Quick Guide to Children’s Books 4: Comic books and graphic novels

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The world of children’s literature is an enchanting place which often looks like a colourful maze with imaginary creatures in fantastic worlds. These creatures and worlds are mostly versions of our own realities, and through them we can learn more about our own worlds, and through the words and the images in the stories we can explore our own lives, reflecting on its beauties and dealing with its difficulties.

When you enter a book shop, these miniworlds which we call picture books are well-organized on shelves, usually labelled and categorized in a systematic way. There are picture books, silent books, illustrated books, comics, graphic novels, poetry books and many more formats. What is the difference between these books? What are their main characteristics?

In this series we will explore the world of children’s books together, providing definitions and examples for each main type of books. In this fourth part we enter the magical world of graphic novels and comic books.

What are comic books and graphic novels?

What does a comic book and a Grecian urn have in common? How is the Bayeux Tapestry connected to Garfield? Can you see any similarities between Egyptian hieroglyphs and your favourite comic strips? All of these forms of art and storytelling can be collected under the umbrella term of ‘comics’ (McCloud, 1994) as well as ‘sequential art’ (Eisner, 1985). It simply means that in all of these art forms we get a narrative which is the product of images and often texts juxtaposed in a sequence. All of these types of sequential art rely on similar visual vocbulary and grammar, which might be the key to their success.

In the world of comics we have different subcategories, which are based on the length of the sequence. A comic strip contains a few panels and are often features of a newspaper or magazine. Some comic books are compilations of these comic strips in a magazine or book format. There are other comic books, which are self-contained stories, for example the superhero comic books. Graphic novels, which are longer comic books, became popular in the 1990s with the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus (Spiegelman, 1991). The only differences between a comic book and a graphic novel are the length and self-contained nature of the story (Duncan & Smith, 2009). Different definitions of graphic novels agree on the description that all graphic novels are comic books but not all comic books are graphic novels.

Comic book elements in David and the Great Detective by Martyn Hobbs. In Helbling Readers Fiction Graphic Stories series. © Helbling

Reading comic books and graphic novels

Do you remember your first comic books? There is something so entertaining and naturally engaging in them that even the most reluctant readers enjoy reading them. The visual representation of movement, feelings, sound and dialogues make these books a truly multi-sensory experience. We read the panels in a linear way, but there is also depth to each frame.

Try to encourage your students to read as many comic books and graphic novels as they can in their free time. They can pick and choose anything they like, and if they get to read them in English, it is even better. They can definitely help your students get hooked on reading. They also encourage students to connect visual and verbal input and concentrate on what they are reading.

Comic book elements in Grace, Romeo, Juliet and Fred by Martyn Hobbs. Illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini. In Helbling Readers Fiction Graphic Stories series © Helbling

Comic book elements in the classroom

When you combine comic book elements with other types of narratives, it is even more beneficial for your classrooms. In the Helbling Readers Fiction Graphic Stories series we have twelve titles which all contain double spreads in a comic book format. Not only do they speed up and make the reading process more fun, they also create opportunities to improve your students’ visual and multimodal literacy skills and allow for a refreshing break in the standard narrative.

Read more about these graphic stories in this blog post.

You can also make your own graphic stories in the classroom. Read the post below to get some ideas.

Recommended books

Here are our favourite selection of comic books and graphic novels.

Comic books

  • The Marvel Comic Series (e.g. The Amazing Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, Iron Man)
  • DC Comic Series (e.g. Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman)
  • Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
  • Peanuts by Charles Schulz
  • P. Howard Dirty Fred comic books

Graphic novels

  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson
  • The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman
  • V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Remember to check out the Helbling Readers Fiction Graphic Stories series.

References

  • Duncan, R., Smith, M. J., Levitz, P., & Bloomsbury Publishing. (2015). The power of comics: History, form and culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Eisner, W., & Eisner, W. (2008). Comics and sequential art: Principles and practices from the legendary cartoonist. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Frey, N. (2009). Teaching visual literacy: Using comic books, graphic novels, anime, cartoons, and more to develop comprehension and thinking skills. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.
  • McCloud, S., Martin, M., Busiek, K., Eisner, W., Lappan, B., & Bissette, S. R. (1994). Understanding comics. New York, NY: William Morrow, Harper Collins Publishers.
  • Spiegelman, A. (2003). Maus: A survivor’s tale. London: Penguin.

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