The Case for Graphic Novels


Written by Sara Ornelas

We hear a lot of parents insist that their child read "real books" and not "comic books." And no judgment on the parents. I was definitely one of those parents, too. 

But I've grown. I've changed. And I'd like to now make a compelling case FOR graphic and illustrated novels. Take it with a grain of salt. You know your child best, and of course you make the rules for your own child. 

This may come as a shock to most people, as I own a children's bookstore, but Little Sara was quite the reluctant reader. In fact, in kindergarten through second grade, I was in a remedial reading group (which would now be called reading intervention). The first chapter book I ever finished was "Broom Hilda's Sneaky Volcanoes" in 1982 (which I realize ages me a bit). It was one of the few graphic novels around in those days, and I was hooked. I remember it clearly: I was just 7 years old, snuggling up in my basement with my German shepherd, Heather. I got to the last page, and I was so shocked that I FINISHED A BOOK! I went to school and giddily told my teacher of my accomplishment, and she said "That doesn't count as a real book." 

I was heart-broken and discouraged. And so began my nearly 30-year journey as a resistant reader. I did well in my reading and writing classes through college, because I was a good reader. But I wasn't someone who enjoyed reading. I read because I had to ... until I was in my mid-20s and Harry Potter snagged me. And THAT was my lure back into the realm of loving literature. 

My point is that I loved Broom Hilda. And perhaps if someone would have been as excited as I was about finishing this chapter book, I might have read more Broom Hilda books. And then I might have branched off into other graphic novels ... and then novels that were funny, and then ... who knows? 

Graphic novels encompass such a wide range of themes and create such layered experiences through word and art that contemporary students have a much wider visual vocabulary than I did growing up, the format offers great opportunities to teach as well as to entertain.

Illustrated and graphic novels have all the same elements as traditional novels: plot, character development, setting, conflict, narrative, and dialogue. In addition, it offers a visual element that helps some readers relate better to the story. I know some people might say that "Novels make you use your imagination." But what if a reader gets so tangled in the words that their imagination gets lost in the scuffle? Or what if, like Little Sara, I needed to see what the author saw when s/he wrote the book. There are still times when I get so frustrated with trying to imagine what a character or scene might look like, that I can't concentrate on the novel. 

 Aside from reluctant readers, graphic novels have been a godsend for many kids with dyslexia, offering visual cues when kids get stuck on a word. "There are still many teachers and parents who are resistant to the idea of graphic novels and comics. 'Do they even count as “real reading?'," says Elizabeth Ross, an expert in dyslexia. "When reading for pleasure, it’s important that a student is consistently reading; any strategy that makes the task more enjoyable will help students associate reading with pleasure and not with 'schoolwork.' Graphic novels and comics can be a great tool in your arsenal to help reluctant readers enjoy books."

So give graphic novels a chance. It's okay to say yes to "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" or "Dog Man" or "Dork Diaries." Those books might just be what ushers your kid into the world of literature.