With clockwork regularity, someone’s child is told by a teacher that they cannot count graphic novels toward an assignment or that they have to finish a “real book” before they can read a graphic novel for fun.
And then educator Twitter and librarian Twitter erupt in outrage.
Recently, teacher Christie DeHart politely tweeted, “@se4realhinton Please consider writing a graphic novel version of The Outsiders. My students love your novel, and I know I could engage more readers who are reluctant and striving with a graphic novel version. Thank you for this beautiful work!”
The response from author S.E. Hinton shocked many: “No The Outsiders is the first book many people read in their life it shows them they CAN read a book. Not that they can turn the pages on a graphic novel.”
No The Outsiders is the first book many people read in their life it shows them they CAN read a book. Not that they can turn the pages on a graphic novel. https://t.co/rabJnbQb3G— S. E. Hinton (@se4realhinton) October 14, 2020
The Outsiders (1967) clearly has staying power. But I believe Hinton’s attitude toward the graphic format is woefully limited. In the short term, adults can coerce students into reading certain types of books. But if we want to grow lifelong readers who seek out books without the incentive (or threat) of grades, we need to stop shaming young people for their choices and offer them intrinsically appealing books.
Ample research shows that graphic novels foster literacy by, among other things, engaging reluctant readers, readers with learning differences, and those acquiring a new language. Additionally, even avid, fluent readers can acquire new vocabulary and develop their visual literacy skills through graphic novels. Graphic novels are simply a format; just like any other format, they contain a broad range and quality of content for all ages, with some garnering top awards—New Kid by Jerry Craft (2019), Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2006), and Maus by Art Spiegelman (1986) come to mind.
But the bottom line is, graphic novels are fun. And what is wrong with reading something just because it brings you pleasure? I’m pretty sure most adults are not reading morally and intellectually improving literature at all times. Fortunately, one good thing 2020 has brought is an array of superb YA graphic novels—here are just a few.
Pistouvi by Merwan, translated by Mike Kennedy and illustrated by Bertrand Gatignol (Magnetic Press, Nov. 10): This highly original story of a girl and a fox weaves an atmosphere that manages to be both magical and menacing. Readers will be drawn irresistibly into the slightly surreal world the friends inhabit, in which they live in an idyllic, rustic treehouse; encounter talking birds; and are visited by the friendly personified Wind.
Shame Pudding written and illustrated by Danny Noble (Street Noise Books, May 19): In a graphic memoir, the British artist offers up a series of vignettes about her childhood and youth centered around her East European Jewish immigrant grandmothers, who were larger-than-life personalities. Her sketches fairly burst with personality, expressing her own social anxiety and paying homage to the loving family who provided a foundation for her budding self-expression.
Dragon Hoops written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang (First Second, March 17): In a departure from his previous work, Yang offers a blend of gripping sports story, thoughtful reflection on the creative process, and commentary on social issues in athletics and education. As a supremely nonsporty high school math teacher, he followed his school’s basketball team as they attempted to win the state championship. The result blends genres and subjects in a uniquely compelling way.
The Oracle Code by Marieke Nijkamp, illustrated by Manuel Preitano (DC, March 10): This superhero origin story with a message of disability empowerment features expressive, vibrantly colored illustrations that highlight Barbara Gordon’s intense emotional and physical journey after she is shot and left paralyzed below the waist. At the rehabilitation center, she must deal with her own trauma while getting to know the other teens and solving a mystery.
Laura Simeon is a young readers' editor.