How Comics and Graphic Novels Help with Kids’ Reading Growth
Plus some graphic novel recommendations.
Many parents and teachers fear that reading “graphic novels” isn’t really reading at all.
I get it. Once upon a time, my inner grumpy old man (we all have one) would see a kid reading a Batman this or Captain Underpants that, and I’d think, “Aren’t they just looking at pictures? When did comic books become actual books?”
But both my inner grump and I were wrong.
After careful and extensive investigation, I’m here to tell you that there are solid educational and brain science reasons why graphic novels can be especially beneficial to growing readers.
1. The cognitive work of assembling words and pictures into a coherent story is pretty sophisticated.
Looking at pictures is generally pretty easy. The human brain, evolutionarily speaking, has way more experience with vision than almost anything else (other than movement). Which makes sense, given that being able to look around us to see threats was a key factor in our species survival.
But looking at pictures accompanied by written language? That’s something entirely different. Written language came way later in our evolution and is much harder to learn. Add text to pictures that enriches and in some cases contradicts or complicates the images – well, suddenly the cognitive workload is much heavier.
In other words, the coordination in the brain of taking in both image and text at once and putting them together into meaning can be far more difficult than even text alone. It’s intellectual work that feels good to the brain, however, like solving an especially hard crossword puzzle.
2. Research supports words + pictures as best for growing brains.
Not surprisingly, recent research indicates that the combination of words and pictures works a special kind of magic in the language development parts of young children’s brains.
A study presented at the 2018 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting looked at children who only heard stories with children who both heard stories and looked at accompanying pictures. While the first group did have some activity in the language parts of their brains, when they were also looking at pictures, the brain scans lit up.
Something similar happens when children read graphic novels on their own (though the oral language is replaced with written language): a beautiful coordinated symphony of story and meaning playing out in their brains.
3. Motivation. Motivation. Motivation.
Brain science aside, it’s not hard to identify perhaps the biggest reason to encourage children to pick up graphic novels if that’s what they want: motivation.
In general, if you enjoy an activity, you will continue to do it. Reading operates on the same principle. Specifically, we know that the more kids enjoy what they are reading, the more likely they will continue to read, and the better readers they will become.
Furthermore, we know that many kids really, really, really enjoy reading graphic novels.
So, if we know that reading graphic novels is just as legitimate (and in some cases harder) than reading text-only books, and children are highly motivated to read them, what’s stopping us from encouraging this format?
Just the Books, Please
Now that you’re fully on board with graphic novels, here are some suggestions for different ages and stages:
Birth to Pre-K
Pretty much any picture book can be classified as a “graphic novel” for this age, but this picture book series incorporates talk bubbles in a particularly graphic-novel way that will help emergent readers with graphic novels when they are ready for them:
I Don’t Want to Be a Frog!, I Don’t Want to Be Big!, and There’s Nothing To Do! series written by Dev Petty and illustrated by Mike Boldt
The “Balloon Toons” series (various authors and illustrators) is an excellent gateway to graphic novels for beginning readers who are still working out sound-letter correspondence, and they will feel very grown-up for reading their very own graphic novels!
Read Together or Older Readers
El Deafo, written and illustrated by Cece Bell is a graphic novel memoir about what happened when Bell lost most of her hearing as a child. It combines a realistic story with some superhero elements. You may want to read this one with your child because of the many discussion opportunities it brings up related to fairness and friendships.
Recess Warriors series written and illustrated by Marcus Emerson is funny, fast, and highly imaginative – both girls and boys will enjoy.
A Statement About Graphic Novels from the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship:
Combining visual art (a sense of space, mass, motion, and color) with literary and cinematic techniques (plot, point of view, character development, metaphor, allegory, flashbacks and flashforwards, speeding and slowing time, close-ups, long views, stream of consciousness, montage, etc.) graphic novels contain some of the most creative work in publishing today. They promote visual and verbal literacy, as well as love of reading. A good collection of graphic novels appeals to young people who might otherwise be reluctant to explore the library.