Graphic Novels in English Classrooms

It’s fitting that the first post on this blog is about graphic novels, because I enjoy reading them more than most genres. When I taught them as a high school teacher, there was always a reaction (sometimes from parents, sometimes from administrators, but always from students). There is so much more to like than just the words! A good graphic novel will interweave art and text to tell the story, and what’s left out in the language is many times better told in the picture.

In my Young Adult Literature class, we’re reading American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang and Blankets, by Craig Thompson. The former is a story about a middle schooler who just came to the country, and with dry humor the narrator gives the reader a glimpse into some of the absurdities immigrants must face. Blankets is Thompson’s memoir, and chronicles his life from a young boy through to adulthood. The majority of the memoir, however, focuses on his senior year in high school and the love he has for a girl he met at church camp. (I don’t want to give too much of either plot away, so I’ll leave it at that. Just know they are more complex than this.)

ABC was a refreshing read. It’s unique storytelling comes together in the end, even though I was a tad confused getting there at times. But what I really enjoyed about the novel was the humor. I found myself laughing out loud often, which allowed me to have sympathy for the character, but not without dignity.

Blankets is one of the most honest graphic novels I’ve read. Because of this honesty, it would surely be a tough book to defend if a parent challenged me. Not that I couldn’t defend a high schooler reading the book, but I always made sure to have a signed consent form before putting it in their hands. (What’s great about tagging a book with a consent form is that you guarantee it will be read.)

So what are your thoughts on teaching these graphic novels? What about graphic novels in general? Do they have a place in the English classroom?

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41 thoughts on “Graphic Novels in English Classrooms

  1. Graphic Novels are the best of both worlds for me. They combine the witty banter of a book with incredible art that omits the sometimes tedious details of setting and character.

    I think that graphic novels focus on the central ideas and cut out all of the fluff that distracts readers from the main point in a direct way and therefore becomes more approachable for all sorts and varying degrees of readers.

    Also, I find that the story lines are amazing- and a lot of famous authors start off writing graphic novels and then branch off into books. Struggling readers can branch out as they get more comfortable reading, or when they enjoy a story line. Conversely, a lot of great books now have graphic novel adaptations that take the fantastical elements that might be harder to picture for someone and puts it into stunning artwork. My favorite example of this is the Percy Jackson and the Olympian series. It’s a wonderful book, but a Hydra might be hard to picture -in the graphic novel adaptation there’s a stunning battle depicted and I would be hard pressed not to show the scene in class if I were to reference the book or the scene.

  2. If you have a reluctant reader in your class, I think a graphic novel is a great way to get them reading. When a student is not keen on reading I don’t necessarily think it’s because of a lack of interest or laziness, they may just have a difficulty with comprehension. The illustrations are great way to supplement the text, which can only enhance comprehension. I don’t necessarily believe that all graphic novels are easier to read than a novel, because they sometimes require more attention to detail. A different skill is involved. Also, there are many graphic novels that are rich with complex meanings and themes. If graphic novels are to be used in an English classroom they should not be used as a way of “dumbing down” literature. If it is a quality constructed graphic novel, the illustrations can convey more emotion than words might be able to.

    In Blankets*, by Craig Thompson, you can often see the emotion–whether it be love, embarrassment, pain, confusion, infatuation–he is experiencing just by the expression on his face. Also, Thompson’s graphic novel is rich with deep issues of guilt and pain from his childhood. When visiting Raina feelings of guilt and regret arise because he compares his relationship with his brother Phil to her relationship with her brother Ben. Also, he struggles with religion, first obeying (and also fearing) what is told to him by his pastor and parents, but then later questioning religion, and ultimately drawing his own conclusions. The part I loved best in Thompson’s graphic novel is how he used the Wisconsin and Michigan weather–I felt like snow was another character in his story. This is just scratching the surface… so much can be discussed regarding this graphic novel.

    Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel, American Born Chinese*, I too agree, is humorous but at the same time sad. It reveals the hurtful nature of stereotyping and how difficult it must be for children who come from a different cultural background than the majority. Yang did a great job of illustrating how ridiculous stereotyping can be with the character Chin-kee. One of the major things adolescences seek is acceptance by their peers. This novel shows Jin’s struggle with his identity (his heritage) in order to fit in. Jin looked ridiculous after he permed his hair to look more like a blond-haired boy named Greg (because he thought the girl he liked, Amelia, would like him better if he looked more Caucasian). Because it was a graphic novel we are able to see just how ridiculous, but if it were a novel with just text, the message may not be as impactful. Sometimes a traditional text cannot convey the message that an illustration can.

    Both graphic novels offer elements of relatability for adolescences while at the same time offering reluctant readers an opportunity to engage in a piece that is not intimidating, but still rich in content. So, I would say graphic novels definitely have a place in the English classroom, particularly these two, as long as they are written well. I think American Born Chinese* would be great for all students to read whether they could relate or not, because it brings awareness to how Asian-Americans are sometimes treated.

    *should be italicized, but could not figure out how to do so.

    • Good examples, and I like your thoughts on snow being a character. Also, you will find many in the field who think it’s “dumbing down” literature–just comic books–and don’t respect it as a genre.

  3. I believe that the reason people learn to love to read is because they feel a personal connection with a book. Both *Blankets* and *American Born Chinese* have elements that would make them relatable to most young adults.

    *American Born Chinese* really contains three stories in one that combine into one by the end. The main character, Jin Wang, is a Chinese-American boy who has to move to a new school. The story reinforces many American and Chinese stereotypes, such as Chinese people pronouncing the “l” sound as an “r”, American teachers unable to pronounce non-English sounding names, and white students in a classroom thinking that two students from Taiwan and China must be from the same place or related because of the way they look. While Jin Wang faces many hardships because of his heritage, all students can relate to his story regardless of their ethnicity. Jin does not enjoy being different from the other students in his class and is consistently bullied and talked down to by his peers. His peers’ unwillingness to accept him contributes to his feelings of inadequacy and resentment of his heritage. All young adults have experienced these feelings of resentment about some aspect of their life making Jin a relatable character for the average student. The final message in *American Born Chinese*, stated by Monkey King to Jin, “You know, Jin, I would have saved myself from 500 years’ imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey,” resonates with everyone who has ever struggled to find their identity (pg. 223).

    While *American Born Chinese* was a quick and enjoyable read, I found the story in *Blankets* to be more relatable. The novel follows the story of Craig from childhood through his early twenties. The story is similar to a common high school experience of falling in love only to discover that the person you fell for was not as you once thought. The message that the novel delivers is slightly different than the one in *American Born Chinese*, but still deals with the acceptance of oneself in the world. It is best stated by Craig in the last sentence of the novel- “How satisfying it is to leave a mark on a blank surface, to make a map of my movement, no matter how temporary” (pgs. 581-582). However, the pictures in this novel spoke more than the words- through the pictures the reader is able to connect with Craig on a level that would not be possible. Taboo elements for young adults, such as masturbation and losing one’s virginity, are dealt with in a way that conveys the message without embarrassing the reader.

    *Blankets* solidified my view that graphic novels should have a place in the bookshelves of secondary education classrooms. While some may argue that graphic novels are “long comic books,” anyone who has read one will realize that this is not the case. Sometimes pictures can be more moving than words, and graphic novels exemplify this. All young adult readers would enjoy a graphic novel, but I believe a struggling reader or a student who does not enjoy reading would benefit the most. A student who has a difficult time reading will only get better with practice, and what better way to get practice reading than to give him or her a novel that is easy to read, understand, and relate to?

    *Italics* (I couldn’t figure out how to put book titles in italics either)

  4. Although graphic novels present literature is a unique way, it is not my favorite way to read literature. Between the blurbs of writing and the drawings, I find it difficult to follow the story lines presented. At times I find myself getting caught up in the drawings rather than reading the text. However, these types of books can be very beneficial in an English classroom. Students who tend to not enjoy reading would benefit from reading graphic novels. The short concise writing caters to the student who does not enjoy reading long drawn out pieces.
    There are numerous ways to implement graphic novels in the classroom. I would most likely use a graphic novel for a reading group. I do not think that every student needs to read a graphic novel. For my struggling students however, a graphic novel may be the type of literature they need to get motivated to read. As a teacher I can build off of a graphic novel and turn to more difficult pieces as their reading progresses. It is important to introduce various types of literature into the classroom and graphic novels are definitely a genre I will be implementing.
    Blankets and American Born Chinese both embody themes of YA literature. While there are parts in that may seem inappropriate, they are still in touch with reality. The realities of adolescent students seem to take a back seat at times in English classrooms. However, both of these pieces of literature have relatabiltiy factors to them that everyone can talk about. It is important that students can discuss what they have read. These two novels will not only have students talking, but they will be able to lead a class discussion, which will create an open classroom environment.

  5. I really enjoy reading graphic novels. The art combined with the storytelling makes for a compelling read. These two novels did not disappoint.

    I had never read Blankets, but found it to be a quick, yet thought-provoking story. There was a way that Thompson combined “showing you, but not telling you” things that made their impact much more thoughtful than I expected. I felt like that was a direct connection to how things are often handled; someone can show someone else something when the words may not be there. I also enjoyed reading and seeing Thompson’s development and growth. He grapples with things that are entirely relatable. The added visuals for this growth added another dimension of relatable-ness for me. Something personal I enjoyed was how Thompson burned things that represented a relationship he was done with, voluntarily or not. In a completely non-pyromaniac way, I like to burn things in the same way. The moment when he burns his drawings and the visual representation of the way Thompson feels (pg. 60) was beautifully rendered.

    This my second reading of American Born Chinese and I found aspects of it that I had missed the first time around. I enjoyed the parallel stories of “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” and the Monkey King. The shocking racism and stereotyping of “Everyone Ruvs Chin-Kee” is always a challenge to read, but is obviously meant to be. The way storyline intersects with the storyline of Jin is brilliant and so well done. The way both of those storyline then combine with the Monkey King storyline is also really well done. While I find the later combination a bit too contrived, its overall purpose is set up well against the rest of the story. The entire story itself is great and provides a point of view that I had never been exposed to.

  6. Graphic novels certainly have a place in the English classroom, in my opinion. Reluctant or struggling readers may find graphic novels a bit easier to digest since they have pictures which work with the words in an effort to better tell the story. In that respect, visual learners might also find graphic novels to be appealing. With that being said, just because graphic novels have pictures and less words does not mean they are “dumbed down” versions of traditional novels. We need to remind students that whenever there are less words to tell a story, those words pack more punch and need to be considered more carefully. And just because there are pictures, that doesn’t mean they make the story necessarily easier to understand, either. Sometimes the pictures contain hidden meanings that complicate the story further, so they also need to be carefully considered. This makes graphic novels the best of both worlds, where both struggling and more adept readers can benefit simultaneously.

    *American Born Chinese* by Gene Luen Yang was a unique read for me, since Yang had something new and refreshing to say about something that has been written about thousands of times before. Although Yang’s focus was more on the adolescent immigrant experience, it also could appeal to any adolescent or any person feeling uncomfortable in their skin or struggling to find their identity. The storytelling was so unique, as it started out as three separate stories that eventually molded into one. Each story featured a character feeling uncomfortable in their skin and being what and who they were. They each learned the hard way that the best thing to try to be is just yourself. Who and what they were was their destiny, and if they could just accept that, then everyone else would as well.

    *Blankets* by Craig Thompson was a beautiful autobiographical story that also had a lot to say about finding oneself and their own place in the world. A coming-of-age story chronicling a young man’s relationship with religion, his family, his first love, and himself; makes this graphic novel easily relatable to today’s teenager. Yes, there are some risqué themes and artwork in this book, which make it debatable to suggest to students. But it definitely has something to say about the teenage experience and should be defended as having a place in your classroom library. Much like *ABC*, *Blankets* had a lot to say about learning the hard lessons of growing up and coming into oneself. I especially loved the metaphor of blankets, being something that covered and enveloped you, kept you warm and secure, but also left you sheltered and stunted. Even the snow is a blanket, present in every single scene up until the end, when Craig finally “thaws”, matures, and lets go.

    Both of these graphic novels are extremely relatable to today’s adolescents, and we should definitely suggest them to our students. We should encourage them to explore the genre as a whole as well, I doubt they would be disappointed.

  7. When I was considering whether or not graphic novels should be included in a Secondary classroom I couldn’t help but think back to my special education and literacy classes. It is so important to provide students with a variety and differentiate how we are teaching. Personally, I do not enjoy reading graphic novels. I tend to not even look at the pictures and it seems tedious to read and then search the pictures. Part of what I love about reading is being able to imagine the characters myself and use my own imagination to help create the setting. Sometimes, it’s even difficult for me to see a movie after reading a novel because it shatters my preconceived notions about how everything should appear. It takes away what I brought to the story. However, I know that some students would absolutely prefer to read a graphic novel and I believe whatever gets them reading is fantastic. I believe that having the pictures could assist with comprehension and make novels more accessible to struggling readers. Incorporating a variety of novels is very important because what works for one student may not work for another and as we discussed in class, reading these novels could become a gateway for other reading.

    Although I did not particularly LOVE reading either Blankets or American Born Chinese, I still believe they have a lot to offer in a Secondary classroom. They both deal with issues that are relevant to teenagers and that seems to be key in getting students to read. One of the most pertinent issues in a teenager’s life is fitting in. I think both of the novels dealt with this sensitive issue beautifully. Blankets also portrayed a tumultuous romance, which I am sure so many high school students can relate to. I enjoyed that it didn’t end with Craig marrying his high school sweetheart. It showed a more realistic and relatable outcome. I also enjoyed that it portrayed Craig grappling with his faith and struggling to find his place in life. Instead of merely following what everyone said he should believe or rejecting everything, he went searching for answers. I think that is an important example for students. They should have a thirst for truth, knowledge, and the meaning of life.

    American Born Chinese would be very useful in a secondary classroom because it introduces students to a culture that they might not be familiar with. It also creates a sense of empathy in the reader for those who are struggling to fit in and assimilate. It always encourages students to try and accept themselves for who they are really are. Being true to oneself can be a very difficult process in the judgmental halls of high school. It is funny and entertaining and would easily hold a student’s attention that may be prone to getting distracted while reading. This graphic novel also shows the dangers of stereotypes.

    I am a little bit confused about what the role of these books should be in the classroom. At first, I was under the impression that we should not be analyzing these books and “teaching” them to students. Instead we should be offering them as an enjoyable pastime to be read at their own leisure and discussed almost in passing. However the question, “what are your thoughts on teaching these graphic novels?” confused me.

  8. As an individual not directly involved with education, I believe graphic novels are important to incorporate in English classrooms. Graphic novels have the ability to bring out controversial topics that students are faced with. I believe educators need to create a positive environment in their classroom to address controversial topics when they arise.

    In Blankets, by Craig Thompson, the main character is scrutinized during class for a poem he writes . The teacher embarrasses him in front of the class which forces Craig into escapism. In addition, Craig has a passion and talent for artwork but is told that he shouldn’t relate artwork to religion. These are a couple examples that forced Craig into escapism during the book. The literature demonstrates how Craig has a battle with his religious beliefs. This can be viewed as helpful for many young adults who are determining their own religious beliefs.

    In American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, the author does a good job to illustrate what minority students are faced with. In the beginning, character’s Jing Jang and Wei-Chun Sun phase stereotypes that begin from their teachers. The pronunciation of their names, where they came from, etc. Through this graphic novel I thought this reading would be very beneficial in school’s with a diverse population. Educators can use this literature to express how individuals feel in the position of a minority student.

    Graphic novels have a place in the English classroom if they are used correctly. Powerful literature can be pulled out of the readings that can go far beyond an English classroom. I enjoyed reading American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang and Blankets, by Craig Thompson.

  9. Breanna Stock:

    Graphic novels offer a nice change of pace, when compared to the average written word only. For students who have difficulty finding the motivation to read the written word, I would strongly recommend graphic novels. Graphic novels offer an easy transition from never picking up a book to read into the process of reading, and appreciating, written works. Not only do they offer pictures to help aid in the comprehension of what is happening within the piece, but they normally have short blurbs of words accompanying the pictures, making graphic novels less intimidating and a manageable task to accomplish.

    I am not an artistic person, mostly because I cannot draw for anything, but I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate graphic novels. I can get my fix of reading, but I also get the added benefit of giving my mind a new approach to deciphering what is happening throughout the story by interpreting the images presented throughout. Graphic novels require students to use multiple avenues of interpretation in order to get the most out of the reading. There is nothing left to question regarding how the author intends for a main character to look; it is all represented for the reader within the images. Details left out of the reading can be made apparent through the images that accompany the few words near each image. The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” comes to mind when I explore any graphic novel. It is no secret images can offer a great deal of information to readers, but what makes graphic novels a great alternative to just the written word is they still contain the written word, just with an extra “dose” of information through images.

    With all that being said, I wholeheartedly want to incorporate graphic novels into my future classroom. I know it will be difficult, when it comes to implementing certain graphic novels due to content, but I want to include them in my curriculum. I think students would easily gravitate towards novels that also incorporate images. It allows the students to make connections between the words on the page and the image on the page. Is it what they would have drawn, if given the chance? Would they do something differently? Graphic novels provide the opportunity for exploration—something every student needs to do to get the most out of their reading experience.

    I fell in love with the graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson. Not only was the story compelling, a tear jerker, and overall well presented, but it also offered an experience relatable to the reader. While I am not a male, like the main character, I still saw myself within the novel. I have had a rocky sibling relationship, just like Phil and Craig. I have had lost love, like Craig. I have felt bad for events that have happened to my younger sibling, like Craig does for Phil. I saw the blankets throughout the novel to symbolize safety and imagination. As a kid, and still to today, I find safety within my blankets at home. They are an added layer of protection in this sometimes unfair, cruel, damning world. The blanket Craig and Phil shared allowed them to escape the hard times they faced, and enter into the world of imagination, which encompassed pirate ships, fights, and sheer pleasure. The one blanket they had provided Craig and Phil with happiness—the simplest of pleasures. With all the unfortunate events happening in Blankets, one roots for the characters to find that simple moment of joy within their imagined world when in the presence of their blanket. Not only did I cry while reading Blankets, I felt love, hope, and happiness—all of which make this novel one I would love to include in my curriculum, if given the opportunity.

    While I enjoyed the humor within American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, my heart belongs to Blankets. I cannot say enough good things about Blankets, and every student, when the time is right, should experience all the emotions presented throughout Craig Thompson’s work. I saw myself within the piece, and I think any reader can also find at least one portion of the novel they will relate to. I am sad it took me this long to get my hands on the piece that ultimately makes me believe in the power of the mind, the comfort the simplest of one good can add to one’s life, and how one connection with another individual can make all the difference between giving up and moving ahead.

    • I like your comments about the idea of a new “avenue of interpretation.” I think it’s really important to ride those avenues, especially when we have different types of learners!
      I am also a poor artist, and I think that may contribute to my appreciation for these texts. When I read really good books, I sometimes think that I could do something of similar caliber. Not that I appreciate it any less, but I always appreciate art and music even more because they just seem to me like supernatural talents.

      • American Born Chinese Blog:
        I really enjoyed the graphic novel “American Born Chinese” by Yang. I think the author’s craft is written beautifully. I like how the author wrote about three different story lines and was able to relate all of them to the same connotation of acceptance. I think with young adults today, “acceptance” is a very important aspect of their lives, not only from others but from within themselves. This novel is relatable to young adults because it helps teens make connections both publicly and personally. This could help students understand that they are not alone in their day to day struggles.
        I think graphic novels definitely have a place in the classroom because they don’t feel as intimidating, especially for struggling readers. Graphic novels will help struggling readers by using the graphics as a visual aide in their reading comprehension. This may help students to see this story from another perspective that they may not have seen through words only. Having pictures helps young adults to expand on their thoughts as they look and decipher through illustration. This novel is rich in detail without lacking in various complex issues such as stereotypes in today’s diverse society. For example when Jin/Danny was having difficulty living as an American citizen while trying embrace his Chinese heritage this caused him many challenges as he tried living up to the expectations of American society. “Now what would you like to become?” (pg. 194). This book also touches on how American society sees all Asian decent as the same when in fact they are very different. Because diversity is becoming so prevalent in today’s classrooms this graphic novel would be a great novel for young adult ESL students as well.
        Blankets Blog:
        In the story “Blankets” by Thompson I felt was a bit more complex than “American born Chinese.” I felt that there was a lot going on in this novel such as the hypocricy of religion, unhappiness, love, molestation, morals, etc. The character Craig lives his life for God but I think he has many questions about his own belief in his faith. Craig’s character is relatable for young adult readers when it comes to the setting and his love for Raina but between the molestation and the religion aspect of this novel could this graphic novel be too complex? I feel maybe this would be a graphic novel that could be taught as a class for seniors. I personally don’t think I would teach this novel any younger than seniors. Although I really enjoyed this novel I think it’s a novel I would have to read again and really analyze a bit deeper because of its rich content.

  10. Although I read comic books on occasion such as the Archie series when I was in school, I was never exposed to graphic novels, and as a result, I struggle to personally enjoy them. Prior to enrolling in this program, I never would have picked up a graphic novel on my own, and I will be honest and say I didn’t even think of them as “real” literature. I now feel a bit embarrassed about dismissing these books so quickly before reading one, but after learning what we have in class, I will now keep an open mind and understand the value of each type of genre.

    I wouldn’t say I necessarily enjoyed reading American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, however I didn’t mind it, and I appreciated what the author’s intent was. I think Yang weaved morals and life lessons about fitting in, power, and appreciating what you have in this graphic novel, and I think he did it well. For me personally, I did struggle to understand what the connection between the three characters were, and I think it was because I am not familiar with this genre, and I got lost often. If I had read this story in a traditional novel form, I think I would really love it because it would have sunk in a bit more. With that being said, I think I need to teach graphic novels in my classes because I want students to be able to appreciate this form of writing, and be able to really enjoy the stories they read regardless of what form they come in. I would absolutely teach this particular graphic novel in my classroom because I think it has a good storyline, interesting characters, fantastic pictures, and would really get kids engaged.

    Blankets by Craig Thompson, however, was a really difficult piece for me to read. I thought the art was beautiful, and honestly I think that is why I had such an uncomfortable emotional response to it. It was very real, raw, and vulnerable (pages 29-33 and 51-65 really got to me), and there is something about seeing the emotions of the characters that you’re reading about rather than attempting to create an image in your head. Thompson did a great job at putting me into the character’s situation, which is probably why I was so incredibly uncomfortable and saddened while reading. I am very empathic, and I carry other’s emotions often, even if they are characters in a book. Although I can appreciate this for what it is, and I will say that it was very well written and illustrated, I don’t think I could handle teaching this in the classroom. I had a perfectly happy childhood and did not experience anything like Thompson, and yet the subjects that arose in this novel still triggered a poor reaction for me. I personally don’t think this book is something that many students in MS or HS could handle, especially if they have similar experiences, or are very empathic, sensitive, or imaginative.

    The love story was very beautiful, but I don’t think it truly wrapped it up by the end; I wish I had more information as to why exactly Raina and Craig couldn’t be together. I think the break up was really rushed and not fully explained, but I also may have a problem interpreting it because I am not too familiar with reading graphic novels.

    In writing this, I am realizing how my personal experiences and personality traits have heavily affected my response, and I am sure that a lot of people will not have a similar reaction, along with my future students. I am really interested to know how other people felt while reading this book, because I would love to be able to look at this without getting emotionally upset.

    Overall, I absolutely think that graphic novels do have a place in the classroom, but if I had the opportunity, I would be very selective about which ones I choose.

      • Of course! I have recognized where I am lacking in my ability to be objective and remove myself from the books, so if you have any tips over the next year, let me know 🙂

    • It sounds like our reactions to Blankets were simultaneously exactly the same and completely opposite.
      Like you said, I also found it to be very raw, and I felt kind of vulnerable and uncomfortable reading it. Also like you, my childhood was a blast, but I still find that things like this hit me pretty hard.
      I was also a little upset that we didn’t get to learn more about Raina, but I kinda saw that as a sign that Thompson was still really bummed about the entire affair, like he couldn’t share it with us because he hadn’t come to terms with it yet. Maybe, I don’t know. That’s way too speculative, I think.
      But yeah, really funny how we reacted so similarly but so differently.

    • Lauren,

      I agree with you on many of the points you make!

      I too was never exposed to graphic novels and I was personally some what reluctant about having to read them.

      I too would be very selective if I were to incorporate them into my classroom.

  11. I am heels-over-head in love with the idea of teaching novels like this to high school students.
    I have so many thoughts about Blankets. I went into it with a lot of preconceived notions; McConn had warned us that that content was very iffy, and my brother, when he saw it in my hands on Christmas Eve, told me that the book is “fucked up. It’s amazing, but so fucked up.” And so, I felt a little worried for myself when I finished the book surprised that I’d been told such things. I thought I must have missed something, because I didn’t share my brother’s opinion entirely. Obviously, dealing with an awful, tragic issue like child molestation makes the book subject to attack, and I’m DEFINITELY not arguing that the crime is not, as my brother said, “fucked up.” It absolutely is. But if this book is “fucked up,” then Law & Order should definitely not be played on daytime cable. That show sensationalizes sex crimes and turns them into passive entertainment. Blankets is raw, real, and striking. Child molestation is fucked up. But the book isn’t, and I don’t know if I’m just being verbally picky, there’s a difference there. I guess I just got so much more out of this book that I wasn’t as focused on the atrocity as my brother seemed to have been. But I was stricken by this book. I always laugh when I hear about Bible-Thumpers like Craig’s teachers, thinking of them as a joke, or a thing of the distant past, not the kind of people that are still influencing people. And I think my reactions to this book speak worlds to my own naivete and tendency to distance myself from issues that I know exist but don’t affect me directly. Thompson even touches on the “power of ignorance” on page 277, and I think that’s such an interesting concept, one that is both challenged and enforced by my reactions to the book.
    And then there’s the artistic and literary value of the book. Thompson did so much more for us than tell us he and his brother pretended their bed was a ship. He showed us that, and he did so with vivid, engaging artwork. He made his internal feelings and thoughts tangible through his drawings. On page 293, Craig didn’t just tell us that being molested was making his own sexual emergence difficult and challenging. He showed us this through powerful images of heaven and hell, angels and demons almost battling for control over the way he would identify himself. And even the writing itself was top notch. Raina’s fathers little speech about sledding on page 177 was just plain cool to read. I think the fact that I’m cutting myself so short with this part of the post and not saying everything I want to say about all my favorite (and least favorite) parts of the book shows how much there is to talk about with this book. And so much of it is relevant to adolescents. There is value is reminding teenagers what I needed reminding of. There are closed minded people that use religion to control their kids, for instance. Really bad things happen to really innocent people, but they can still find their way through it. There are a lot of ways to represent a thought and a feeling. I wouldn’t go so far as to use Blankets as a full-class text, and I would definitely err on the side of caution with a book like this, but it still has a lot of educational value.

    American Born Chinese, on the other hand, could definitely be taught in a 1-2 week unit. This book hit home a little bit for me because some of the experiences were similar to those of one of my good friends. We didn’t meet until my second year of college, but he has mentioned the hard times he dealt with on account of being an asian kid in New York City. English was not his first language, and that made him susceptible to bullying for a good long while. And I just think that sucks. ABC is really valuable in enlightening people to the sorts of judgement and mistreatment that still happen on a daily basis, whether they’re acted upon or not. ABC did a great job of turning the stereotypes into satire without trivializing them, and I loved it for that. It was such a quick read, too! I finished it in less than an hour. Despite the serious issues of identity crisis and racism, the book was so entertaining and fun that it’s incredibly accessible. I almost felt like I was reading a cartoon transported into book form.

    I’ve read other graphic novels that definitely have more literary value than some of the “classics,” but I’m really happy to have read these ones as well, and I really want to explore the genre for both entertainment and educational purposes!

    • Dylan, I enjoyed reading this post because it is so opposite of how I felt about it. I really wanted to read something like this because I know there’s so much beauty in the book, but I can’t get out of the pain and abuse that is screaming so loud in the book. Thanks for helping me see it from the other side 🙂

    • Great post, Dylan. I’m glad you enjoyed the reading. Two things I’d like to address, though: 1. Law and Order doesn’t really show the same details of such acts as the memoir does. Even though it is only a few scenes, it’s still a disturbing thing to see in pictures. Overall, I agree with your sentiments, but just think about how you’re going to defend that page in question to a parent in front of the principal. 2. When you say “teach” these novels, my hope is that you’re referring to novel groups and individualized reading programs.

      • Point # 1 seems really obvious now that you say it. I think the best defense I can come up with is that these things are as important to know about as any other atrocity that kids learn about in history classes, but as you said, the vivid pictures to make it hard to justify in a high school setting.
        To your second point, that was what I had at the forefront of my mind, but I’m still wondering if doing ABC as a whole class would be a bad idea? Blankets is obviously out of the question, but could other graphic novels be used as whole-class texts?

  12. If the first rule of making life-long readers is that literature must be enjoyed, I think graphic novels have a place in the classroom. I won’t discount the possibility that some students may dislike reading graphic novels, but because many eat them up, I think it’s important for teachers to encourage this genre.

    Graphic novels have come a long way, and what’s great is that works such as “Blankets” and “American Born Chinese” are meaty with value. I’m not just talking about colorful pages. I mean holding one of these books, you know you’re holding a piece of art. It took a lot of work to make it – creativity and time. What’s more, when reading these works, students may tune in to literary elements such as setting, character development and even theme faster for two reasons.

    First, this genre utilizes two parts of the brain. Being able to both read the story through words and see it in picture, there is a flow that just isn’t achieved as successfully in plain text. Second, excitement rolls in to engagement. If a young boy is knee-deep in graphic novels at home, he will be thrilled to see one on his desk at school. He will jump at the chance to show off his familiarity with the genre and compel other students to take an interest. By teaching graphic novels, you expose your students to non-traditional texts that will stimulate their minds in a different way. What’s more valuable than that?

    Specifically, I would love to expose students to “Blankets” by Craig Thompson. I find his gritty narrative both excruciatingly honest and personally relatable. I feel like I knew my share of Chris’s, growing up in a Christian community like he describes. He portrays his inward struggle with staying pure while discovering his relationship with the opposite sex in a way that sends shivers down my spine. When he walked away from the faith, all I could think of was my brother-in-law. And the secrets. What kid couldn’t relate to holding things in the way he did, whether or not they were molested as a child?

    I understand this book may be hard to defend to a protective parent. And I know it is not my place as a teacher to override a parent’s censorship. But for argument’s sake: students are looking at much worse things on TV and the internet – things that don’t have a spec of literary value – that will affect them much more negatively than reading a graphic novel.

    On a different note, American Born Chinese is an eye-opening piece about fitting in that anyone can relate to. Jin is bullied, teased and on top of it all, painfully reminded day by day of his other-ness. By using Jin’s race as very outward distinction, Yang pulls the reader in. Then, with philosophical anecdotes about a monkey who wants to be something more than he, in reality, can be, Yang sheds light on an issue all teens struggle with. The struggle to be immortal. Well, maybe not so dramatic. But it’s definitely a wish to be more than a little worm of a human. By weaving these two narratives together, the author humorously divulges the wishful heart of a struggling teen. And for that reason, it’s very readable.

    In a positive light, both Thompson’s and Yang’s novels touch on issues of faith, acceptance, identity and relationships. With such themes, these books become must-reads for young adults. And if they would pick them off a shelf at Barnes and Noble, why give them access to these books under classroom supervision. There you can talk to them about what they discover as they discover it, answer questions as they come up and even point out things they’d never consider on their own. Yes, graphic novels have a place in the classroom – a very colorful, unique place.

  13. I was pleasantly surprised by American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang, and especially impressed with Blankets by Craig Thompson. I think both graphic novels are deserving of literary praise and approval. I’m excited by the prospect of teaching either one of these books. Even though I don’t have much experience with graphic novels or comics, it seems a no-brainer to include them in a curriculum, especially if our top priority as teachers should be to help students enjoy literature.

    There’s plenty to enjoy about each of these novels. The blend of art and language is beautifully executed throughout each novel to garner the appropriate reaction. In ABC, the art was used to emphasize the sardonic humor pointing at the often-unfair stereotypes associated with Chinese culture. The sections where cousin Chin-Kee is visiting are representative of a more obvious example of Chinese stereotypes. The art acts to accentuate the ridiculous assumptions people may have. The frame on pg. 114 comes to mind when Chin-Kee is eating, “Clispy flied cat gizzards wiff noodle.” He holds a Chinese food container with noodles and a dead cat head, while kids in the background are drawn as disgusted by Chin-Kee, in effect embarrassing Danny. The Chin-Kee portions seemed to tie into the novel smoothly, but the meaning behind the Monkey King sections takes a bit more time to understand. If I were to teach this novel, I would enjoy spending time putting these pieces together in a classroom setting.

    Blankets, however, is a much different graphic novel. It certainly has a more serious tone with the black and white detailed drawings. The content was darker as well, but that might be why I liked it so much. This is an honest depiction of a real, complicated, adolescent life. It shines a light on issues that might be taboo, like child molestation, or sexuality, or Christianity, but these were events in Craig’s life that shaped him as a person and an artist. To leave them out, or to censor them, would be to cheapen the work. Tragedy and life’s many confusions are a part of a universal life experience that cannot be avoided. So, I don’t find a moral issue with a book as intelligently drawn as Blankets. I would teach this novel (While covering my bases with enough permission slips) because it’s valuable to examine these issues in a way that creates a conversation and an understanding about adversities we may face in our own lives and empathy for those who have faced them.

  14. Growing up I always knew what a comic book was of course, however, I can honestly say that from k-12 I never saw someone actually reading one; I also grew up with three brothers and no comic was ever found in the house. Due to my lack of exposure to even comic books I had no idea this genre of illustrated novels, really really big comic books to my personal view, even existed. I remember getting the amazon box with Blankets in it, I opened the packaged and looked at this huge 350+ page book in disbelief…then I opened up to the first page. From first glance I have to be honest, I didn’t take it seriously. Then to my amazement when I picked up the average sized book, American Born Chinese, I again, unfortunately, didn’t take it to seriously.

    Reading in syllabus order I read ABC first, I found myself less then apt to laugh at the content and for some reason agitated while reading it, can’t exactly put my finger on it why; yes, yes, I’m sure I am awful person for not liking it. I can say I really liked it was a short read. Negative and rude comments out of the way I can say that I understood the purpose and merit to Yang’s story. I think that it is an accurate, and most likely first hand account experience, of what it was like growing up Chinese in an American society. I also think that it was interesting how the three story lines fit together, and how one of those story lines was a fable itself. I know very little about Chinese culture, other than the fact I like wanton soup and I like it in take out form, but from my understanding, and maybe I’m only thinking this because I like the movie Mulan, but ancient animal symbols and stories of ancestry are a very key component in Chinese culture. I like that Yang combined American and Chinese culture in his novel this way, showing both the importance of tradition and how it can related into today’s world.

    I will say I enjoyed Blankets much more, most likely because it was easier to follow and the story line was more interesting to me. I also think that students would be more apt to read this book than the prior. I think that because this was someones whole life story and you can see it in it’s entirety, from boy hood to man hood, it makes it much more intriguing for both myself and students especially. They could perhaps look at this in the sense that yes, bad things happen in life, but you can’t give up, and there will be people you meet along the way that will always remain important in your life no matter how old you are, that among various other lessons and morals that can be taken away from this. I also thought this novel could be taken more seriously, both because of the content and as well as the fact the drawings were less “cartoony,” or to use a more adult word, sophisticated. This sophistication of illustrations and content I think will resonate more with students in that they will feel older and more mature reading this graphic story, as opposed to the very colorful and playful illustrations in ABC.

    Both novels I believe hold an important value, and I know for a fact there is much more to be taken out them that just what I fit in a blog post or what I thought while reading. I though am not as interested in these kinds of novels as others, and those who are would 100% have understood more and appreciated the novels more than I did. Just because illustrated novels are not my cup of tea does not mean I should deprive my students of them. They are an easy read and I can get through them with ease before putting them on my future classroom shelf. It’s important to recognize all kinds of people, students and taste, as well as kinds of novels. If there is a story worth reading I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t have it in my classroom to lend out to students. I do not think though it should be incorporated into a curriculum, and believe it should be saved for independent reading.

    Sorry everyone.

  15. I have experienced previous classes that have assigned graphic novels, even one class that required the group writing of one. I had never given much thought to them as literature, for me they have always presented themselves as a refreshing change of pace, sprinkled amongst the strenuous reading material. I mean how many other 500+ page books can you read in four hours? Having recently given more thought to this topic, I would argue that graphic novels allow students a fresh way of examining story structure, a variance that may afford many students an understanding they have previously been unable to grasp. While many may argue that in order to work on reading skills, students must encounter works full of words, however, graphic novels develop reading skills of a different kind. I believe that the ability to read/decipher pictures is also an important skill that students must possess, a skill that is often not addressed in upper level English courses due to an abundance of words, and therefore lack of illustrations. Granted, this opinion stems largely from my Fine Art background, although I would argue that those in favor of Media Literacy (educating students on how to identify the messages conveyed through advertisements, television, and other forms of technology) would support the importance of reading beyond words.

    I find the graphic novel to be a refreshing medium, but I find that it stifles the level of imagination that I as a reader can apply to a piece. I am not afforded the opportunity to dream up a personal vision of the characters, setting and situations. Because of this I do not believe that I will ever be able to experience the sense of escapism that usually accompanies my reading. While reading a graphic novel I will always be stuck in someone else’s vision. That being said, I also believe that this medium allows an author a great deal of imagination, and gives them more control over how their work is viewed and interpreted.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading both American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang and Blankets by Craig Thompson. At first I was under the impression that ABC was a collection of stories about three different characters, however I was pleasantly surprised when the connections became apparent. While this work addresses the hardships that immigrants may face, I believe it does so in an entertaining manner that subtly teaches through humor. Having read the two works consecutively, the more serious tone of Blankets was striking. Craig Thompson expresses a relatable story through a character that students will be able to identify with on some level. Through illustration the reader is all knowing; emotions are conveyed on the characters’ faces, and situations both past and present are presented with little verbal explanation. Although Blankets addresses difficult topics such as child molestation, lost love, and religious identity, I did not feel deeply impacted upon completion. Of course I sympathized with Craig, and recognized his struggles, I was not emotionally invested as I had previously expected. I believe this is due to the removal of the reader’s imagination from the story through the illustrations that I have discussed previously. If this story had been presented in a traditional manner I think it would have elicited a more emotional response from me, however I never felt that I was able to lose myself in the story.

    As far as teaching graphic novels in a classroom setting, I believe that it would most successful in novel groups and/or individual reading programs. If students are able to select from a variety of graphic novels, a class discussion could be facilitated regarding the differences in experience between traditional novels and graphic novels. How and/or why they enjoyed/disliked the text. A whole class assignment of a graphic novel may benefit students who are unfamiliar with the format, it would allow for teacher guidance on approaching the text and may eliminate potential confusion. A small introductory graphic novel would allow the teacher to model how to read such a text, and would also allow students to locate a graphic novel that speaks to them as part of a larger analysis of structure unit. I believe that throwing students into this genre without proper preparation could turn them off on a seemingly up and coming style of literature. In terms of teaching ABC and Blankets, ABC could be adapted to classroom lessons, and bringing light to the hardships of foreign students might be highly beneficial, but it seems that the best way to address Blankets would be to leave it as an option that requires parental consent. Defending the content to resisting parents will cause a problem, however, disclosing the potentially controversial topics, language, and graphics explicitly is a good first step. If the issues are presented to the parent, they will be able to gage whether or not they believe their child is mature enough for such content, and gives them the opportunity to discuss these topics with the child upon completion of the book.

  16. After reading both Blankets and American Born Chinese, I first want to say how much I enjoyed both of them. American Born Chinese was a bit confusing at times and hard to figure out how all the stories related until they all came together at the end very nicely. I also enjoyed the comedic relief and at times found myself laughing out loud at certain parts. I think this is a great book for young adult readers because it has so many different things that can be relatable to a teenager. There are outsiders in every school and sometimes students aren’t aware of them if they aren’t one themselves. This graphic novel gives great insight in to what it feels like to be separated from the group, and even worse to be separated because of race and ethnic beliefs. It also has friendship involved as well when the one character describes how if it wasn’t for his Chinese friend, he would’ve never made it through because he wouldn’t have had any friends at school when he moved there. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to have one person to be able to rely on for them to stay engaged in school and for them to want to come to that school. Something as simple as this may make a kid reach out to someone they might normally not who they’re aware doesn’t have a lot of friends at school. This graphic novel can also teach acceptance of both each other and of yourself. You have to be able to accept who you are and there are some characteristics that you can’t change so embracing them is the only way to make it through. If you can’t accept yourself then how can you expect others to?

    Blankets also gives the reader a look inside the lens of an outsider. Craig is someone that comes from a household that doesn’t necessarily have everything but they have enough to provide for their kids. However, you get a look right away at the type of babysitter their money can buy. This book shows the more serious side of a graphic novel but it allows young adult readers to dig deep into problems they are facing as well. Everyone in high school is facing acceptance, and when you’re an outsider it is even worse. Craig hates going to school because of the constant bullying he receives from his fellow students and the way some of his teachers view his creative mind. He feels like everything he stands for is being rejected. Raina is his first form of acceptance by someone his age and like all teenagers, struggles through that first love and the ups and downs that go with it. This book can be used to really show students that away from school, you don’t know what’s going on at home with their peers. School is a place where everyone should feel accepted, a sanctuary away from home for a few hours during the day which is sometimes needed. If you look at Raina and her situation, it seems like she’ll be stuck taking care of her family for forever because her sister married and had kids too young, her other sister and brother have problems and her parents are in the midst of a divorce. I also think the religious aspect of this graphic novel is interesting because it teaches kids to question everything until you can form your own opinion on things the way Craig has at the end.

    I think both of these books, as well as other graphic novels I have read absolutely belong in a classroom. These not only tell a story in a more short and precise way, but they also do so in a more aesthetically pleasing way rather than just reading a normal novel. The illustrations help bring the scenes and characters to life while enhancing the story. This can help students get a feel for what scenes are supposed to look like in heir heads when reading novels by physically seeing them in graphic novels. I personally had never read a graphic novel until grad school at BU but I wish that we had done them or had the option to choose them when I was in middle and high school. I think that every teenager should have to read at least one graphic novel while doing novel groups. A student that has never enjoyed reading before because of the complexity of the story or because they don’t want to put in effort, may be able to grasp a graphic novel easier and then fall in love with them in the process.

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