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A (Graphic) Novel Approach to reading
By Rachel Fraade, ISJL Education Fellow
When I was growing up, I refused to put my books down. Whether in the car, walking down the street, or hiding under my covers with a flashlight after bedtime, I always wanted to be reading. This quest for knowledge can be brought out in every child, even those who might prefer television and cartoons over written words. There’s a middle ground between Marvel® and the great American novel, one that can be used to engage people of all ages: graphic novels.
My brother read a lot of manga, Japanese cartoons, when we were growing up. I followed suit but did not connect with many of his preferred stories. His favorites were stories of action and combat, and I preferred the ones with protagonists to whom I could relate. I enjoyed the art form but was missing a personal connection.
This situation changed in high school when I read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. I connected with Satrapi’s younger self, a spunky and curious feminist coming into her own. Though my childhood in no way resembled hers in revolutionary Iran, the parallels I saw in our personalities allowed me to remain engaged in a history that was not mine.
This phenomenon can take place in both written and graphic novels, but the latter have a certain accessibility to readers. Gene Luen Yang advocates graphic novels as educational tools, using his literary voice to share the Chinese-American experience with a broad audience. The recent MacArthur Fellow gained fame with American-Born Chinese,, in which he explores bi-cultural identity and the pressure to assimilate. He continued in this educational vein with Boxers and Saints, a work of historical fiction that depicts the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China. The book tells its story from two perspectives, demonstrating how multiple viewpoints can improve understanding of past events. He is currently working on a series of graphic novels called Secret Coders that incorporates computer coding into a mystery plot.
Graphic novels are an engaging way to learn about any topic, at any age. I recently finished Maus, Art Spiegelman’s narration of his father’s experiences in the Holocaust. As a grandchild of refugees and Holocaust survivors, I know the stories of Auschwitz and escape better than I’d like to – but this was the first time that I had encountered the Holocaust through a graphic novel. I was struck, as always, by the tragedy of the story. The simple premise of drawing Jews as mice and Nazis as cats made the story easy to understand while giving each character the full range of human emotion. This story, like many graphic novels, remains accessible while never shying away from historical realities.
Graphic novels can be a great entry point for children who enjoy cartoons and superhero movies; the format is similar, while they learn useful new information. Sometimes, seeing a character makes it easier to relate to them. They are quick to read but still filled with valuable information and knowledge. Next time your student or child says they don’t like to read, hand them a graphic novel – they just might change their mind.