Graphic Novels in Education

Having written Graphic Novels in Your School Library based on my work as a school librarian, I’ve been thinking about ways to apply the graphic novel format to the purposes of educations for a long time now.  While many still consider its potential in this area dubious, it is not much of a stretch to bring works like Shaun Tan’s the Arrival into the classroom or school media center to explore nuances of immigration, or Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese to brew a discussion about racism and diversity, or even to use Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s Civil War to ignite a complex debate about the heated topic of privacy vs. security with high school students.  There are many titles with great possibilities for direct curricular application.  But to take this route and only this route is to ignore the goldmine that all of these narratives are riding on, which is to say the form itself.

Try this in the classroom or as a library project.  Familiarize your students with the three rudiments of sequential art language: the gutter (the space between the two panels which tricks the reader’s imagination into creating the passage of time), codes and symbols (everything from speed lines to word and thought balloons to curse symbols), words (anything spoken by a character, written within the narrative captions or any sound effects).  Once they understand these rudiments, supply paper and pencils and run them through the following two exercises.

  1. Using one to three panels for each instance, depict a person jumping five different ways (thus five different one-to-three panel depictions).  Use the gutter, codes and symbols, words, facial expressions and body language to get the message across.
  2. Using one to three panels for each instance, depict “sad” five different ways. Use the gutter, codes and symbols, words, facial expressions and body language.  Consider: what has made the person said?  Can you depict the cause without the effect and still get the emotion across?  Do you need to have a person in your depiction to illustrate the concept?

Besides being fun as heck, these exercises are an excellent way to open a discussion about the form, and they also trip cognitive switches that key in on sequencing, context, interpretation and language.  I’ve done these exercises with students from kindergarten through graduate school and the array of examples never fails to produce a few that are unexpected, unique and actually expand a reader’s understanding of how to communicate.  If that isn’t educational potential, I don’t know what is.

Jesse Karp is a school librarian at LREI, an independent school in New York City, and teaches the course Graphic Novel: Narrative and Sequential Art to MLS students at Pratt Institute.  He is the author of the YA novel Those That Wake and the upcoming Graphic Novels in Your School Library, published by ALA Editions.  Please visit him at