Graphic Novels in Curriculum and Instruction Collections

Elizabeth M. Downey

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Graphic novel collection and use has beome a popular topic in the library community; most of the literature has focused on collecting in school and public libraries. The number of academic libraries that carry graphic novels has increased, but those collections and the few articles addressing graphic novels in academic librarianship have focused on serving the recreational reader or the pop culture historian. Meanwhile, the education community has begun to embrace graphic novels as a way to reach reluctant readers; engage visual learners; and improve comprehension and interpretation of themes, literary devices, and social issues, among other topics. As graphic novels are increasingly used in the classroom, students majoring in elementary and secondary education should have access to these materials as they prepare for their future careers. Making graphic novels a specific part of the curriculum and instruction collection supports the academic library’s mission to meet the research and training needs of the faculty, staff, and students.

While there has been a much greater focus on graphic novels in the library literature over the last decade, most coverage has been limited to school media centers and public libraries. Published research about graphic novel collections in academic libraries has been limited to investigating the genre as either recreational reading for busy college students or as part of the cultural and historical record. There is still resistance to the genre in some circles; combining text and images is considered fine for children’s books, but children are expected to “grow out of it” and start reading “real books.”1 The experienced graphic novel enthusiast will use both text and image in their reading, cognition, and translation of the work, but those unfamiliar with the format and how it is read will more likely skim the novel, focus more on the images themselves than the context of those images, and misinterpret the intent of the artist and author. This leads to complaints about portrayals of violence, sex, misogyny, antiauthoritarianism, and other controversial or sensitive topics, as well as concern about underage patrons’ access to such.2 There also is the assumption that graphic novels are too “easy,” or that pictures detract from what the authors could have expressed in words alone.3

However, graphic novels today are being used increasingly by educators to engage reluctant readers, reach out to visual learners, and illustrate social and cultural themes and topics. Districts are now seeing the benefits of these tools: The New York City Department of Education began promoting and supporting graphic novel use in their classrooms in spring 2008 by training hundreds of the city’s school media specialists. The in-service sessions focused on selection, lesson plans, and graphic novels as a tool to draw students to the library.4 Part of the academic library’s mission is to provide materials and resources for future educators. Academic libraries should carry graphic novels in their collections for pleasure reading by students and faculty, to serve as examples of modern art and graphic design, and for historical value; but they also should be included in subject-specific curriculum and instruction collections for education majors preparing for practicum and developing lesson plans.

Literature Review

A review of the library and information science literature indicates that not much has been published in regards to graphic novels in academic libraries outside of the occasional book review or highlight of a special collection. There are a few notable exceptions: O’English, Matthews, and Lindsay provide an overview that covers several subtopics and issues, including graphic novels as literature, their increasing popularity in libraries, endorsement of the format as pleasure reading for students and faculty, collection development, cataloging and classification, and promotion and outreach in academia. There is one section devoted to outreach to preservice teachers, which encourages marketing the format to education departments and colleges. It states that graphic novels appeal to the visually literate and the reluctant reader, and are useful in illustrating story structure in writing exercises.5

A short piece published in Indiana Libraries describes a collaborative research project between Avon (Ind.) High School’s library media specialist Robyn Young and the library school at Indiana University–Indianapolis. Young wanted to see if reading graphic novels improved “overall academic achievement and reading comprehension,” which might lead to higher overall scores on the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress (ISTEP), the statewide standardized exit exam.6 She teamed with a faculty member from her former SLIS program to conduct a study with special education students. While the article is not about collections in an academic library, it does illustrate the value of partnerships between the academic and school library community.

More recently, Williams and Peterson conducted a content analysis, examining the collections of academic institutions that supported National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and American Library Association–accredited programs. The authors checked for works appearing in the 2007 and 2008 “Great Graphic Novels for Teens” list released annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). They also looked for variations in the collections by geography, collection size, and Carnegie institution classification. Their study showed that larger institutions on average held more graphic novels on the YALSA lists and that graphic novels were more likely to be in the holdings of doctoral and research universities, schools with library science programs, or institutions located in the western United States. However, it also revealed that a considerable number of institutions supporting library science or education programs aren’t actively collecting graphic novels for teens. While the parameters of the study did not include older titles not appearing on the YALSA lists, the results illustrate the need for those libraries to evaluate their current holdings.7

Most of the library literature that addresses graphic novels appears in journals whose primary audience is school media center, young adult, and children’s services librarians. An additional assessment of the primary and secondary education and curriculum literature produced many more results dealing with the use of graphic novels in K–12 classrooms. In these articles, some distinct themes came to the surface: the concept of “visual literacy,” the use of graphic novels in reading comprehension, the graphic novel as a comparative tool paired with traditional texts, and the graphic novel as a lens to examine topics of conflict, culture, and prejudice. Many examples of these themes, including specific descriptions of how graphic novels have been utilized in lesson planning, are detailed further in this article.

Why Graphic Novels in Curriculum?

There are several arguments for introducing graphic novels into the classroom. Teachers can use them as stand-alone texts or as part of a larger curriculum by connecting the themes and ideas in graphic novels to bigger topics and making those connections more effective.8 The graphic novel itself has educational value as a pop culture medium. Schwarz writes, “In any subject area, studying a graphic novel can bring media literacy into the curriculum as students examine the medium itself. Students can explore such questions as how color affects emotions, how pictures can stereotype people, how angles of viewing affect perception, and how realism or the lack of it plays into the message of a work.”9 In a broader sense, writes Allender, “popular culture has affective and academic value. It should be used in a variety of ways as one would use texts generally in a constructivist, cultural studies classroom concerned with student achievement and transformative learning.”10 More specifically, graphic novels are useful tools in classrooms where students are primarily visual learners. They illustrate cognitive and literary concepts resulting in stronger comprehension of the materials. They also have a social use, introducing students to diverse peoples and cultures they might otherwise not encounter. Ultimately, the main goal is to grow a literate populace by using inventive methods to promote a lifetime reading habit.11

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