doubtful – not reading THE SILVER SURFER or THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA wouldn’t have raised my level of enthusiasm for the work of Thomas Hardy. What comic books did was become an ingrained part of my creative DNA, and eventually become one of the prime sources of inspiration for my first middle-grade manuscript, THE CAPTAIN STUPENDOUS FAN CLUB.

    The contemporary graphic novel has become an amazing and powerful art form, far beyond the sort of stuff I read back in the 1970s – Shaun Tan’s THE ARRIVAL is a stunning literary experience, for example. Art Spiegelman’s MAUS was a groundbreaking piece of work. and Marjane Sartapri’s PERSEPOLIS is funny, sad, profound and heartbreaking all at once.

  5. I’m not a fan of Manga, it goes back to the old Speed Racer cartoon… I’d rather not talk about it, Wendy. Okay. So drop it.

    Otherwise, I thrilled that so many of the books I’ve loved and lost are being made into graphic novels. Stephen King’s ‘The Talisman’ and his ‘Dark Tower’ series to mention a few.

    Great Post!

  6. Great and relevant topic about something I don’t know as much about as I should. I’ll check out some of these recommendations and the ones noted in the comments thread. Thanks!

  7. Thanks for all the wonderful comments, everybody. Sheela, if you head over to my personal blog, I have an interview with the author/illustrator of The Storm in the Barn. It was posted near the release date of the book.

  8. If you want to know how popular illustrations are, sit in the classroom and watch when a kid says there’s a picture in my book. They all go running. Even me.

  9. It’s a huge cry from the days I read Archie comics and all the amazing options I see now. Last month, my 7-year-old and I read A STORM IN THE BARN (about the dust bowl of Oklahoma, set during the Depression)…and trust me, this isn’t a topic she could have handled without the graphic novel aspect.

    I find it fascinating that “graphic novel” can mean a wide variety of things now, from comic book to history lesson to everything in between. I think it’s a great and versatile format.

  10. This couldn’t be more timely as my husband (a grown up boy) walked out of Powell’s today with a grocery bag full of graphic novels.

  11. Thanks for all this info, Wendy. And the memories. I loved reading comic books when I was younger and remember reading some of them over and over, wishing I had new issues.

    My sons went through a graphic novel stage and really enjoyed them. I think it’s good having that format available for young readers.

  12. As a long time writer of comics, particularly for kids, I’ve been welcomed into many classrooms where teachers and their students have embraced comic books for a number of reasons, including as another way to tell a story.

    Growing from these school visits, I’ve begun a blog aimed at kids interested in comics beyond just reading them. I recommend it for teachers and parents as well. It’s meant to be interactive. Kids can ask any questions in the comments section.

    Here is the address:

  13. My boys also love graphic novels. They are partial to the Star Wars and Spongebob Squarepants GNs, I think mostly because they are familiar. But I’m hoping they will branch out soon.

    My personal favorite graphic novel is Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon and Dean Hale and Nathan Hale. Also, though I haven’t read it yet, I’m certain the sequel, Calamity Jack, is just as amazing.

  14. My son loves the graphic novels coming out for middle-grade readers. Some favorites: Magic Pickle, the Lunch Lady series, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk. He also likes to read the graphic novel of some classics like The Wizard of Oz.

  15. I have several dozen graphic novels in my classroom. They get passed around by the kids like wildfire. Love ’em! 🙂

    I have a lot of historical graphic books that the kids love. They’re short, based on historical events and the kids can’t get enough of them.