Dog Man was the first graphic novel our kids brought home, many years ago. Our then-first-grader devoured it, as did many of his classmates.
I was not a fan.
The book’s premise (the main character is surgically created to be half dog, half man) had an ick factor. Its bathroom humor was off the charts. Its flip-o-ramas tended to end in torn pages.
But our son was reading.
He reread the book he had, then sought out the rest of the series. He talked about it with his friends. He recreated the book’s characters using drawing tutorials provided by the author in the back of the books. He engaged.
For these reasons, I made my peace with Dog Man. For these same reasons, I consider graphic novels essential to any book collection. They are great for reader engagement, conversation, inspiration, and skill development.
And most of them don’t use bathroom humor.
What is a Graphic Novel?
Graphic novels can be defined in many ways, but at their most basic, they are stories told with both images and text. This is why the word graphic is used, to indicate the inclusion of visual art. Graphic novels can include books that look like comic strips and others that look like illustrated diaries. They also include Manga, a popular Japanese style rooted in an important cultural art form.
Many children enjoy these novels. Their topics are as wide and varied as any other kind of novel. They offer genres like fantasy, adventure, memoir, nonfiction, biography, realistic fiction, and more. They are written for all different ages, from the very young to adults. They achieve awards for excellence in storytelling and design.
Despite the high demand for and interest in graphic novels, many parents, educators, and other readers don’t consider them “real” reading, and attempt to redirect children when they choose to pick one up.
As a previous English teacher and librarian-in-training, I have a hard time understanding why.
Why It Counts as Reading
Yes, there are pictures. Pictures that emphasize and contradict the words. Pictures that provide context and require inference skills to connect them to the minimal text. Pictures that support the development of visual literacy, which is necessary to make sense of our increasingly visual culture.
Sure, they might be shorter. As are our attention spans these days. The shorter length also makes it far more likely kids will reread, which is itself an important learning skill. It also allows little minds more time to linger on images, examining the use of light, shadow, and color, among other things.
Yes, there are fewer words. But research suggests graphic novels tend to use as many or more unique words than “regular” novels, which means they contribute just as well to decoding and reading comprehension skills. Some graphic novels are adapted versions of full-length novels and might inspire readers to go back and read the original texts. This was our kids’ experience with Wings of Fire.
Do they challenge and extend already strong readers? Do they feature diverse characters? Are they appropriate for children? Yes, yes, and yes — if you choose the right ones. There are tools to help! Ask your local librarian, look at “best of” lists online, and talk to your friends.
Are there “bad” graphic novels? Of course there are, no matter how you define “bad.” Just as there are “bad” novels. You and your child can figure out what those are for you. Check out more great graphic novels for kids.
Reading is Reading is Reading
When I read for pleasure, I don’t pick up a graphic novel. I prefer hundreds and hundreds of pages of text. That’s just me. However, I’ve read plenty of graphic novels in the course of my studies and have enjoyed the experience every time: they’ve taught me something, made me cry and cheer, and ultimately introduced me to someone else’s story.
This is what great books do, no matter how many words are on the page.
Reading is fundamental to children’s academic and personal success. We all know this. For any child to learn to read and keep reading, they need to be motivated. Graphic novels can be that motivation for some students. Why would we want to take that away?
Even if it’s Dog Man.