The Missouri Reader Vol. 42, Issue 1 - Page 43


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The first couple years of teaching my class had a bad case of, “I can’t find anything I want to read.” Despite having bins of award winners, popular series, and some funny picture books, my humble library struggled to keep my students satisfied. My initial attempts to appease the demands for something good or exciting usually involved suggesting my favorite titles from when I was their age or offering all the titles that I considered bandwagon books. Finally, I accepted my inability to sell what I thought was a good book, so I decided to take a detour to find some exciting books, even if they were outside of my reading comfort zone. What I ended up finding and bringing to our library was something new (to me), flashy, and 100 percent graphic.

Our classroom’s first three graphic novels were Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi, Cleopatra in Space by Mike Maihack, and Smile by Raina Telgemeier. Before their debut, I gave all three titles a teacher’s read-through and came into the class Monday morning with fairly high hopes. These three fiction books ended up never touching the shelf for first couple months. Each novel had a waiting list and no student was allowed to have two new novels at the same time, a student-made and strongly student-enforced rule. At first the fresh, vibrant books caught the students’ attention, and by the end of the week they had reached rockstar status with a fanbase clamoring for sequels.

It was one thing for these graphic novels to be devoured, but the fascinating phenomenon for me was the way students started talking about these books own their own (no prodding by me). Not just my high-flying readers that normally geeked out over their reading, but my even my boys who only lived in the factual pages of Guinness World Records or Minecraft how-to texts began chiming in on complex character traits, summary of events along with every funny part of the book. It didn’t stop there, girls who refused to read anything but American Girl or Heartland series finally tested the graphic novel waters with Smile. In this book, a humorous and heartfelt sixth grader, Raina, manages a rough and tumble adventure through life and school. My girls fell in love with this one graphic novel, so it didn’t take long for them to hop in line for the next two. Even though all the books had a female protagonist, most of the girls initially viewed these texts as boy books simply because of the sci-fi look and the fact that my boys were fawning over them. However, once the stereotypical boy book vs girl book was flushed away, the whole-class conversation around these readings flourished.

After seeing how these three titles created graphic novel groupies, I began to consider how else these newer texts could benefit my students. One thing I noticed was how they used the pictures/graphics in the books to help add to their mental movie and understanding of what is going on in the story. For example, the details the illustrator used to show characters’ emotion and interactions with others was easier to point out and verbalize with these graphic novels. Students would also make reference to the flavorful dialogue and how it connected the story to the pictures and also moved the story forward. I used these teaching moments to point out to the students that, these parts of writing were the same areas I wanted them to focus on in their own stories.

Using the graphic novels as a mentor text was a bit odd at first, but it slowly began to bear fruit in students’ writing. Students straddled the line of reader and writer to see how dialogue tied to visual details in the story. Then they would verbalize what they were literally seeing on the pages and with a bit of discussion, they would jot down in their own words specifically what was happening in the images. This process was an interactive and engaging way to help my students see how to take their mental movie from their minds and put it down on paper.

Graphic novels were not a magical cure for my class, but they did provide a healthy dose of perspective, engagement, and novelty that kept readers coming back for more. I see what Vacca, Vacca, and Mraz (2017) meant when they said “graphic novels have evolved into a thought-provoking literary genre” (p. 177). I continue to use a wide variety of them today to help students shift from reader to writer and back again. Graphic novels also work well to teach students how writers use stunning images and dialogue to make and move a story. This has helped students understand the need to create pictures with words along with meaningful dialogue to make and move their own story. Plus, this type of reading provides a different take on literature that some students prefer over traditional black and white print. As Vacca et al. said, “graphic novels can engage students in both fictional and factual topics” (p. 365) so it draws all types of readers.

In other words, if you find that your class has a bad case of, “I can’t find anything I want to read,” maybe you don’t need any more traditional award winners, popular series, or funny picture books. It might be time for you to go graphic. Words are powerful, and if “pictures are worth a thousand words,” then graphic novels just might be more powerful than we give them credit.


Vacca, R. T., Vacca, J. L., & Mraz. (2017). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (12th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Eli Helms is a 4th-grade teacher at Willard Central Elementary School. He is currently working toward a master's degree in literacy at Missouri State University.


My Venture into Graphic Novels

Eli Helms