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In Defense of Graphic Novels
Carly Squadroni, Media Center Director
3rd grader reading a graphic novel

Chances are unless you’re a reading specialist or spend your free time poring over education surveys and reports, you may not have heard of the “Decline By Nine.” If that’s the case, this might rightfully alarm you:

According to Scholastic’s Reading Report, between the ages of 8 and 9, the percentage of students who read for fun at least five days a week sharply declines from 57% to 35%. During that same critical year, the percentage of children who say they love to read drops from 40% to 28%, and the percentage who believe reading is extremely or very important drops from 65% to 57%. These numbers tend not to rebound as children grow older. 

The key to unpacking this lies in the circular relationship between reading proficiency, reading enjoyment, and reading attitudes that begin to crystallize at this age. It goes something like this: students who have reached reading proficiency by third grade tend to enjoy and have positive attitudes toward reading. They, therefore, read more frequently, leading to even greater proficiency, which continues to fuel their confidence and enjoyment of reading. Meanwhile, the reverse occurs among their less proficient peers: lagging proficiency leads to lower confidence and enjoyment, which leads to decreased reading frequency, which leads to an even larger proficiency gap.

Can anything be done to re-engage these readers? Fortunately, YES! It’s a complex problem to solve, but there is one factor I want to highlight today, and that’s reading choice. One constant finding in the research is that when kids choose what they read, they read more. If our objective is to boost frequency and enjoyment, then one of the most powerful tools at our disposal is allowing students to choose their own reading material.

I know you’re all vigorously nodding along in agreement so far, so here’s where I introduce some controversy:

The students are overwhelmingly choosing graphic novels, and I want you to let them.

Graphic novels have fought a long, uphill battle to earn the respect they deserve and a place at the “children’s literature” table. If you’re still not quite on board or have some doubts about their merit…then this is for you, my friend.

What is a graphic novel? Is it the same thing as a comic book?

5th grader reading a graphic novel

Simply put, a graphic novel is a full-length story presented in comic-strip format and published as a book. It’s considered a format (like audiobooks are a format) rather than a genre (i.e. mysteries, historical fiction, fantasy). In fact, graphic novels can and do run the gamut of literary genres, and even nonfiction writers are now utilizing this format to present stories and information.

While the term “comic book” tends to be associated with magazine-style superhero serials, a lot of the early research on graphic novel readership uses the term “comics,” and they are often used interchangeably.

(By the way, “graphic” in this context has nothing to do with the meaning of the word that indicates explicit or obscene content. However, there are indeed graphic novels written for adults or teens that may contain more mature content so, like all books, it’s always wise to take a look at what your child is reading to make sure it’s appropriate for their developmental stage.)

Is it a “real book” and does it really count as reading?

Graphic Novel

Of course! Consider this: why would adding a visual element to text make the text…not text anymore? Sure, there may be less text per page than a traditional chapter book, but there’s also a new element on the page to interpret. Successfully reading a graphic novel requires a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between words and images. It builds both visual literacy and empathy as students “read” images to get more information about what’s happening in a scene (for example, a character’s facial expressions or body language). Graphic novels can unlock a deeper understanding of abstract literary concepts, like an inner monologue or verbal irony, by making them visually concrete—for instance, the difference between what a character says vs. what he means or thinks through the use of different types of speech and thought bubbles.

As for the text itself, research shows that graphic novels actually contain more complex vocabulary than traditional chapter books (probably because the accompanying images allow readers to place unfamiliar words in context). In fact, one study found that comics contain a remarkable 53.5 unique or “rare” words per 1,000 words—more than adult books (52.7) and far more than children’s books (30.9). 

My kid finishes graphic novels SO FAST though. Shouldn’t she read something more challenging?

5th grader reading a graphic novel

Some students really do plow through graphic novels at an impressive pace. This is a great problem to have, as it’s an indicator of high reading motivation. Remember the proficiency/enjoyment/frequency cycle? High reading motivation is positively correlated with both achievement and enjoyment. If you’re a reader yourself, surely you can relate to that “page-turner” quality that makes it hard to put down a book—and when you finish it (too fast!), all you want is to get your hands on another good book. This is exactly what we want our children to experience also. If they finish a book too fast, that means they couldn’t put it down. That goes in the win column!

As for whether the books are challenging enough or “on their level,” this is a fair concern. We do want our students to continually build stamina for more challenging texts. However, whether we are talking about graphic novels or any other format, I urge caution with getting too bogged down by Lexile measures or whether a book is “on level.”

To put these reading measures in perspective, our middle school students commonly test into a Lexile range of 1100-1400 or even higher. However, most adult fiction novels—even the ones considered “literary fiction”—are written in the Lexile range of about 700-900. So, when those students come into the school library and tell me they’re required to find something to read that’s “on their level” (of 1200+), there are very few options I can hand them that qualify, let alone anything they might find appealing.

Just because you are capable of reading Moby Dick doesn’t mean you will always want to, or that doing so would result in an enjoyable reading experience every time. If we as adults are allowed to choose “below level” books (and we do, quite often!), why would we deprive our children of that choice?

Like so many things in life, we strive for balance. I tell students that there are “dessert books” (a little too easy/below level) and “stretchy books” (a little more challenging than they’re used to), and we want a little bit of both in our reading diets. Encourage your children by asking about and celebrating both types of books! And when in doubt, frequency wins every time.

But what if my child NEVER wants to read anything besides graphic novels?!

3rd grader reading a graphic novel

If you can, try to put a pin in this fear for a little while. Some readers do develop a very strong preference for a specific genre or format, and it sticks. More often, though, we go through many different phases as we evolve as readers.

My own journey as a young reader included phases where I read nothing but Babysitters Club books, then nothing but Sweet Valley High books, then nothing but those Lurlene McDaniel tearjerker novels in which a teen character almost always died of cancer or became severely injured in a car accident. To put it mildly, none of these were exactly Newbery Medal contenders. But they are the books that turned me into a reader. Reading became an intrinsic part of my identity, and I read voraciously—and over time, my tastes evolved and expanded. But had there been a “quality control” gatekeeper insisting that I choose something “better” or more substantial, that journey could have turned out quite different.

I’ll leave you with one last anecdote about a current middle school student here at Stanley Clark. When I first met this student, he read graphic novels almost exclusively. He was still finding his confidence with reading, a subject that didn’t necessarily come easily to him. But every week, he left the library with a big stack of graphic novels and would return the next week asking for more. Graphic novels became a critical foothold for this student; they allowed him to develop a habit and a high level of reading frequency. Most importantly, they allowed him to see himself as someone who reads.

Now, three years later, this student reads widely across formats and genres. In fact, he probably reads more than most of his peers. That reading habit he developed back in 4th grade, thanks to graphic novels and autonomy over his reading choices, gave him both the confidence and the skill he needs to approach any text he’s interested in now. His language arts teacher adds that she’s seen a huge improvement in his writing over the last two years, because of all the pleasure reading he continues to do. And to think—were it not for graphic novels, we might have lost that reader to the “decline at nine.”

3rd grader reading a graphic novel

About the Author

Carly Squadroni

Carly Squadroni

Media Center Director

  • parenting
  • reading