Literacy and Graphic Novels: Why There’s Nothing Wrong with Teens Reading Comics

It’s summer, which means most teens have more time for pleasure reading since they don’t have to worry about homework. When allowed to choose their own material, many teens stick exclusively to graphic novels and comics. That is, if their parents will let them.

teens, reading skills, and graphic novels

Numerous times over the past two months, I’ve had conversations with parents of teens who bemoan that their child will only read comics or graphic novels. They come seeking suggestions of books that will lure them out of this section and get them reading general fiction or non-fiction. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging a reader to try new formats and genres or explore books outside their normal favorites, and I’m happy to help. I even put together a list of illustrated YA fiction and novels about superheroes that will appeal to fans of graphic novels and comics at YALSA’s The Hub.

But when I encounter a parent who wishes their teen would get their nose out of comics and into a “real” book, I also like to initiate a conversation about the benefits of graphic novels and how they can enhance reading skills.

First, I try to introduce them to the variety within the format. Graphic novels are so much more than superheroes and comics. Not only can you find realistic fiction alongside fantasy and sci-fi, there are also excellent non-fiction graphic novels. There really are sophisticated stories and gripping biographies within the format alongside all the superhero fare.

Titles like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Mission Alias: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty introduce readers to other cultures and global issues. Faith Erin Hicks’s Friends with Boys and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese deal with teen issues of identity.

I then point out all of the adaptations of classic that exist in graphic novel format. Teens might be reluctant to read Homer’s epic poems in their original format, but graphic novels fans might love Gareth Hinds’ adaptation of The Odyssey. Shakespeare’s plays, Jane Austen, and classics like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are all available as graphic novels. If a quick survey of all the possible choices doesn’t convince them that there’s plenty of quality graphic novels, I break down the many ways in which graphic novels offer exclusive benefits to see if I convince them of their value.

  • Reluctant readers and English language learners can also benefit from reading graphic novels. While graphic novels are great at bridging the gap between reading levels and helping struggling readers develop skills, they are also fine reading choices for more experienced readers, too. Often times, graphic novels contain higher level vocabulary words than print-only books for readers in the same age range.
  • Graphic novels are great for visual learners. They force readers to actively engage with the text to decipher the interplay between text and images and to decode the differences in text format that signal it as narration or dialogue. Readers must interpret facial expression of characters and body language instead of reading descriptions in the text that explain their moods and tone.
  • Graphic novels offer the opportunity to learn important reading skills, like inference. “Reading between the lines” of a text is often a tricky task, but readers who have experience with interpreting a story based on texts and images are actively developing this important skill.
  • Modern literacy means being fluent in a range of mediums, including the interpretation of images. Graphic novels prepare teens to comprehend a range of multimedia messages, which increasingly dominate our culture.
  • Graphic novels are also a great resource for teens interested in art and design. Aspiring artists are exposed to the wide range of styles of the illustrations in graphic novels. Layout and formatting of graphic novels can teach teens good design skills and how the way the story is presented is integral to a reader’s understanding and enjoyment of it.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with encouraging teens to read outside their comfort zone or select more challenging materials, but this doesn’t mean excluding graphic novels. Educating parents who are skeptical of the worth of graphic novels about the benefits of this format is a great way to advocate for teens and their reading choices. There are wonderfully diverse stories with amazing characters and beautiful art in graphic novels. Also, don’t forget YALSA’s award list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens. It’s a great resource when looking for quality graphic novels for teens. Several websites review graphic novels and manga: No Flying, No Tights, School Library Journal, and Diamond Bookshelf are a great place to start.

Bottom line: reading is reading is reading.

Especially when that reading is for pleasure, I think teens should have the opportunity to make their own choices about the books they want to read. Before I worked in the library, I wasn’t at all interested in graphic novels. Reading them myself convinced me that there are graphic novels that every type of reader can enjoy. They may not be my favorite, but I have a better understanding of the appeal and the skills required to read them. Checking them out for myself has made it so much easier to help patrons find the books they need—and convince skeptical parents that it’s okay for their kids to love graphic novels.

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