So What’s This Genre About?
Graphic novels are extended comic books constructed with carefully sequenced images that tell a story. Readers of this genre come to know that graphic narrative is comprised of “panels” that form a grid with several frames. These frames move the story along with carefully chosen images and selective text. Images are carefully positioned to reveal rich detail about character, plot, and setting in each frame.
Analyzing familiar comics, like historical or political cartoons, help acquaint learners to the strong relationship between graphics and text. Moving into novel length graphic narrative supports connections to elements from other fictional genres such as modern fantasy. Readers discover the familiar themes of struggle, power, self-discovery, underdogs, and heroism. The vivid imagery and limited text in the graphic novel demand a high level of student inference. Mini lessons seed the graphic study to support strategic inferring and draw upon schema for fictional crafts, plot elements, and character archetypes. These lessons yield readers and writers of graphic novels who understand that the text reveals only a small part of critical information about a story. Remaining details lie just below the surface to be conjured from imagery, whether graphic or reader-imagined.
Why Teach the Graphic Genre?
Graphic novels close the reading rate gap, as inferring from images, rather than text, eliminates some text-based issues that slow struggling or reluctant readers. For readers that tussle with abstract thinking, graphic novels introduce inferring skills via digestible images that illuminate how readers of pictures tackle pictorial elements. This establishes a strong parallel foundation for applying the same strategies to print (e.g., chunking information about characters, pairing schema with evidence from the text, using contextual clues to fill in missing pieces). Graphic novel studies provide a rich base for differentiation without stigmatization. Skills and strategies can be applied to frames and panels with a range of depth, even for students at disparate reading levels. Additionally, as graphic novels are new to many readers in the context of classroom study, the playing field is leveled, unlikely “experts” emerge among readers, and conversation travels around fresh bends of the learning landscape.
How do I Teach the Graphic Genre?
Graphic novel study offers a powerful opportunity for immersion in a non-traditional genre, laying the groundwork for a parallel unit in writing graphic narrative. Students can study the craft and structure of graphic texts in reading and create their own graphic mini novels in writing. The creation of frame illustration can incorporate numerous art media, including creative technology.
The study of graphic novels embeds seamlessly as a mini unit in broader study of other fictional genres. View a sample TLA month-long unit of study for investigating the genre of graphic novels, with a comparative exploration of fantasy and science fiction genres. This study leads readers in an exploration of the genre through lessons such as:
- Readers of graphic novels explore the brilliant, striking images depicting characters and events in graphic novels and use these visuals to better understand the characters, setting, and plot.
- Graphic novel readers know that sometimes in graphic stories, like in movies, there are missing pieces (events, outcomes, information, etc.) between images. Readers can infer what happened, even when it wasn’t clearly stated or illustrated, by considering clues from the frames before and after.
- Readers of graphic narrative recognize that graphic novel storytellers uniquely combine the elements of narrative, picture books, movies, and poetry to tell a story. They often include linear text (as in novels and short stories), rely on meaning conveyed through illustration (as in picture books), and use visual imagery to give the impression of movement (as in film).
- Graphic novel readers take their time. They know they need to “read” each frame and take in all the visual and textual information at the same time. Graphic novel readers stop, think, and ask themselves, “What is most important to take with me from this frame as I read on?”
- Graphic novel readers pay careful attention to detail. They analyze facial expressions and body positions to add to their understanding of character and plot.
- Like fantasy readers, graphic novel readers expect to learn alongside the main character. As the characters grow values, beliefs, fears, strategies, and customs, the reader learns as well. They track problems, resolutions, and character growth by paying attention to pressures, forces, relationships, coincidences, victories, losses, and other critical events.
- Graphic novel readers dissect the settings. They know some frames are deliberately stark or rich with detail. They wonder, “What’s important to know about the setting in a frame?” Graphic novel readers analyze the setting of their stories for psychological as well as physical implications.
- Like fantasy readers, graphic novel readers hunt for clues about the time period and fantasy or fictional elements of the story. They do this by synthesizing information from multiple sources: the cover, the blurb, and details from the beginning of the story. Graphic novel readers revisit their syntheses as they read and new information becomes available.
- Graphic novel readers search for meaning and foreshadowing in the illustrations. They do this by considering composition of the image.
- Graphic novel readers consider viewpoint when reading frames. They wonder, “Whose perspective is this?” and “Through whose eyes is this event depicted?” For example, they work to determine if the image reflects the main character’s view of an event, another character’s view, the narrator’s view, or the reader’s view. They pay attention to see if the viewpoints change over the course of the panel or story.
- Graphic novel readers wonder about character dialogue. Some stories are structured to include lots of dialogue between characters, while other stories reveal more detail about a character’s inner thinking (e.g., “thought bubbles”). Graphic novel readers think about an author’s style in depicting character dialogue, character thought, or narration of the story. They ask themselves questions such as, “Why did the author use thought bubbles?” or “Why did the author choose not to indicate any dialogue in a particular set of frames?” and “What is the relationship between the text and the illustration?”
- Readers of graphic narrative are interested in learning how graphic authors think about storytelling. They look for clues about graphic storytellers by listening to interviews. (View interview segments from YouTube, pausing at various points to think aloud about the author’s choices, craft, motivation, and inspiration. For example, the following interviews feature Jeff Smith, renowned author of the graphic series, Bone.)
What Resources Might Support my Graphic Novel Studies?
Many online resources provide suggestions for building graphic novel reading collections in your classroom. Borrow these titles from your public library, collect them from used bookstores, or add them to your wish list of class or school library texts. Excellent selections are available for K-8 readers and 9-12 readers at:
Many educators are documenting their experiences in graphic narrative and novel studies. Tips and tools are abundant in these accounts of teaching and learning in the genre. Read some insights at:
Contact Teaching and Learning Alliance if you would like to think further through graphic novel or narrative genre study in your school or classroom!