By Hannah Lever
The tenth annual NEA Big Read is about to begin! But something is different this year. For the first time ever, one of the chosen books is a graphic novel!
The Middle Read book this year is New Kid by Jerry Craft. Published in 2019, it is the first graphic novel to win a John Newbery Medal. It is a wonderful novel for young readers to hold their hand as they enter into the terrifying world of middle school and as they experience feeling new and different, and hopefully, after reading the novel, see that maybe middle school isn’t as terrifying as they once thought. New Kid not only shows the tumultuous experiences of middle school, but also thoughtfully unpacks how race and class can influence these experiences for kids and those who perceive them. Ultimately, it is a story of growing up, fitting in, and learning how to find what we believe.
When I ask teachers what they think of graphic novels, they will often hesitate for a moment before saying that their students love them, and graphic novels are an excellent way to get struggling readers to finish a book. When I ask my fellow future teachers, they also hesitate to formulate a response that uses all the dense vocabulary we use, but in fewer words; they tell me that graphic novels can be a good tool in the classroom, just not in their classroom, and certainly not in their lesson plans. When I ask my mom, who has had to wrestle three daughters with ADHD into tolerating reading, she does not hesitate and says what most of us are thinking: “Graphic novels aren’t real reading.” Perhaps you are thinking the same.
When many people think of graphic novels, they envision superheroes or action adventures with entire pages dedicated to sound effects. Those are indeed graphic novels, but they are also other kinds of graphic novels. Graphic novels can be entertaining adventures, but they are also award winning memoirs. Like any type of art, graphic novels have a variety of intentions and audiences, because they are not a genre, but a medium. The graphic novel that many point to as proof of the medium’s worth is Maus by Art Spiegelman which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. New Kid won both a Newbery Medal and Coretta Scott King Award, two of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature. According to the experts, we should read graphic novels. But, we can not rely solely on experts to decide what counts as real reading, and not everything that is worth reading needs a stamp of approval.
A common critique of graphic novels is that readers get through them incredibly quickly, maybe even in under an hour. To be completely honest, I finished reading New Kid in an afternoon and my seventh-grade sister finished it in two days (during that afternoon, I did not touch my phone once). My little sister can not sit still under any circumstances and she did not sit still while reading New Kid (graphic novels are good, but they’re not miracles), but she did not put the book down, despite her fidgeting and pacing. Two skills are required to read graphic novels. Despite popular belief, the pictures do not make the words easier to read and the words do not make the pictures unnecessary. Both elements come together to build something greater than the sum of its parts. A graphic novel asks the reader to use both reading and visual comprehension skills, and doing both tasks at once is challenging enough to keep readers engaged, but neither skill is overworked so readers do not tire easily. Still, there is a persistent belief that pictures are proof of a simple story. The reality is that graphic novels and comics use pictures intentionally—there is a specific language in the illustrations, and when a reader is mindful of what they are seeing, it is incredibly rewarding to learn this language. As movies, TV shows, and online video take up more space in the media landscape, we need mediums that demand us to develop visual literacy skills. We need to think just as deeply about what we see and hear as what we read, and graphic novels can be the first step in developing that practice.
Finishing a book quickly is not a con; rather, this builds confidence in new readers, and every reader loves the satisfaction of finishing a book and craving more of it. Because graphic novels can be finished quickly, they are often reread which allows for a greater depth of understanding. Small details, subtext, and finer style details jump out on a second read or viewing of any text. Many traditional novels are worth rereading, but few people feel they have the time, even if it is a worthwhile practice. Ideally, young readers of graphic novels will build the habit of rereading, and as they diversify their reading they will apply this habit to other texts. Graphic novels have the potential for making the next generation of readers ones who allow books to live in their minds, not just on their shelves.
I have asked teachers and parents about what they think of graphic novels, but I also asked students what they think. When I ask kids about the graphic novel in their hands, their faces light up, even as the older teens try to hide their excitement. One student told me he had read the graphic novel at least five times, the evidence of his statement in the broken spine and torn pages. Another student opened her book to show me an illustration that looked just like her—everything about the character’s posture, expression, and something indescribable in the art spoke to what she was feeling. Older students told me that nonfiction graphic novels helped them “really get” history better than any textbook.
So why should we read graphic novels? We should read graphic novels because they are highly regarded in the literary community; have meaningful storylines, themes, and character development; and offer a different way to tell a story. But don’t stop there—we should read graphic novels because students today love them and are excited to read them.
Hannah Lever is an senior at Hope College studying English secondary education and has been an avid reader of all things, especially comics and graphic novels for as long as she could read.