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How Graphic Novels Boost Literacy Skills and a Love of Reading

How Graphic Novels Boost Literacy Skills and a Love of Reading

Growing Readers: Learning to Love Reading and Writing Column 20

This editorial article was written by Lizzie Mussoline, M. Ed.
How Graphic Novels Boost Literacy Skills and a Love of Reading
The Children’s Book Review

Why We Are Obsessed With Graphic Novels and Think You Should Be Too

Graphic novels combine words and images (essentially comics) for a different kind of reading experience. They are wildly visually appealing, less intimidating, and can be jam-packed with humor and excitement. Whenever people ask me how to spark their reluctant reader’s interest, I always ask if they have tried graphic novels. Once a  reluctant reader gets hooked on graphic novels, they won’t want to stop! Here are a few reasons why we are obsessed with graphic novels and think you should be too! 

Graphic Novels Help Build a Love of Reading

The visual appeal of graphic novels quickly entices readers and draws them in! If you have a reluctant reader, go to your local bookstore and check out the graphic novels section. It will be hard to leave the bookstore with just one! There are graphic novels for all ages and for all types of readers. For struggling readers, the extra illustrations and graphics can help build context and gather clues to support what can sometimes be difficult text. Leslie Morrison, a Coordinator for Leapfrog, discovered that “Over the last decade, graphic novels have become a popular format in the classroom partly due to their appeal to reluctant readers. More recently, a growing body of research focused on how the brain processes the combination of images and text indicates that graphic novels are also excellent resources for advanced learners. When students read visual narratives, the activity in the brain is similar to how readers comprehend text-based sentences. However, when students learn to read graphic novels with an analytical eye, depth and complexity are added to the reading process.”  

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Graphic Novels Help Build Empathy 

There is a misconception that all graphic novels are humorous but this is not so. There are many graphic novels (see our list below) that tackle difficult subjects like bullying, insecurities, racial injustices, and life in a refugee camp. The fact that there are multiple images on every page of a graphic novel speaks to how powerful images can be and helps readers build empathy for the character and what they are going through. Learning to be more empathetic is a life skill that we should always foster and certain graphic novels can help build this in your young readers.  

Empathy - Emotional Intelligence

Graphic Novels Help Strengthen Reading Comprehension 

Graphic novels are fast-paced, with quickly unfolding plotlines. Often, readers are drawn to the same book over and over, and each time they read it, they pick up on something new – boosting their comprehension of the text. Graphic novels also tend to have a fair amount of figurative language, such as idioms, similes, metaphors, alliteration, and personification. Figurative language can be confusing for readers, so the more they are exposed to it, the stronger readers they will become. They can then apply this knowledge to reading other genres. Further, graphic novels follow the same structure as more traditional fictional genres: there is a plot, characters to analyze, a problem, and a solution. Through graphic novels, children can practice all reading strategies as they would with other texts, such as making inferences, but do so with a few extra visuals. 

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A Few of Our Favorite Graphic Novels

El Deafo

*El Deafo

Written and Illustrated by Cece Bell

A Newbery Honor Book, El Deafo tells the story of Cece who gets sick as a young child and loses her hearing. She attends a school with other kids that are similar to her, until she goes to a school where she is most certainly the only one with a “phonic ear” – a large, very noticeable hearing aid. A story of struggle, resilience, and friendship, this will appeal to all ages.

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*American Born Chinese

Written and Illustrated by Gene Luen Yang

This action-packed graphic novel speaks to anyone struggling to find acceptance. Three powerful stories are interwoven as Jin Wang deals with discrimination and bullying as the only Chinese American at his school.  His feelings are paralleled in the Chinese mythic tale, The Monkey King, who is determined to find acceptance among the mortals at any price. This would be a great pick for middle and high schoolers. 

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*New Kid andClass Act

Written and Illustrated by Jerry Craft

New Kid is perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier and Gene Luen Yang. This is a timely, honest graphic novel about starting over at a new school where diversity is low and the struggle to fit in is real. Class Act is the follow up to New Kid. With laugh-out-loud moments of adolescence, it provides a snapshot of the interior life of boys, especially Black boys who are too often not afforded such attention, love, and care.

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Smile Grapic Novel


Written and Illustrated by Raina Telgemeier

Smile by Raina Telgemeier is the true autobiography of Raina. The story starts off when Raina is 11 years old, in the 6th grade and takes us on a four-year journey. While racing home with her friends one day after Girl Scouts, Raina trips and knocks out her two front teeth. This begins the long journey Raina endures to fix her mouth (surgeries, embarrassing headgear, retainers with fake teeth!) and many other pubescent challenges along the way. Sixth grade is tough enough, but now that Raina has two missing front teeth, it becomes even harder. This story touches on many middle-school related topics such as family, boys, transitioning from a child to a teenager, earthquakes, and bullying. 

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When Stars Are Scattered Graphic Novel

*When Stars are Scattered

Written by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed

Heartbreak and hope intertwine in this amazing graphic novel about growing up in a refugee camp, as told by a Somali refugee to the Newbery Honor-winning creator of Roller Girl (another awesome graphic novel). Omar and his younger brother, Hassan, have spent most of their lives in Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. Life is hard there: never enough food, achingly dull, and without access to the medical care Omar knows his nonverbal brother needs. So when Omar has the opportunity to go to school, he knows it might be a chance to change their future, but it would also mean leaving his brother, the only family member he has left, every day.

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Roller Girl

Roller Girl

Written and Illustrated by Victoria Jamieson 

The Newbery Honor Award Winner is a heartwarming graphic novel about friendship and surviving junior high through the power of roller derby—perfect for fans of Raina Telgemeier’s Smile! For most of her twelve years, Astrid has done everything with her best friend Nicole. But after Astrid falls in love with roller derby and signs up for derby camp, Nicole decides to go to dance camp instead. And so begins the most difficult summer of Astrid’s life as she struggles to keep up with the older girls at camp, hang on to the friend she feels slipping away, and cautiously embark on a new friendship. As the end of summer nears and her first roller derby bout (and junior high!) draws closer, Astrid realizes that maybe she is strong enough to handle the bout, a lost friendship, and middle school… in short, strong enough to be a roller girl. In this graphic novel debut, real-life derby girl Victoria Jamieson has created an inspiring coming-of-age story about friendship, perseverance, and girl power! Great for upper elementary and middle school.  

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March Trilogy Graphic Novels

*March Trilogy

Written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin

Illustrated by Nate Powell

Discover the inside story of the Civil Rights Movement through the eyes of one of its most iconic figures, Congressman John Lewis. March is a trilogy recounting his life in the movement, a vivid first-hand account of his lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.   

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Dog Man- The Supa Epic Collection

Dog Man

Written and Illustrated by Dav Pilkey

When Greg the police dog and his cop companion are injured on the job, a life-saving surgery changes the course of history, and Dog Man is born. With the head of a dog and the body of a human, this heroic hound has a real nose for justice. But can he resist the call of the wild to answer the call of duty? Written by Dav Pilkey, who struggled with dyslexia and ADHD as a child, these books are sure to amuse any elementary-aged reader! If you like one, there are 13 in the entire series and then you’ll probably need to read the next series, Cat Kid, too! 

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Captain Underpants Full Color

Captain Underpants

Written and Illustrated by Dav Pilkey

George Beard and Harold Hutchins are two overly imaginative pranksters who spend hours in a treehouse creating comic books. When their mean principal threatens to separate them into different classes, the mischievous boys accidentally hypnotize him into thinking that he’s a ridiculously enthusiastic, incredibly dimwitted superhero named Captain Underpants. Fun fact: Dav Pilkey created Captain Underpants in 2nd Grade, despite the fact that his teacher told him he couldn’t spend all his time writing silly stories. Good thing he wasn’t a good listener! Great for elementary readers.  

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Wings of Fire Graphic Novel

Wings of Fire

Written and Illustrated by Tui T. Sutherland

Wings of Fire is a fantasy graphic novel series about young dragons, war and prophecies. The seven dragon tribes have been at war for generations. Five dragonets are collected to fulfill the prophecy, raised in a hidden cave and enlisted, against their will, to end the terrible war. There are five books in this series and more to come! Great for upper elementary and middle school. 

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Babysitters Club Graphic Novels

The Baby-Sitters Club

Based on the Novels by Ann M. Martin

Adapted by Gale Galligan and Raina Telgemeier

These are graphic novel versions of eight original Baby-Sitters Club books! All of the graphic novels have the same plot as the original books. The ninth novel will be published this year and there are fourteen books currently planned, with two coming out per year. Bonus, lots of famous graphic novel authors and illustrators help with many of these books, such as Raina Telgemeier.

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The Crossover

Written by Kwame Alexander

Illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile

Winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal, this incredible graphic novel is told in dynamic verse. This fast and furious middle grade novel absolutely bounces with rhythm and bursts with heart while telling the story of Josh and his twin brother Jordan, who are awesome on the court. But, Josh has more than basketball in his blood. Both brothers must come to grips with growing up, on and off the court, as they realize breaking the rules can come at a terrible price, resulting in a game-changer for their entire family.

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*based on a true story

Thank you for reading the Growing Readers: Learning to Love Reading and Writing column. Bookmark this Growing Readers Column link or subscribe to our e-newsletter so you do not miss out on the monthly reading tips. How Graphic Novels Boost Literacy Skills and a Love of Reading was written by Lizzie Mussoline, M. Ed.—follow her on Instagram: @wildflower_learning_denver.

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Lizzie loves literacy. And alliteration! With over a decade of classroom teaching experience, and years of one on one reading and dyslexia intervention, Lizzie understands the challenges and rewards of engaging with young readers. Her passion for helping children overcome learning difficulties to fall in love with reading led to the launch of Wildflower Learning; a private practice that serves the needs of young readers in Denver, CO. Follow @wildflower_learning_denver on Instagram for more literacy tips & tricks.

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