Comic Lessons: Why Graphic Novels Belong In School Libraries

LibraryGraphic novels' place in private collections and public libraries is fairly accepted these days, and many teachers have begun incorporating them into their lessons and classroom collections. But when it comes to the school library or media center, the case must still often be made for their inclusion. With the rapid evolution in communication nowadays – with a strong focus on the visual – and graphic novels' unique ability to engage multiple literacies, having them in a school's library collection offers teachers and media specialists another means with which to engage students' learning. Also, graphic novels' proven appeal with younger audiences can lead to a higher circulation rate in the library.

PersepolisIt's undeniable that communication is undergoing a massive change in the early 21st century. Access to the Internet is available on an increasing number of devices – including ones as ubiquitous as cell phones – along with ever-more portable devices for videos and video games. The combination of images and text is becoming a standard method of conveying information, which requires new sets of skills in order to properly interpret what is being presented. University of North Florida assistant professor of literacy (and BookShelf contributor) Katie Monnin refers to this as "the greatest communication revolution since the invention of the printing press," as a way of illustrating the scale of what is occurring.

Graphic novels can be powerful tools in this process. They not only combine words and images, but require the reader to interpret the narrative flow by linking the actions in the panels together, and so can help in advancing students' literacy. Also, graphic novels are popular with younger readers, appealing to reluctant and struggling readers as well as those who are more advanced.

Often when choosing materials for the school library, the librarian or media specialist must choose a book for either curriculum or leisure reading. With many graphic novels, both aims can be realized. A book like Frank Miller's 300, for example, has the appeal of being an action-packed adventure story. But as it's based on an actual event – the battle of Thermopylae between the Spartans and invading Persian forces – it can also be used to illustrate Greek history (and the creative licenses sometimes taken when recounting historical events).

By using graphic novels, teachers can help students grasp subjects they may have found boring or difficult. Along with the previously mentioned 300, works such as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, and Joe Sacco's Palestine are can aid history lessons, while Jay Hosler's Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth and The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA are designed for the science class. There are even graphic novels about math!

EvolutionA number of school districts have already accepted the place of graphic novels, and have worked to increase their use. In 2008, the New York City Department of Education held a training session on graphic novels for hundreds of its K-12 school librarians, focusing on collection development, lesson plans, and the appeal of the books.

Having graphic novels as part of a library collection also offer an opportunity to increase circulation. In a Diamond BookShelf article on cost-effective collection development, YA librarian Christian Zabriskie illustrated how the average circulation rate in the library's YA graphic novel section matched that of the high-interest prose books. High school librarian Alison Ching noted in a 2005 article in Young Adult Library Services that graphic novels, while making up only 1.5 percent of the library's collection, accounted for 17 percent of the circulation (see citation below). In a panel at the 2007 Comic Con International in San Diego, Andrew Kaplan of the Las Vegas – Clark County Library District, NV, stated that 54 percent of the YA circulation at his branch consisted of graphic novels. While no formal study on the circulation rates of graphic novels has yet been undertaken, evidence shows that when the books are included in a library's collection, they tend to be some of the most-checked out books.

PalestineWith the amount of materials available for librarians and media specialists to choose from, they have to know that what they're selecting will not only be relevant to the curriculum, but appealing enough to students that the material will actually be used. Graphic novels have been shown to meet both requirements, offering a useful tool in class and enjoyment outside of school. The libraries that do carry them report high circulation, showing that students are reading and using the library. As a way to help students understand visual communication – and help teachers learn what their students are into – graphic novels have earned their place in the school library.

Ching, A. (Summer, 2005). Holy Reading Revolution, Batman! Developing a Graphic Novel Collection for Young Adults. Young Adult Library Services, 3, no. 4, 19-21.