Using Graphic Novels in the Classroom
by Tyler Wardrop



The Literature and narratives that are used in today’s classrooms have evolved in ways that past educators could not have anticipated. Education has shifted away from a conservative mindset towards a more liberal one, and the practices and resources that were once common are no longer as reliable as they used to be. As Courtland and Gamble point out “Postmodernism has opened up new possibilities for literacy education. With its critical focus, everything is questioned and in a state of conceptual flux, new research questions are posed that carry inquiry into new and exciting fields such as graphic arts and information and communication technologies. The concept of narrative has been challenged so that traditional narrative forms are no longer the norm”(Courtland and Gamble, 12).

While the classic and canonical texts can still have a place in the classroom, there is now a greater number of materials that teachers can draw from to exemplify the types of themes and messages they wish to show students. In fact in some instances, these newer forms can display the same themes and ideas better than many of the older classic texts. One such a form is the graphic novel. In fact graphic novels have been described as “one of the most popular and fastest-growing types of young adult literature”(Butcher and Manning,67). By incorporating these new, popular, and widely available pieces of literature into you classroom, you can engage students in a number of ways that have never been possible before.

Will Eisner's A Contract With God

What is a Graphic Novel?
Before examining how graphic novels can be use it must be understood what exactly a graphic novel is. This rising genre is cleverly named, as a graphic novel entails exactly what its name suggests. It is a narrative, often told from a first person or autobiographical perspective. That narrative is then paired with images to tell a complete and complex story of considerable length. “The genre began in 1978 when cartoonist Will Eisner created A Contract With God, a collection of stories about a poor, crowded Jewish Bronx neighbourhood, and coined the term ‘graphic novel’ to describe a complex story told in comic book format in 64 to 179 pages”(Butcher and Manning, 67). Due to the similarities between graphic novels and the well-known genre of comic books, these two different styles of literature are often lumped together. This leads many people to ask the question: are graphic novels comic books? The answer to that question is is yes and no. There is no doubt that the graphic novel was born out of the comic book. The similarities are there. However the graphic novel takes those similarities and shifts them to create something entirely different. Below are some of the key factors that make a graphic novel unique.

Moore uses a 3x3 paneling system to control the pace of his narrative.


The first unique factor of the graphic novel is paneling. Paneling is essentially the action of framing the page with boxes. While paneling is also found in comic books it is utilized differently in graphic novels.These boxes allow artists and authors set parameters for their medium as well as manipulate things such as tone, pace and detailing. A perfect example of how paneling can be effective to convey serious themes can be found in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. For instance when Moore felt that it is more effective to show things a certain way, or to really focus on a specific point in the narrative he would consolidate the cells of his grid to create larger panels, and in a sense larger focal points.

On this page the character of the Monkey King refuses to accept his identity.

Use of Themes

Another similarity that graphic novels share with comic books is the use of similar themes. More fictitious
themes such as the super natural or the "superhero" are still present in many graphic works. However these are not the main focus in graphic novels like they are in the majority of comic books. These themes take on more of a secondary role to more relatable real world issues such as personal struggles, debates of religion, fitting in, sexual and physical abuse, death, tragedies and other various life experiences. For instance in Gene Luen Yang's book Chinese Born American, Yang uses a parallel story that focuses on the legend of the Monkey King in order to further drive home his overall theme of identity.

Reworking the Splash Page

A splash page is something used in comic books that allows an artist the opportunity to showcase their talent by giving them one or two blank pages to serve as a canvas like space. The splash page is also often used to incorporate major reveals to the plot of the story, or to leave readers at a cliffhanger moment with previews of what might come next issue. Splash pages are also used in graphic novels, but in a different way. Unlike comics, with graphic novel there are no next issues. Graphic novels are often stand alone stories with no need to end on cliffhangers or important plot revelations. An easy way to understand this is to liken comics books to a long running soap opera and graphic novels to a 2 hour movie. The soap opera needs to make sure viewers will tune in again next time, whereas a movie usually leaves itself resolved. When used in graphic novels the splash page is a much more emotive device. As mentioned paneling maintains the flow of the narrative, so when the paneling is removed it is a very powerful technique.


For example here is a splash page from the comic book Amazing Spider-Man #50. In this scene, which is at the end of the book, Peter Parker has decided not to continue his career as Spider-man. This is a prime example of the cliffhanger style splash page.


Here is an example of a splash page from Craig Thompson's Blankets. This is not a scene that leaves the reader on a cliffhanger, nor is it a reveal of a major plot hook. It is an artistic interpretation of the first time the author spent the night with his first girlfriend. In fact this page appears about 3/4 of the way through Blankets, and is one of many. The impact of the message trying to be conveyed is much more powerful, and due to the size of the image, the focus is directed solely at that message.

The Length

Another defining characteristic of the graphic novels is its length. As mentioned above graphic novels are of considerable length. Since Eisner's A Contract With God was released, the length of the novels have increased considerably. While a comic book is still consistently around the length of 30 to 40 pages, graphic novels have begun to reach the 400-500 page mark.With this amount of space to explore their stories, authors of graphic novels can deliver intense and lasting stories that are perfect for modern classrooms.


For instance here is an image showing a single comic book in contrast to Jeff Smith's Bone: The Complete Collection. The difference is quite clear.

How do you read them?

Readers new to the genre may be confused as to how to begin reading a graphic novel. experts Gallo and Weiner liken reading a graphic novel as "not only something one reads but something one sees as well...[it is] like reading and watching a movie at the same time"(Gallo and Weiner, 115)

This description is not to far off from the truth. A graphic novel is read from left to right (unless it is manga, in which case it is right to left) just like a normal book. The words and dialog on the page are often the primary focus, with the image coming second. The transition between the focus is often faster than in traditional narratives. Where classic books have you focus solely on text, and then on images, graphic novels blend this into one motion. Much like how animation use snap shot images to form a motion picture, the images provided in graphic novels serve as snap shots while the text pieces together the narrative.

As stated earlier, depending on the artistic approach the author or illustrator may use paneling and splash pages to break up the pace of the narrative. When this happens it is important for the reader to slow down themselves. The best practice here is often to think the larger the panel the longer the reader should analyze it.

Types of Graphic Novels

Like all literature there is a diverse collection of sub-genres within the graphic novel. Some types of graphic novels include "superhero tales; realistic stories; science fiction and fantasy novels; future, contemporary, and historical adventure stories; and manga (Japanese) tales, as well as humorous works, political satires, and adaptations of classics"(Butcher and Manning, 78). Below is a brief description and example of a few genres and some works from them.

Superhero Tales: These are stories that use unbelievable or exaggerated aspects of the traditional human abilities and have traditionally dealt with a good versus evil style of characterization. However recently these tales have become incredibly deep and are often allegories of greater societal or human problems. Great examples of Superhero tales are Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore's Watchmen.


Realistic Stories:These stories focus on the retelling of real events. Often they are useful in portraying those events to individuals in a way that text cannot describe. For instance in Jean-Philippe Stassen's Deogratias, the author chooses to retell the events of the Rwandan genocide. The images and characters developed allow readers to see and feel the emotional weight of that particular event.


Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels: These are works that ( as you may have guessed) focus on stories that highlight the fantastic. This is often most prominent in the setting. The themes and challenges can often be compared to those found in our own societies, or community. These are great allegorical examinations. A great example of this is the graphic novel series The Amulet.


Manga: Manga is the Japanese take on the comic book and graphic novel in a form all its own. The books are often pocket size and emphasize the anime art style. This doesn't mean that they are any less useful in a classroom. A great example of manga is Dragon Ball Z. While a bit dated and campy, it has interesting characters and an easy to follow story. It is also a retelling of the classic Chinese tale of the Monkey King, and most manga borrow from eastern ideals and mythology.

Adaptations of Classics: These novels are unique in that they are redone versions of classic literature. Every author from Shakespeare to Melville to Hemingway is in the process of getting graphic novels made to re-represent their text. The problem here is finding books that are of a good quality and not just text and pictures.

How Can Graphic Novels be Used in the Classroomgraphic_class.jpg

The approachability of these texts, and the fact that they are novels with a graphic emphasis, allows them to be used in all grades. As Paula Griffith points out "some teachers and librarians do not consider graphic novels to be literature". She goes on to say that those same "graphic novels have won several prestigious literary awards, which means that these books are considered literature for children teenagers and adults"(Griffith, 182). Below are some examples of books and ideas that could be translated into your own classroom, regardless of the grade level that you are teaching.

Division 1(Grades 1-3)


In a division 1 grade graphic novels can have an incredible impact on all students. Much like how picture books allow students to grasp what is being written with a visual aid, graphic novels serve the same purpose. For instance the graphic novel series Owly by Andy Runton. This is a book that focuses on moral lessons such as inclusion and respect, and does so without any words. This is great because it allows students who are not strong readers to still retain material they read, as wells begin the process of reading. This is especially useful with young ESL students.

Another great set of books for students at this age are the Classic Fairy Tale series from stone arch books. These books retell famous fairy tales in the graphic novel format which allows children to view and Interpret what may be familiar texts and stories in a new way. While most fairy tales are often paired with pictures in a picture book format, these books use images to move a lot of the plot and allow weaker readers to still pick up on major details.

Example Activity:

Here is an example of one way a graphic novel could be used in grade 1 using specific learning outcome 4.1: Enhance and Improve.
There are 3 categories underneath this outcome. They are Appraise own and others’ work,Revise and edit, and Enhance legibility. These outcomes are then further displayed as 6 sub outcomes which state that students must:
1. Ask or respond to questions or comments related to the content of own or others’ pictures, stories or talk
2. Rephrase by adding or deleting words, ideas or information to make better sense
3. Check for obvious spelling errors and missing words
4. Print letters legibly from left to right, using lines on a page as a guide
5. Use appropriate spacing between letters in words and between words in sentences
6. Explore and use the keyboard to produce text

Activities for this age group are limited only by the abilities of your students. For instance one simple activity students could do using either of the books above is to have students create their own stories. After introducing the book Owly, students could brainstorm what words might be added in order to enhance the images of the text(outcome 4.1.1). These can be done on example pages or a panel that you choose. Students can then be given a sheet that has a number of panels on it, with guided lined space(outcome 4.1.4) for writing phrases underneath, where they can develop their own phrases based on the text(outcome 4.1.2). After this students can bring their words and phrases over for a teacher edit, and then make the necessary revisions(outcome 4.1.3) and displaying the appropriate spacing(outcome 4.1.5). If time permits,and if their abilities allow them to, students can type out their revised phrases(outcome 4.1.6), and then add them to the initial pictures. These can then be voted on and compiled into a revised text.

Division 2(Grades 4-6)


Much like in division 1, many of the books that are usable at a division 2 level focus on the idea of including those who are not especially strong readers. However there are also books at this level that allow those students who are average readers as well as those who excel at reading to find books that best suit them. For instance in the initial category there is a book known as Ojingogo. This wordless book is offers a deeper experience that grade 4 to 6 readers would comprehend much better than those from Division 1. As online magazine Drawn and Quaterly points out "Matthew Forsythe's Ojingogo may look simple, but the possibilities are delightful in this funny adventure of a young girl, a squid and her walking camera" (Drawn and Quarterly).


The next book that exemplifies the best for division two readers is the series Amelia Rules. Amelia, who is a 5th grade student herself, perfectly exemplifies some of the more imaginative outlooks that students can have at this age level. The book focuses on key issues of fitting in, and doing the right thing amongst others. While geared towards younger girls, there are also many characters that would appeal to young boys such as Ninja Kyle, who is a member of the the Park View Terrace Ninjas gang.

Example Activity:

Here is an example of one way a graphic novel could be used in grade 5 using specific learning outcome 2.4: Create Original Text
There are 3 categories underneath this outcome. They are : Generate ideas, Elaborate on the expression of ideas, and Structure texts. These outcomes are then further displayed as 4 sub outcomes which state that students must:
1. Use texts from listening, reading and viewing experiences as models for producing own oral, print and other media texts,
2. Experiment with modeled forms of oral, print and other media texts to suit particular audiences and purposes
3. Use structures encountered in texts to organize and present ideas in own oral, print and other media texts
4. Use own experience as a starting point and source of information for fictional oral, print and other media texts

After being introduced to a variety of graphic novels, students can pick their favorite and use it to help frame their choices towards making their own graphic novel (outcome2.4.1).
They can then create their own comic in the vein of the book they have chosen to model, and add themselves into it as a staring character in order to document their own adventures.(Outcome 2.4.2, and Outcome 2.4.4) If students chose Ojingogo for example they might use similar esthetic structures such as drawing with size differences and perspectives, as well as designing multiple plot lines or variety of characters (Outcome 2.4.3).

Division 3(Grades 7-9)


Division 3 has many options when it comes to graphic novels. Not only can many of the choices from prior divisions be used to help weaker readers, but thematic analysis of these texts can be very deep. There has been a recent surge of works in this section. Two of the newest and most relatable works in this section are Vera Brosgols Anya's Ghost, and Gene Luen Yang's Chinese Born American. Both deal with the theme of identity and fitting in as well as what family means and the pressures to preform for those families as well as conform in school. There are also themes of sexuality, which would be great to bring up a discussion on the pressures felt by students.


Another suggestion for this division is Craig Thompson's Goodbye Chunky Rice. Within it there are themes of bullying, moving on, loss of friendship and feeling like a outcast. These books are great at this level to quickly introduce an issue and have a discussion about it. For instance, you could ask students to draw their own paneled story about a time where they have felt pressure, and how that made them feel.

Example Activity:

Here is an example of one way a graphic novel could be used in grade 5 using specific learning outcome 2.2: Respond to Text
There are 3 categories underneath this outcome. They are: Experience various texts, Construct meaning from texts, Appreciate the artistry of texts
These outcomes are then further displayed as 11 sub outcomes which state that students must:

1. Experience oral, print and other media texts from a variety of cultural traditions and genres, such as magazine articles, diaries, drama, poetry, Internet passages, fantasy, nonfiction, advertisements and photographs
2. Write and represent narratives from other points of view
3. Expect that there is more than one interpretation for oral, print and other media texts, and discuss other points of view
4. Explain connections between own interpretation and information in texts, and infer how texts will influence others
5. Make connections between biographical information about authors, illustrators, storytellers and filmmakers and their texts
6. Interpret the choices and motives of characters portrayed in oral, print and other media texts, and examine how they relate to self and others
7. Identify and describe characters’ attributes and motivations, using evidence from the text and personal experiences
8. Discuss various ways characters are developed and the reasons for and plausibility of character change compare two similar oral, print or other media texts by considering the characters, plot, conflicts and main ideas
9. Discuss how techniques, such as word choice, balance, camera angles, line and framing, communicate meaning and enhance effects in oral, print and other media texts
10. Identify ways that characters can be developed, and discuss how character, plot and setting are interconnected and mutually supportive
11.Identify and discuss how word choice and order, figurative language, plot, setting and character work together to create mood and tone

This activity is very lengthy. To begin students will be given a panel or page of a graphic novel ( or allow them to choose it depending on the class) from a variety of genres. 2 of the panels should be the same so that two students can independently examine the panels. This can include, science fiction, biography or any other genre(outcome 2.2.1) Students will then be asked to write or describe what they think is going on (outcome 2.2.2). Specifically they will try to look at the actions, and potential motivations of characters based on the images they are given. They can ask is the character good or bad? Why do they think so? What is setting or the picture and what is the tone?(outcome 2.2.6, 2.2.7, 2.2.11) They are then to join up with and discuss how their interpretations differed or related to their partners, and then share with the class.(outcome 2.2.3, 2.2.4).

After discussing follow up by having students read the story that belongs to the panel they were given to completion, and then reflect on their initial thoughts of that scene or character. They can then write an examination of how plausible those characters are, and how the framing of those characters in the scenes they saw added to their unique interpretation(outcome 2.2.8, 2.2.9). Lastly as a class, students can share their findings in a brainstorm session, and then compare their own findings and experiences to other characters they have encountered or learned from the discussion in an additional writing assignment(outcome 2.2.9, 2.2.10).

Division 4(Grades 10-12)

All the uses of graphic novels mentioned above could still be used in a division four classroom in order to engage students and meet curriculum goals. This includes getting students interested in reading, teaching them how to read better, and portraying themes as well as the many other uses already discussed. The difference here is that the students now have the ability to deal with heavier content and thematic issues. As many graphic novels document personal struggles and portray indescribable feelings pictorially, students in Div. 4 can really unleash the potential of the blending of image and text through the skills they learn.


One of the most prominent uses for them is as partner texts to the works of Shakespeare. Many companies produce graphic novels of all Shakespeare's plays. This includes Romeo and Juliet to The Tempest. It can be quite helpful for students to first read the graphic novel, get a sense of the plot or actions and then dive into the thicker, and more difficult companion text.


There are also many novels that deal with heavier issues suitable to be discussed in a high school classroom. For instance in Craig Thompson's Blankets there are scenes of sexual and physical abuse, love, loss, dealing with disabilities, questioning religion and faith, drug use, and divorce just to name a few. All of these issues are present in the lives of high school students( if not all students) and Blankets is a great way to bring them up in a safe environment. A further examination of Blankets can be found here.


Another great choice would be Jeff Lemiere's Essex County. The biggest grab is that all the content in this graphic novel is Canadian. It is a compendium of three separate tales that span over a century that involve members if the same immediate family. Using this book would allow you to delve into some very unique character studies and debates, as well as historical studies that could perhaps include a students own family history.

The last text suggestion for use at a high school level is the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O'Malley. The series spans 6 books and utilizes the aforementioned cliffhanger style of ending those books. This series is however a manga, which fits the description of a graphic novel. Scott Pilgrim is an easy and quick read which could be completed by a student in about 6 hours, or over a weekend. The quirky use of humour in these books would hit home with many high school students, and the cast of characters are very diverse and relatable. For example in the series main character Scott grows from a jobless 23 year old college drop out who is dating an 18 year old girl into a competent, responsible and functioning adult. He does this through interacting with an interesting cast of characters and combating evil individuals who each embody one of Scott's lesser qualities, such as lying or unbelievable immaturity. There is also a unique blend of pop culture, music and goofy humour mixed in. This series is again strictly Canadian, and utilizes many of the real historical and still functioning buildings within downtown Toronto.

Example Activity:

Here is an example of one way a graphic novel could be used in grade 11 using specific learning outcome 2.1: Construct meaning from text and context.
The Alberta Program of Studies states that under this outcome grade 11 students should be able to:

a. describe the text creator’s purpose, and analyze the target audience
b. describe how societal forces can influence the production of texts [for example, current issues and trends]
c. explain the relationship between text and context in terms of how elements in an environment can affect the way in which a text is created [for example, the historical context in which the text is written; gender-biased language can provide information about the context in which a text was created in terms of dominant culture]
d.identify the impact that personal context—experience, prior knowledge—has on constructing meaning from a text

If in a class you decided to use the Scott Pilgrim series, you could achieve all the outcomes above, if not more. Students could be asked to search through the text and find a pop culture reference, and report their findings on that reference. You may ask for instance, what types of movies does Scott Mention? What websites does he use? What video game references does O'Malley pull from to shape his text?(outcome 2.1b)

You could then compile and compare these references, and ask students to discuss the age group they feel this text is targeted towards(outcome 2.1a), and why?

Students could ultimately create their own character, either of themselves or of a character from another novel, in the art style that O'Malley presents. Students would need to consider what things they would need to add in order to effectively represent those characters. For example what time period are those characters from? What gender are they? Why do they look the way they do?(outcome 2.1c) These questions would need to be answered in order to properly represent those characters.

Students could then give a brief write up on why they made the choices they did. How did their reading of the text and images help them determine which artistic styles to borrow from? (outcome 2.1d)

How to Choose a Graphic Novel For your class:

In the above wiki there has been mention of approx twenty books. Out of those twenty there is a pool of hundreds to thousands of graphic novels to choose from. But how do you know which novels you should choose for your class? Below is a brief checklist created by Paula Griffith that can help you decide if a graphic novel is the right fit for your classroom. It is the exact same checklist that was followed when adding books and suggestions to this page.

Critieria for Format Evaluation
1. Does the graphic novel have an interesting cover that correctly depicts the content?
2.Are the illustrations arranged in a way that readers can easily follow the sequence?
3. Do the gutters (i.e., the spaces between the illustrations) aid comprehension or distract the reader?
4. Is the text clearly readable with an appropriate font and font size?
5. Does the white space between the text, frames, and illustrations help readers move through the book, or are the pages too busy?
6. is there a glossary to assist with vocabulary in nonfiction graphic novels?
7. Is there a table of contents or index to help readers locate information in nonfiction graphic novels?

Criteria for Graphics/Illustrations
1.Does the colour palette(e.g. pastels, primary colours, sepia tones) aid the reader in understanding the tone and mood of the story?
2. Do the illustrations refine characterization by giving clues as to character emotion, mood, and personality?
3.Does the style of art fit the type of story or information in the novel or seem disjointed and out of place?
4. Has both positive space and negative space been used to create a visually pleasing effect?
5. Do the illustrations provide enough context and action to keep the reader moving through the story?

Criteria for Fiction Graphic Novels
1.Does the graphic novel have three-dimensional characteristics similar to your readers?
2.Does the graphic novel have themes relevant and important to your readers?
3. is the conflict relevant and appropriate for your readers?
4. Are there age-appropriate moral, ethical, or political themes that resonate through the story?
5.Does the action keep your readers' interest and motivate them to continue reading?
6. Is the climax realistic and true to the rising action?
7. Is the denouement satisfying as a culmination of narrative events?
8. Does the resolution bring the conflict to a satisfying end?

Criteria For Nonfiction Graphic Novels
1. Does the content have a clear organization that aids reading comprehension?
2. Is the information interesting enough to keep readers actively engaged with the text?
3. Are there appealing charts, graphs, and other visual aids to help the reader understand the concepts?
4. Are there enough supporting details to explain or describe each main idea?
5. Is the content relevant and age-appropriate for the developmental level of your readers?

The following was from pages 182-183 of Paula Griffith's article "Graphic Novels in the Secondary Classroom and School Libraries".

Notable Comic Book/ Graphic Novel Awards

One item that was not included in Griffith's list was to check for awards that novels have won. By doing this you can be certain that it will definitely be up to standards at least in aspects of art and story. It will then be up to you to decide whether the themes and content are suitable for your class.

The Hugo Awards
The Eisner Awards
The Joe Shuster Awards
The Doug Wright Awards


The interplay between words and images is becoming the reality for the direction that many narratives and literature are taking. The flexibility, and ease of accessing content that these novels have places them very high on the list of things to include in any classroom. These novels are not only limited to one subject. While these books can be used very effectively in an English Language Arts class, they can also be used in a Social Studies, Science, Math, or any other kind of classroom. After reading this Wiki you should now have the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully incorporate graphic novels into your own classroom. The key to successfully using them is limited only by the texts you choose.


Bucher, Katherine T.and Manning, M. Lee. "Bringing Graphic Novels into a School's Curriculum". The Clearing House. 78(2), 2004. 67-72. Web. Accessed 29/01/2012

Gallo, D., and Weiner, S. "Old books for innovative teaching: Show, don't tell: Graphic novels in the Classroom" .The English Journal. 94(2), 2004. 114-117. Web. Accessed 29/01/2012.

Griffith, Paula E."Graphic Novels in the Secondary Classroom and School Libraries". Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. 54(3), November 2010.181-189. Web. Accessed 29/01/2012

Rollins, Prentis. The Making of a Graphic Novel: Featuring the First-time Publication of the Original Science-fiction Graphic Novel 'The Resonator.New York: Watson-Guptill, 2005. Print.