The Ever-Rising Popularity of Graphic Novels

By Michael Jongen, Helen Kain

Graphic novels continue to become more and more popular. However, some still doubt their validity as true literature. Community librarian Michael Jongen and teacher librarian Helen Kain reflect on the contribution graphic novels make to the richness of reading.

Lesmurdie Community Library is a joint Education Public Library. When we met to discuss a rearrangement of the library floor plan, one of Helen's concerns was the graphic novel section, which had outgrown its allocated space and warranted greater prominence. Graphic novels were also issuing particularly well, but the collection’s shelving had become cramped and there was no front out display. Helen wanted to build up the collection and give it a more prominent position and display with the library.

Such expansions of graphic novel sections are not uncommon. Over the last ten years, school libraries have been focusing much more on their graphic novel collections. They have gained in popularity as schools and libraries have become more open to them, and are among our most highly circulated genres. Educators have used them as curriculum material and librarians are using them with reluctant readers.

We have also found that the genre is very inclusive and appealing to a diverse readership. Writers of graphic novels are exploring content that deals with issues of bullying, LGBTIQ+ and gender issues, suicide, self-harm and body image problems at the requests of their target audience, and educators are using these stories for teaching purposes. There are so many genres that they can link to readers’ interests through a combination of escapism and current social issues. The diversity of themes, content and style also encourages creativity and non-linear thinking in our students.

In 2014 Karen Gray wrote an article for Connections, demonstrating how graphic novels can be successfully used across the curriculum and arguing that teacher librarians need to advocate for their value. She illustrated how visual literacy has become an important part of the English Curriculum and how graphic novels can add value to the school library collection. Karen supplied an extensive bibliography.

As we enter the 2023 school year, the academic question of the role of graphic novels in education is settled, so it saddens us that we still have to justify to some colleagues and parents the value they add to our collections. A quick Google search shows that many libraries now happily incorporate graphic novels into their collections and see the benefits to circulation.

Graphic novels help libraries and teachers find reading material outside the option of the classic novel or the textbook. For many reluctant readers, they can feel more approachable. Visual elements break up the text, making the story less dense and the student can feel more confident to get through the story.

Visual literacy, the art of understanding and talking about images is becoming much more important and valued in the Digital Age.

Students with reading difficulties may be visual learners and the images in the panels will give them clues as to the meaning of the text. A struggling reader may be able to finish a graphic novel much more easily than a regular novel and feel a sense of achievement. Graphic novels can help make reading more enjoyable, while still ensuring students are still developing skills in text analysis such as understanding storyline, plot development, character and resolution.

Graphic novels are high-quality reading material, they just have pictures to support the development of their themes. Visual literacy, the art of understanding and talking about images is becoming much more important and valued in the Digital Age. Reading graphic novels helps students develop verbal and visual literacy, as well as stimulating the imagination. The point of a graphic novel is that the reader must search and interpret the images as well as the text for meaning. The images provide clues on character, mood and plot development. The reader can then synthesise all the available information. 

It should also be reiterated that graphic novels are full of text. Readers are still decoding and analysing the story. Moreover, graphic novels often used advanced vocabulary as well as the reader having to search their own vocabulary to describe the image. Fewer words does not necessarily mean simpler words.

After expanding and rearranging the graphic novel section, Helen received feedback that students found a more prominent graphic novels section made resource selection easier. We loved hearing that increasing the display space for literature that features strong visual elements helped students engage with more graphic novels.

Michael Jongen

Community Librarian

Lesmurdie Community Library

Helen Kain

Teacher Librarian

Lesmurdie Community Library