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The Graphic Novel - Modern Stories in Pictures

Want your kids to read? Just add pictures.

Graphic novels Maus, A Contract with God, A.D., Hudson Valley Zombie Apocalypse

To the uninitiated, graphic novels may just look like oversized comic books. But while some of them take place in the make-believe territory of vampires and zombies, graphic novels also tackle real-life issues such as world history, civil rights and even the love between a father and his son. While comic books in classrooms might lead to detention, graphic novels are increasingly being integrated into schools as a tool to encourage readers of all ages.

“You can absolutely teach graphic novels just like any book," said Pauline Uchmanowicz, former associate professor of English at SUNY New Paltz who taught courses on graphic novels for more than 20 years. "You can discuss character, plot, setting and theme.”

Graphic Novels Make Great Teaching Tools

They’re slicker, glossier and thicker than traditional comic books, but what truly sets these novels apart is the interaction between text and illustration, Uchmanowicz said.

“You can also teach these (graphic novels) in a way that analyzes not only what’s being said,” she explained. “You’re looking at other elements too like the way the panels are laid out on a page. The illustrations often convey something that the words don’t say.”

Thirteen-year-old Alexa Martins was browsing at Inquiring Minds bookstore in New Paltz recently. The eighth-grader agreed that the overall presentation of the graphic novel—often the creation of one person, rather than a comic book studio—appeals to younger readers.

“All the colors and the textures—they add up to something really beautiful,” she said. “You can see and feel the effort that the author put into the work.”

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The Walking Dead TV Show Started as a Graphic Novel

Perhaps the most well-known graphic novel today is The Walking Dead, the ongoing Robert Kirkman series that’s been mega-successfully adapted for television by the AMC network. Locally, Hudson Valley Zombie Apocalypse is a popular graphic novel series that’s regarded as an intelligent, logical take on creatures emerging from the dead in Peekskill, NY. 

While your local bookstore likely carries graphic novel adaptations of familiar titles like Star Wars or the Justice League, there’s a lot more to the medium of graphic novels than just superheroes and science fiction. One can also find history, autobiography, and current events.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, is the autobiographical story of an Iranian girl growing up in the 1980s, during the conflict between Iran and Iraq. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge presents a variety of different perspectives about Hurricane Katrina via interviews with a diverse group of survivors.

Even Andre the Giant, the larger than life pro wrestler, is brought back to life showing a vulnerable, human side in Box Brown’s Andre the Giant: Life and Legend.

For younger readers, Raina Telgemeier’s, Smile, recounts the author’s life from sixth grade through high school. American Born Chinese examines racial stereotypes through author Gene Luen Yang’s stories about immigrant children entering new schools and cultures.

The graphic novel medium evolved from the 1930s “golden age” of action and adventure comic books. By the 1970s, “classic illustrated” novels emerged, as the works of authors like Victor Hugo and Sir Walter Scott were turned into lengthy comic book adaptations published as hardbound books.

Will Eisner’s 1978, A Contract With God, is generally considered the first true graphic novel, with Eisner writing and illustrating a series of interrelated stories set in New York City tenement housing. Watchmen, released in 1986, was also considered groundbreaking for its sophisticated use of classic literary techniques as foreshadowing and symbolism. 

The medium's watershed moment came in 1992, when Art Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize. A gripping examination of the Holocaust viewed through the dialogue between a father and son; Maus depicted Germans as cats and Jews as mice. The novel connected with younger readers in a way that the text-heavy history books of the time didn’t.

Kids Connect With Graphic Novels

Graphic novels can be humorous, entertaining, serious, or all of the above. The variety of themes makes them appealing to young readers.

“For the kids in middle grades, they’re very relatable and fun,” says Jay Aspinall, manager of Inquiring Minds bookstore. “Kids connect to graphic novels on more than one level. They create readers out of reluctant readers.”

Alexa Martins’ mother, Diane Lilli, agreed.

“You can take very serious issues and make them more accessible. It’s definitely a bridge that helps kids,” she said.

Young writers’ programs at the Hudson Valley Writing Project at SUNY New Paltz include workshops on graphic novels, and according to past professor Pauline Uchmanowicz, her students incorporate the medium in their own classrooms alongside traditional novels.

“More and more teachers assign graphic novels as part of their reading program, and they’re moving deeper into analysis and interpretation,” she said. “Graphic novels are aiming for canonicity. They’re not ephemeral, the way a comic book is. You can put it up on your shelf and it endures.”