Final Thoughts on Graphic Novels

I had to chuckle a bit when a guy named Shane stopped by to lob a few digital bombs my way today. A staunch advocate of the role that graphic novels can play in teaching and learning, Shane wrote:

You are coming across as very pompous and honestly sir as quite unwilling to actually use the most important tool my greatest teachers had…their sense of hearing.

He also wrote:

You have a closed mind, in my view, when it comes to the sequential form of storytelling.

Now, I’m guessing Shane didn’t read too many of the dozens of comments that I’ve added to either of my last two posts on graphic novels (see here and here).

I mean, geez: I reflected on and responded to and interacted with and considered a TON of all y’all’s thoughts and opinions about graphic novels in the classroom.

More importantly, I set aside time this week to read two books that y’all recommended: The Pulitzer Prize Winning graphic novel series Maus and the often-described “bible” of graphic novel enthusiasts Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud.

Here are my reactions.


Maus is an approachable look at a nonfiction topic that many kids may never tackle outside of the graphic novel genre.

Essentially the complete story of a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, Maus was a title right up my ally.

Not only do I teach the Holocaust when I’m in a sixth grade social studies classroom, I saw Maus as a potentially nice parallel with one of my favorite nonfiction titles, Hitler Youth.

That had me thinking about the ways that I could systematically use graphic novels as hooks to more traditional texts on the same topics.

I can actually see myself working up a collection of “book tandems” that pair graphic novels with nonfiction titles on the same theme that students could read together.

Kind of a “If you liked Maus, try Hitler Youth next” kind of thing.

That would be responsible practice that I could easily embrace.

Maus did not require much mental stamina to read, however.

I think one of my key concerns with graphic novels was articulated well by John Spencer in a Twitter conversation over the weekend.

When talking about his own concerns with graphic novels, John wrote:

“I want them to be exposed to longer works to build up the stamina of a story or a concept.”

Think about that for a minute: So much of the formal reading that students will do in schools requires real stamina. It doesn’t matter what class they’re taking, nonfiction can be a grind.

But whether we like it or not, it is absolutely essential to master the grind—to be confident that you can work through a piece no matter how text-heavy it really is.

#thatslife

So while I was reading Maus, I was paying attention to how much mental stamina it took to work through—and the answer was, “not much.”

Because the text in a graphic novel is broken into such small chunks and because it eliminates almost everything except dialogue, it IS possible to breeze through a graphic novel without really taxing oneself mentally.

Maybe that’s what the students who started this whole strand of conversation—the ones who said they were drawn to graphic novels because “they didn’t have to think”—were referring to.

And before y’all start leaving me comments about the work that kids have to do to “read the pictures,” I paid close attention to that as well.

In Maus at least—a book everyone holds up as a model for the genre—there’s not much interpretation necessary. The “between the panels” reading that McCloud refers to just isn’t necessary.

Sure, you could have conversations with kids about the symbolism that Spiegelman uses—mice for Jewish people, cats for Germans—but that’s a pretty small example of high level thinking for an entire series of books that is 300 pages long.

Long story short: If Maus is an example of the best in the graphic novel world, my fears for the futures of struggling readers who embrace the genre without guidance from skilled teachers—the only group I’m concerned about—haven’t been allayed.

I’ve also got to admit that I was a little let down by McCloud’s book.

Not only was it recommended by almost every graphic novel supporter who stopped by the Radical this weekend, it was literally checked out and sent to my room unexpectedly by my school’s librarian today.

“Enjoying the conversation on the blog,” she wrote, “This is the book that helped me to learn to read between the panes.”

So I churned through it—between silent reading and skipping the gym, I found 3 hours of reading time—hoping to be convinced.

What I read was, I think, a GREAT description of what graphic novels CAN BE.

In addition to a neat overview of the actual structure of comic books, McCloud goes into several examples of the kinds of interpretation that graphic novels require of readers.

Here’s the thing, though: INCLUDING Maus, I haven’t seen a single graphic novel that has required the most sophisticated levels of visual interpretation that McCloud describes.

His book, then, seems to detail a set of best practices that really aren’t being implemented all that well in the graphic novels being written for middle schoolers.

If graphic novels DID incorporate the sophisticated behaviors he describes, I think I’d be far more willing to embrace the genre than I currently am.

As a side note that I’m trying not to dwell too long on, McCloud makes what seem to be some unsupported claims in his text that were hard for me to believe.

One in particular comes early in the text when he argues that the simple nature of cartoon drawings literally enables readers to “become” the cartoon.

The reasoning was interesting—in the physical world, we have strong visual cues for what others look like and only vague visual cues for what we look like.

Essentially, we are an abstract concept in our own minds.

Therefore, the simple images in a cartoon come closer to our own approximations of ourselves than our impressions of others.

But that kind of claim really needs some supporting evidence before I’m ready to buy into it. Until then, it strikes me as an enthusiastic stretch at best and a fanciful dance at worst.

In the end, I’ve enjoyed this conversation. I certainly didn’t expect to have spent so much time on it, that’s for sure. I’ve got a tech bit that I’m literally dying to write.

And contrary to Shane’s impressions, I’ve listened and learned a ton. You’ve forced me to reconsider my own positions on graphic novels—and that’s cool.

I’m not ready to believe that the genre is the saving grace of children’s literature yet—a passionate pill that many seem to have swallowed.

But I am open to finding a carefully selected and tailored role for graphic novels in my middle grades classroom.

#done

#movingon

 

 

13 thoughts on “Final Thoughts on Graphic Novels

  1. Laura Ringer

    I think graphic novels are a great step for students who are not born with the love for reading. Just like you said, have them read Maus and then offer up the “if you liked this, try that.” We have to realize that many students have no interest in reading, but as teachers, there is a responsibility to try to help them appreciate it to actually do the reading.

  2. Kathe Douglas

    Very few USians read for pleasure as adults. So, whether or not one appreciates graphic novels, I think it’s important to promote every kind of reading as pleasurable: magazines, blogs, the Guinness book of World Records. Deriding a format as too easy reinforces the idea that reading shouldn’t be pleasurable, which is counterproductive.
    Of course graphic novels don’t *require* a deep visual understanding, but neither does viewing The Last Supper. Likewise, they’re almost nothing but dialogue, but so are the plays of Shakespeare, which because of the tricksy language can be much more accessible as a graphic novel than as a script. The medium isn’t the message, especially if the message we want to convey is that all art enriches our lives and experience.
    I have a child who loves novels, but balks at any non-fiction except The Superior Persons Book of Words. For her, graphic novels are a pleasant introduction to memoir, history, and science writing. The other child prefers non-fiction, she loves the acquisition of facts. For her, graphic novels are a way to enjoy long narrative story lines in discrete, satisfyingly easy-to-finish chunks. Because adult fiction is now nothing but text we forget that those lengthy Victorian tomes were then available in illustrated magazine installments, and as a set of small illustrated volumes.
    No format could possibly be the saving grace of children’s literature. But a broad selection of formats and genres means there will be something for every literary taste. One thing you might do is make recommendations that cover multiple formats: the Tell-Tale Heart as story, audio book, graphic novel, and film. Get them to discuss what works best for them, and why.

  3. Mary Anne Lock

    Wow, I never imagined such a stir around graphic novels. I suppose I would add that I have experienced scenarios where at-risk students, many who were alliterate (not illiterate) bought in to reading and the language arts class because they were allowed to have some choice of reading, and in many cases they were choosing the graphic novels. I think they choose them because they actually make some real world connections with the characters and plots, sad though that may seem at times.
    In one scenario, a young man shared the experience of his younger brother dying from a gun shot as a “text to self” connection. The teacher I was coaching did quite well in making connections to proficient reader skills. The graphic novels were used as a bit of a hook I would say. She very skillfully lead students to other reading, including wonderful poetry, which featured all the classics.
    I don’t think graphic novels stand alone, but I do see a place for them in genuinly giving students a choice in reading. Skillful teachers understand the balance among all forms of literature, as well as, how to guide the reader’s choice from less sophisticated to richer texts.

  4. Kristen

    I would argue that there is much “reading of the pictures” to be done in Maus, far more than the anthropomorphism you pointed out.
    It requires “mental stamina” to not miss the small details such as:
    -Vladek often narrating his own account as he pedals a bicycle. Just as he turns the wheels in the present, the story of the past is also propelled forward. The bicycle becomes an icon that represents the idea of storytelling. I could provide multiple instances where this motif is used.
    -Spiegelman allows form to equal content when dealing with the problems of personal memory and how it coincides with documented history when Art questions Vladek about the orchestra present at the gates of Auschwitz. In one panel, it can be clearly seen by the reader as rows of prisoners are shown filing past the orchestra. This scene in Maus II graphically parallels the past and the present. Vladek is moving forward with other prisoners in the narration of the past and also walking along with Art in the present as he recounts his own memory of being at the gates. This movement forward continues the motif of “moving through” the story, similar to Vladek’s pedaling on the bike. In this scene, Art says that he “read about the camp orchestra that played” as prisoners marched out the gate. Vladek insists that he remembers “only marching, not any orchestras.” The image of the orchestra is subsequently obscured by rows of marching prisoners. In the panel of the past, Vladek must have been placed at the end of a row away from the orchestra. Spiegelman parallels this idea by placing Vladek on the outside of Art when they are walking together in the scene of the present. The image of the orchestra is obscured, just like Vladek’s obscured memory.
    Maus I and II are rich texts that can be greatly utilized to show how image and text work together or how in graphic novels, form often equals content. I disagree with your assessment that Maus does not not include McCloud’s sophisticated levels of interpretation. It just may require some mental stamina.

  5. Susan

    “…Can our students take nonfiction that is a ‘grind’ and convert it to audio and learn it that way? Many of them are much better listeners than readers…”
    The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) already does that: http://www.loc.gov/nls/eligible.html
    “Bill you wrote:
    “‘But whether we like it or not, it is absolutely essential to master the grind—to be confident that you can work through a piece no matter how text-heavy it really is.
    “‘#thatslife’
    “Why is it not ‘essential’ but ‘absolutely essential’ that our students master the grind? Are you assuming that our students must master this difficult skill to be better citizens? To be better parents? Or, is it to be better students in high school and/or college? #thatslife for whom?…”
    For the populations described at http://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/herman/reports/futurework/conference/nalsfina/nalsfina.htm and http://www.metafilter.com/72512/Rethinking-Literacy#2148258 , that’s for whom.
    To make it easier, the tasks those two specify include:
    * locate the expiration date on a driver’s license
    * total a bank deposit slip
    * sign their names
    * locate an intersection on a street map
    * understand an appliance warranty
    * total the costs from an order
    * write a letter explaining an error on a credit card bill
    * use a bus schedule
    * use a calculator to determine a 10 percent discount
    * read a contract
    * read a train timetable
    * understand financial schemes peddled by scamsters
    “…My worries are with the kids who never move beyond GNs simply because the kinds of alternatives that you mention aren’t a regular—or approachable—option in most of the higher education that kids will have to tackle if they are going to succeed in formal education settings in the future…”
    They’re also not a regular—or approachable—option in many of the workplaces that kids will have to tackle if they are going to survive without succeeding in formal education settings in the future.
    Even outside working for a wage or degree, functionally illiterate people have accidentally signed away their rights:
    http://www.buybooksontheweb.com/peek.aspx?id=1234
    “…Mother too thought it was a good idea. ‘While you kids are in the orphanage, I can try to find work.’ The ‘nuns’ who ran the establishment seemed happy to have us. I thought that perhaps the government reimbursed them according to the number of children they had. Mother inadvertently signed away custodial rights to us but didn’t realize it at the time because she was functionally illiterate…”
    http://www.argentinaindependent.com/socialissues/development/illiteracy-in-argentina-/
    “…Many are afraid to admit that they are illiterate. It is likely that they have been cheated precisely because they do not know how to read or write – perhaps because they have admitted to having problems or also because they haven’t and as result have blindly signed away their rights…”
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/e/a/1995/04/04/NEWS1466.dtl
    “Sun Bonds says she was functionally illiterate in English when she signed away her rights to share in her multimillionaire baseball star husband’s assets.
    “Even today, ‘to read a book is difficult,’ the Swedish-born ex-wife of Giants slugger Barry Bonds testified Monday. ‘I can speak. I can have a conversation with you, and I am not dumb,’ but reading English is a problem, she said…”

  6. Janet | expateducator.com

    It sounds like you have a personal information literacy lesson that you can share with your students and teachers.
    1. Blogs are forever – even if you retract/backtrack, some will comment on your original post without reading comments. It’s understandable given quick links and time restraints.
    2. All forms of literature can enhance instruction. The key is to have a rock-solid objective (for graphic novels, my objective is for readers to find the story elements, or to compare/contrast the ease of character analysis in both prose and graphic novels).

  7. Bill Ferriter

    WMChamberlain wrote:
    Perhaps picture books/graphic novels give them enough of a concrete picture for them to engage more fully in the story? If so, we should be championing them as well as demanding their quality improves.
    I’m with you, William. I’ve said it a few times in this conversation: I think GNs have a place in supporting struggling readers, too.
    My worries are with the kids who never move beyond GNs simply because the kinds of alternatives that you mention aren’t a regular—or approachable—option in most of the higher education that kids will have to tackle if they are going to succeed in formal education settings in the future.
    Now, I know that in the ideal world we’re all fighting for, formal education settings—and formalized learning—will look a heck of a lot different tomorrow than they do today.
    But having watched the glacial pace of change in education over my 20 year career, that’s not a bet I’m willing to make—especially when it means gambling that my students will be prepared for the settings they will move into.
    Anyway….thanks for stopping by.
    Bill

  8. Wmchamberlain

    Bill you wrote:
    “But whether we like it or not, it is absolutely essential to master the grind—to be confident that you can work through a piece no matter how text-heavy it really is.
    #thatslife”
    Why is it not “essential” but “absolutely essential” that our students master the grind? Are you assuming that our students must master this difficult skill to be better citizens? To be better parents? Or, is it to be better students in high school and/or college? #thatslife for whom? Honestly, it won’t be for most of my students. Students that I still want to learn to love reading even if it is on a sixth grade level.
    Can our students take nonfiction that is a “grind” and convert it to audio and learn it that way? Many of them are much better listeners than readers. What if the audio was accompanied by pictures that go with the content for our students that prefer visual stimulation?
    I realize this is about graphic novels, but perhaps this needs to be two conversations. One is on the quality of the graphic novels themselves while the other should be about the use of the graphic novels as a teaching/learning tool.
    There is something I am wondering about and I can’t find an answer to it. I have asked many students that read poorly at the middle school level questions about their reading. Invariably when I ask them if they can “see” the stories they read (I am referring to fiction) in their minds, they say no. I can’t speak for everyone that loves to read, but I know that I “see” the stories in my mind when I read and I must not be alone since I have noticed a lot of people complaining about actors cast in the roles of beloved story characters simply because they don’t fit how that character looks in their imagination. Perhaps picture books/graphic novels give them enough of a concrete picture for them to engage more fully in the story? If so, we should be championing them as well as demanding their quality improves.

  9. Susan

    “…I can actually see myself working up a collection of ‘book tandems’ that pair graphic novels with nonfiction titles on the same theme that students could read together…”
    Great idea! 😀
    “…But whether we like it or not, it is absolutely essential to master the grind—to be confident that you can work through a piece no matter how text-heavy it really is…”
    THIS IS KEY.
    Graphic-novel-format nonfiction books exist, but very few if any colleges, universities, and trade schools compile a degree program’s worth of them in any subject besides perhaps making comic books.
    If a student wants to *graduate* from a program specializing in anything else, then he or she is going to have to successfully *read* the *textbooks and manuals the teachers assign* instead of picking up graphic-novel-format nonfiction books and reading those *instead*.
    Likewise, if a student in his or her later adult life wants to rent an apartment, buy a house, get repairs covered when an his or her oven breaks, know when the next bus to another city will arrive and how much the trip will cost, explain the error when a credit card company mistakenly overcharges, etc. without *getting ripped off* then he or she is going to have to *read the text-heavy documents* that are *provided by the other party*; instead of telling the other party to go read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and rewrite the contract, warranty, bus schedule, credit card agreement, etc. in comic-book grammar.
    “…If the two Maus graphic novels have as much text as a short story, the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman (largely regarded as the best graphic novel series written) is a novel that deserves the acclaim it has received…”
    I’ve read a couple of the Sandman volumes. “…the text in a graphic novel is broken into such small chunks and [] it eliminates almost everything except dialogue…” applies to Sandman too.
    “…With my grade 7 and 8 classes, I’ve stopped doing novel studies altogether, instead picking fantastic poems and short stories we can read quickly and study together…”
    Another good idea. They’re *still* getting the practice they need at decoding long strings of words that don’t come with illustrations.

  10. Alan Friesen

    Maus isn’t the best graphic novel — did you read Maus II? I’d argue that the metatextuality present in that book puts it heads and shoulders above the first book, and I’ve even used it as a bridge to Eliot’s The Waste Land.
    But Maus II still isn’t the best. If the two Maus graphic novels have as much text as a short story, the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman (largely regarded as the best graphic novel series written) is a novel that deserves the acclaim it has received.
    Anyway. Your focus is middle schoolers. A lot of young adult fiction I’ve read recently is tripe. With my grade 7 and 8 classes, I’ve stopped doing novel studies altogether, instead picking fantastic poems and short stories we can read quickly and study together. So long as you’re not making your students hate literature and so long as you encourage them to read what they enjoy — and read lots — they’ll be fine.

  11. Bill Ferriter

    Clix wrote:
    I will add one more poke, and that is that setting ANYTHING up as the
    saving grace of children’s literature is putting it on a mighty high
    pedestal. And we know how precarious pedestals can be!
    As much as I enjoy and appreciate graphic novels, I certainly dont
    think theyre the Alpha and Omega of literature.

  12. Clix

    Hi Bill! I will add one more poke, and that is that setting ANYTHING up as “the saving grace of children’s literature” is putting it on a mighty high pedestal. And we know how precarious pedestals can be!
    As much as I enjoy and appreciate graphic novels, I certainly don’t think they’re the Alpha and Omega of literature. But I think there is definitely merit to including them as part of a rich curriculum.
    For my part, I’d suggest taking a look at Shaun Tan’s _The Arrival_. I’d REALLY be interested to hear your take on that book.

  13. Kevin Hodgson

    I appreciate your reflective thinking and responses, Bill. Sorry McCloud didn’t rock your world, but hey …at least you dug in and gave it a try.
    Kevin

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