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Why Parents Should Rejoice That Their Young Readers Are Gobbling Up Graphic Novels

The graphic novel trilogy March, by Congressman John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, gives readers a first-hand view of the civil rights movements. Book three won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. It is the first graphic novel to be awarded this prize.

The buzz around graphic novels for kids has officially grown into a roar. Blockbusters like Smile by Raina Telgemeir and the Amulet series by Kazu Kibuishi are requested on an almost daily basis at my library with readers as young as preschool-aged hunting for “comic books” created just for them. As advocates for literacy and reading for pleasure, you can imagine that this reading frenzy makes librarians like me want to do a happy dance!

Among the reasons to celebrate are the many benefits of graphic novels for reluctant and avid readers alike. Along with the confidence boost of blazing through a less text-dense story, graphic novels provide contextual support through detailed images that help the reader decode language. For stronger readers, there are new comprehension skills to be gleaned from a format that concisely represents information both verbally and visually.

And yet, there is something that causes us to pause mid-cheer: A lingering stigma that goes back to the earliest days of comic books. It might be a grown-up steering their young one away from the 741.5 section (where graphic novels are shelved) towards print-heavier chapter books, or a comment that suggests comics aren’t “real reading.” Some of the biggest skeptics are well-intentioned parents and guardians who feel their children are capable of more complex books and want to provide them with that challenge.

I experienced this attitude firsthand when I became hooked on Archie comics as a fifth grader. Though my appetite for reading was already strong, the satisfaction of gulping down a pile of double digests over the course of my sister’s soccer game was a unique joy. Archies went down like fizzy soda pop… And my mom treated them as such. In our household, they became a bargaining chip. I could choose one Archie only if I also selected a nonfiction book. Sometimes I could earn them as a reward for extra acts of helpfulness.

Was this an effective motivational tool? Sure. Do I understand why my parent wanted to encourage me to broaden my literary horizons? Totally. But I still wonder about the impact of equating one type of book with junk food and another with vegetables. While I clearly wasn’t put off reading on the whole, I don’t think my view of comics or non-fiction was improved by the value judgment.

If only I had grown up in the golden age of graphic novels that is now. Never before has it been so easy to diversify a young readers’ literary diet with quick reads like Archie (recently rebooted and reinvigorated with help from the CW’s Riverdale) and books that might help them explore different genres and subjects. No judging required.

For instance, you may have heard the fanfare around March, a young adult graphic novel trilogy by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell that follows young Lewis’ experiences in the civil rights movement. This series could be the perfect pairing for fans of a new generation of justice-seeking superheroes, like Miles Morales, an Afro-Puerto Rican teenager who takes up the mantle of Spiderman, or Ms. Marvel, a.k.a. Pakistani-American high school student Kamala Kahn, daughter of immigrant parents and a practicing Muslim. These characters balance their responsibilities to their families and wider communities along with all that comes with a crime-fighting secret identity.

The same matchmaking could be done for subjects that are less obviously story-driven. A couple of my recent favorites for younger readers curious about science include the charming likes of Narwhal, Unicorn of the Sea by Ben Clanton or Human Body Revue by Maris Wicks, a hysterical theatrical tour through different biological systems as emceed by a skeleton. There are a wealth of wonderful options out there for all ages and plenty more coming down the pipeline — thanks in no small part to the enthusiasm drummed up by superhero stories, Lego adventures, Japanese animation, and heavily illustrated chapter books a la Dork Diaries and Big Nate.

Need any help bridging the gap and discovering that next great graphic read? Encourage your child to ask their local librarian and watch us put our own superpowers into action!


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