Graphically Engaging: An Interview With Jesse Karp

Jesse KarpHaving personally seen how comics have positively affected students' performance, school librarian Jesse Karp is trying to spread the word (and show other educators how to do it) with his new book, Graphic Novels in Your School Library (978-0-8389-1089-4, $50) released this month from ALA Editions, and illustrated by Rush Kress.

Karp has been a school librarian since 1999 and has worked with kids from pre-kindergarten through high school. He also teaches a graphic novel class at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and writes regularly on the subject of graphic novels for ALA's Booklist and on his own site, www.BeyondWhereYouStand.com.

We spoke with Jesse about his new book, his experiences using graphic novels with students, and the value of having graphic novels in the classroom.

Could you briefly describe your background?

I have a degree in journalism (with a focus on media analysis) from New York University and a Masters in Library and Information Science from Pratt Institute. I am a school librarian at LREI (Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, an independent school in Manhattan) where I have worked with children in Pre-K all the way through 12th grade. I am a professor of Library and Information Science at Pratt. I've written a Young Adult novel called Those That Wake and a non-fiction book called Graphic Novels in Your School Library. More to the point, I've been reading comic books since I was four-years-old, first as an object of personal enjoyment and later, also, as an artifact of cultural significance and a potential tool for the education of children.

Graphic Novels in Your School LibraryYou've written a number of articles about your experience using graphic novels, but what prompted you to write this book?

Right now, the education world is in a position to embrace the form as a pedagogical device. Educators are sniffing around graphic novels and are developing an interest in them, but they have to breach several generations' worth of suspicion over the form. My writing on the subject is mainly to offer educators an opportunity to see what the form has to offer, to create specific opportunities for educators to put sequential art to their own test in classrooms. The articles were an excellent starting point, but they are barely the tip of the iceberg. A book is obviously far more comprehensive and, beyond merely suggesting the potential, the book can offer background on the form, cultural and aesthetic analysis, support for its educational uses, as well as extended reading lists and numerous lessons based on specific graphic novels and on the form itself that teachers can fit directly into their curricula.

This book is focused on graphic novels in school libraries. How do you think having graphic novels in a school library differs from, say, a public library?

Public libraries were the frontier, no doubt about it. Once graphic novels got shelf space in public libraries, they had won a major victory. Putting them into school libraries, though, ties them more directly to education. They start out as an option for the students' independent reading, but slowly start to slip into classroom collections and, eventually, into classes themselves. School libraries, in addition to offering students a chance to discover worthwhile stories in a new format, are a crucial bridge into the classroom.

How does (or how can) having graphic novels aid a school's curriculum?

Children have a much greater visual vocabulary than we ever did. There is a great deal more stimulation coming at them than we ever had. Graphic novels are a middle ground, a visual medium that is still static and can be experienced at the reader's own desired speed.

The simple mechanics of reading sequential art helps develop all sorts of cognitive skills essential to early literacy. In addition to supporting an understanding of sequence and context, sequential art offers great visual cues (and more specific cues than picture books tend to have) that are very helpful to burgeoning readers. It is also much less intimidating to crack open a graphic novel than it is a novel and for reluctant readers who might be wary of pages upon pages packed with words, there is almost nothing better to start them on the road to a full blown love of reading.

Graphic novels cover a wide range of material and are particularly strong in the area of diversity. There are a number of great graphic historical biographies which can serve as excellent supplements to a textbook, since the graphic novel can make a particular character "live and breathe" for a student in a way dryer text cannot, and since graphic novels tend to be much quicker reads than a prose novel or biography, the matter of reading time is less of an issue.

The creation of sequential art itself, an understanding of the particular language and codes it uses to work, offers all sorts of lessons in expression, communication and perspective.

Perhaps most importantly, because students are comfortable and confident with—and love for—the format, it invites students to invest in their own education. This investment is, of course, a vital part of creating students who turn into engaged and critical thinkers.

You also teach a graphic novel course at Pratt Institute. Can you give a brief description of what you teach?

The idea is to prime new generations of librarians to help usher the form into wider use, both in schools and in the world in general. The Pratt class includes sections on the history of the form and the analysis of its codes and symbols. We read many graphic novels, exploring as many genres as possible, and discuss them as though we were discussing a book but with particular attention to the essential unity of words and pictures. We also study the construction of the form (nothing makes you appreciate the intricacies of sequential art as having to produce some yourself) and the big, final project is for groups of two to produce an educational comic book in collaboration as writer and artist.

What's been your experience using comics in library and class settings? What kinds of benefits do you find using them?

Beyond the pedagogical specifics outlined above, the benefits I see are enthusiastic students. In the library, we cannot keep the graphic novels on the shelves, nor get new ones fast enough. No week goes by where I don't get requests for other titles and characters. When I'm using graphic novels with students directly, I see a high degree of focus, a powerful sense of curiosity and an urge to explore. You cannot do better than to have students who are partners in their own education and who are prepared to engage their imaginations and their intellect.