In this year's new course, Graphic Novel Study, Mrs. Tinagero leads St. Andrew's students in an exploration of the theme of identity in graphic novels.
As an educator, I love introducing graphic novels to young people. Often at first they are captivated by the images and how the story is woven together with ink. This is a great place to begin a conversation because many of the complexities of the story are already within the grasp of the reader. I have seen groups of students with various reading abilities begin building off of the complexities of the pictures and making connections with the text to sophisticated terms. Discussion can move from a surface understanding to increasingly cultivated talk fairly quickly. With graphic novels, young people begin to connect to complex literary ideas and use images as their launching point.
I was first introduced to graphic novels when I was working as a teacher trainer in a New York City public school. Many of our students could be described as non-readers and it was fair to say that they were reading on average three years behind their normative reading level. These kids were struggling in school and they were not happy. Thankfully, I had a brilliant supervisor from Columbia University who wanted to find a way to address this problem. We knew that the only way to get our students to read was to find books that they could not only access, but that would make them fall in love with reading. We poured over books and found the most engaging, most accessible novels we could. Many of those were graphic novels. I began a lunchtime reading group with a gaggle of middle school students who represented a variety of reading levels. At first we had just a small group of students attend. Then I noticed that when we introduced a graphic novel, we had a more varied group of readers show up. Kids that wouldn’t describe themselves as readers suddenly hoped there was room at the table.
Through this experience, I watched self-described non-readers engage with graphic novels and fall hopelessly in love with reading them. They are excellent books for people who are really concrete thinkers and benefit from having an illustration of a character engaging in inner dialogue. Graphic novels are amazing at reaching young people who grow frustrated. They are participating in the ancient literary structure of the hero’s journey, engaging in the complexity of a character’s psychological attitudes, and witnessing the rise and fall of morality. They are able to empathize with character flaws and strengths; the most important thing for any reader is the ability to empathize through identifying with a novel’s characters.
As a collective whole, literature is constructed from universal archetypes that depict basic human experiences: the hero, the caregiver, covetousness, growing up, and falling in and out of love, etc. These characters and motifs connect us culturally and spiritually by pointing out commonalities in our existence. I may not know what it’s like to grow up in the 1800s in pastoral England, for example, but when I read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, I can relate with the familiarity of the idea of eternal love. The same experience can be had with a graphic novel. In Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Maus, the reader is not required to have survived the anguish of a holocaust in order to connect with the idea of the strife of a survivor. We can empathize with each situation because we insert ourselves into its narrative. All of these ideas are conveyed within a graphic novel and, as a bonus, these narratives are connected to often beautiful illustrations that act as agents of the message themselves. The combination of eloquent prose and images is incredibly powerful.
Looking for a graphic novel to try?Mrs. Tinagero recommends:
Epileptic by David Beauchard: “It is the story of a boy whose older brother suffers from significant epilepsy and the extremes his family goes to in order to help cure him. The setting of the story is 1970s France and so the author weaves in the knowledge and culture of the times. It is a poignant and honest portrayal of the trials of dealing with a chronic illness and the artwork is heart-wrenchingly beautiful.”
Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson: “For comic heroes, I’m all about Kamala Khan. She is this super cool New York City girl from Queens who is very intelligent and a good student but struggles with her desire to be accepted by her peers and to please her very conservative parents. Overnight she becomes Ms. Marvel, but she’s not the blonde bombshell from earlier Ms. Marvel comics — she’s Kamala, which is a whole lot more interesting.”