When Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize for Maus in 1992, graphic novels began to shed their stigma as a childish, escapist genre. Recently, Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese, a narrative weaving the ancient Monkey King fable with contemporary Chinese-American tales, was the first graphic novel nominated for a National Book Award.
“Graphic novels entice students to read because they think of them in the same way they think of video games. Visuals enable students to comprehend and infer from the text,” says sixth grade teacher Donna Kasprowicz, who integrates Yang’s work into her curriculum.
Some graphic novels encourage children to think critically about contemporary issues. “Graphics present powerful images that can make readers uncomfortable,” says Kasprowicz. “American Born Chinese deals with stereotyping head on and shows the prejudices that people perpetuate.”
Publishers have transformed classics, from Nancy Drew to Crime and Punishment, into graphic novels in order to foster visual literacy, accommodate different learning styles, and introduce literature otherwise avoided. (A slim version of Remembrance of Things Past comes to mind!)
The genre is extensive, tackling ambitious themes of adolescence, war, and politics. Here are samplings from this graphic universe:
- American Born Chinese by Gene Yang: This trio of tales follows Jin, a lonely Chinese-American student, Chin-Kee, the embarrassing cousin of an American boy, and the Monkey King. The interwoven scenes allow readers to make correlations between past and present Chinese culture and understand, through this juxtaposition, how myth, tradition, and stereotypes shape an Americanized generation. (Middle school and up)
- 2024 by Ted Rall: Sure, students read political parody in The Onion, but Ted Rall’s 2024 is a commentary on 1984 and Brave New World, dystopian novels on high school reading lists. Placed next to Orwell or Huxley’s tales, 2024 cleverly introduces satire, a powerful literary genre, and exposes how consumerism drives Western society. (Advanced middle school and up)
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: Black-and-white comics depict Satrapi’s adolescence in Tehran, the overthrow of the Shah, the rise of the Islamic Revolution, and the aftermath of war with Iraq. Her story – now a motion picture – makes Iranian history and culture accessible to American students. (Middle school and up)
- 9-11: Emergency Relief by various artists: The collection, which compiles distinct viewpoints of the attacks on the World Trade Center, is a quintessential graphic novel experience that evokes emotion from the dynamic arrangement of images and text. Graphic greats like Harvey Pekar, Peter Kuper, and Will Eisner contribute over 60 pieces on the fall of the Twin Towers, from simple reportorial accounts to complex metaphorical stories. (High school and up)
- Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. This is a comic book about comics; it explains the inner workings of the medium and delves into how humans interact with visual language. It is considered a definitive resource by the comic greats.
For other great resources, check out these websites:
No Flying, No Tights: www.noflyingnotights.com
Diamond Comics: http://bookshelf.diamondcomics.com
Comic Books for Young Adults: http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/units/lml/comics/pages/