Monday, August 3, 2015

Graphic Novels for Emerging Readers

Graphic novels and comic books are taking up increasingly large amounts of shelf space in libraries across the world. No longer is reading comics and graphic novels thought of as a purely fun pastime but instead is being seen as powerful way to help children become lifelong readers. Children seem to simply love comics so it is a no-brainer to introduce comics to children at a young age to scaffold their reading comprehension.  According to Stanford Professor Emeritus Barbara Tversky, “Comics are similar to face-to-face interactions, in which meaning is derived not solely from words, but also from gestures, intonation, facial expressions and props. Comics are more than just illustrated books, but rather make use of a multi-modal language that blends words, pictures, facial expressions, panel-to-panel progression, color, sound effects and more to engage readers in a compelling narrative” (Comics in the Classroom, 2015).

Comics essentially help children with visual literacy, an important skill in today’s modern world.  Children are growing up in an increasingly visual culture where they must regularly interpret and process visual clues whether on screens, in print, or in their environment. As Tversky points out, comics help children interpret this multi-modal language which is essential for reading diagrams, maps, and graphs as required in the Reading Informational Text standards, part of the Common Core Standards. When comic books are used to supplement the common core curriculum, this genre gets students comfortable in literacy, and allows them to become autonomous, strong, lifelong readers. This is particularly true for English Language Learners as research shows that comics have a great power to reach students from diverse linguistic and social backgrounds in ways that traditional literature cannot. 

As Chun (2009) explains, “the teaching of critical literacy [with English Language Learners] can take place while students develop literacy skills through their engagement with these texts so that they will be better equipped to deal with more traditional texts.” Essentially, graphic novels do a great job at building an interest in reading that might not be there for English Language Learners as well as native speakers of English. When comics are properly used, parents, librarians, and teachers can use this type of reading material to teach many concepts. For example, “Comics can help show the importance of context clues (vocabulary or visuals), teach components of a novel (protagonist, climax, character development, etc.), grammar, writing (having students analyze what a character says and how he/she says it), discussion (with partners or in small groups---discussing a character's actions for example), etc. The limits of how these books can be used are up to the teacher” (Stewart, 2011). Graphic novels aimed at emerging readers help strengthen reading skills of English Language Learners to such a point that they can slowly transition over time to beginner chapter books with less visuals. With time, English Language Learners may form an interest in reading to the point that they may want to read outside of class.
Not all graphic novels are created equally, however. There are some books that are better for emerging readers than others. One series that is particularly helpful for both English Language Learners and emerging readers is Toon Books. Toon Books, particularly their Level 1 books, have shown to be useful for emerging readers and English Language Learners due to the reduced text, making the language manageable for readers new to English.  Toon Books, the critically acclaimed and award-winning publisher of comics for early readers, was created in 2008 by designer and editor Fran├žoise Mouly with her husband, Pulitzer Prize–winning author-illustrator Art Spiegelman. The comic-book series took off, won awards, and continues to thrive to this day. TOON Books (a Candlewick imprint) are comic books designed for beginning readers ages four and up and are intended to be books they can read themselves.

This humorous graphic novel depicts several short stories of Benjamin Bear’s activities with other animals, mainly a rabbit. Each picture in a story shows the action taking place and the unexpected outcome.  The stories have titles describing what happens via well-known phrases such as “Follow the leader” and “Hot and cold”.  What is shown to the reader is that there is more than one way to get things done. There are also wrong ways to get things done as in “Too smart for his own good” when Benjamin Bear uses two rocks as stepping stones to cross the river.  Unfortunately, when one of the rocks sinks to the bottom, he is stuck in the middle of the river on one rock.

Each thing that makes her mad takes up two pages in the book. The first page is typically one panel and shows Nina being mad about anything from, “When you don’t know what I like…” to “When I try and no one else does…” to “When I do something nice and no one cares…” This is then followed by the thought bubble, “…that makes me MAD!” On the second page of each thing that makes her mad is anywhere from 2-7 panels describing the scene in great detail. These panels will have Nina confronting a problem with her family, as they seem often too busy to truly sit down and pay attention to Nina and what she needs.
Toon Books has many more books than just these two titles, however, and each book in the series is absolutely worth being inside a children’s library.  For teachers or school librarians looking to add Toon Books to the classroom but can’t find the funding, is a great website that will allow them to submit a project idea that needs funding. Hundreds of teachers have found the proper funding to allow Toon Books and other graphic novels into the classroom through Donors Choose. For more information and a complete list of Toon Books, visit Ultimately, graphic novels are becoming a necessary part of a children’s library collection and many libraries around the world have dedicated shelf space to contain these books. It’s important that teachers and librarians utilize graphic novels in the classroom and in library programming as these 
books can have a tremendous impact on a children’s interest in reading!

The books are divided into three categories: Level One, or beginning comics for those just learning to read, are for grades K to 1 with short sentences and only one to two panels per page; Level Two, or easy-to-read comics for emerging readers, are for grades 1 to 2, also with short sentences, but more repetition and one to four panels per page; and Level Three, comics for beginning readers well on their way, are for grades 2 to 3 with longer sentences, transitions in time and place throughout the story and chapters. Leveled books helps parents, teachers, and librarians locate books that will be useful for children who are just beginning to read on their own. In addition, for each of the level, Lexile guided reading and reading recovery values are shown with specifics listed about content in the comics.

Most importantly, besides the books having an appropriate balance of text and illustrations, the content in each Toon Book is of very high quality. Stories are amusing, clever, and relatable to children. Illustrations are rich with appropriate shading and each book is well thought out, with images matching the text seamlessly. For example, Benjamin Bear in Bright Ideas! By Philippe Coudray is a Toon Book that is perfect for English Language Learners and emerging readers.

The illustrations are very descriptive of the stories, conversations, and thoughts of the characters which helps to support reading comprehension.  There are also puns as in “Ringleader” when Benjamin Bear meets two aliens emerging from a spaceship with rings around their heads. Benjamin Bear tells them to taken him to their leader and the leader steps off the ship with a ringed halo in the air over his head. Also worth mentioning are the several wordless pages in this graphic novel, giving this book yet another reason to be an excellent choice for ELL readers. Illustrations sometimes speak for themselves which helps children feel proud of the pages they have read which in turn, gives them the confidence to continue reading. Another popular Toon Book for emerging readers is Nina in: That Makes Me Mad! By Hilary Knight, Based on a text by Steven Kroll. This book is about a red-haired young girl named Nina who expresses when something makes her mad. 

This shows keen insight to the mind of a child who doesn’t always understand that not everyone is thinking the same thing that they are at all times. At the end of the story Nina finally lets out her feelings saying, “But I feel better when I can tell you that I’m MAD!” Nina’s mom is now paying attention to her needs after she expressed that she’s mad because her toy airplane is broken. Her mom grabs some glue and then they both hug as a conclusion. The thought bubbles are either circular or rectangular, and change from panel to panel. The color schemes contained within Nina are varying shades of orange, blue, green, purple, and pink. This graphic novel is best suited for Preschool through 3rd grade because of Nina’s age and the style of writing in short sentences and words being geared toward a younger reader.

Chun, C. W. (2009). Critical Literacies and Graphic Novels for English-Language Learners: Teaching Maus. Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(2), 144-153.

Comics in the Classroom | TOON Books – Educator Tools. (n.d.). Retrieved June 17, 2015, from 

Coudray, P. (2013). Benjamin Bear in "Bright ideas!": A Toon book. New York: Toon Books.

Daud, F. (2011). Bridging a Curricular Gap with Graphic Novels By: Children's Literature and Learner Empowerment : Children and Teenagers in English Language Education. Engaging Cultures & Voices, The Journal of English Learning Through Media, 18-40.

Knight, H., & Kroll, S. (2011). Nina in That Makes Me Mad!: A Toon Book. New York: Toon Books.

Rycroft, K. F. (2014). "Graphic Novels: Preparing for a Mulitmodal and Multiliterate World." Student Pulse, 6(08). Retrieved from

Stewart, D. (2011, September 19). Teaching Successes with ELLs: Free Graphic Novels (Comic Books) for Kids (Along with Teacher Tools):). Retrieved June 17, 2015.

Smith, J. (2009). Little Mouse Gets Ready: A Toon Book. New York: Toon Books.

TOON Readers | TOON Books – Just for Kids. (2015). Retrieved June 17, 2015, from

Wing, D. (2015, April 13). Using Comics to Teach English Language Learners. Retrieved June 10, 2015, from

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