Graphic novels and literacy: an emerging trend

Literacy is a “use-it-or-lose-it” skill; that means people who have difficulty reading or who do not enjoy reading tend to avoid it.

Literacy is a “use-it-or-lose-it” skill; that means people who have difficulty reading or who do not enjoy reading tend to avoid it.

As they get older, their skills get even weaker.

Literacy profiles of working-age British Columbians indicate that 400,000 people (14 per cent) are at Level 1 (the lowest proficiency level ) and that 600,000 people (21 per cent) are at level 2 (still inadequate for full participation and success in modern society (Literacy BC, 2003). For parents, this avoidance of reading can be a difficult scenario. We get many parents at the library asking, how can I find a book that engages my child? As an adult, you may even have a hard time finding a book that engages you from start to finish. But I might just have the answer: graphic novels. At the library, graphic novels have proven to be enormously successful in involving and engaging low-level readers with literature. So, what is a graphic novel? They can be described as books in which “images and text arrive together, work together and should be read together,” (Gravett, 2005, 11).

Graphic novels take text and blend in graphics to create high-impact and dramatic stories. Graphic novels appeal to all readers of all socio-economic levels and cultural backgrounds.  Since struggling readers often complain that they can’t see or visualize text, the graphic element of these books helps readers connect and comprehend the material in a way not possible with traditional literature. Gorman notes, “graphic novels can serve as an intermediary for a teen [or adult] who would rather be watching television than reading a book.”

Stephen Krashen explains the importance of high impact fiction for young readers: “Perhaps the most powerful way of encouraging children to read is by exposing them to light reading, a kind of reading that school pretends does not exist and a kind of reading that many children, for economic or ideological reasons, are deprived of.  I suspect that light reading is the way that nearly all of us learned to read.” The common public opinion that comic books hinder literacy development is simply not supported by research or by the opinion of youth and children’s librarians working today.

In fact, graphic novels develop literacy skills, not only by attracting reluctant readers, but also by requiring the reader to decode words and illustrations, which demand new skills in critical analysis. The Williams Lake branch will be further developing our graphic novel collection— for juveniles, teens, and adults — in the upcoming year, and we received a $3,750 grant from the Williams Lake and District Credit Union Community Investment fund to do so. To connect with content that teens are looking for, and to create a more teen friendly library, we’re also developing a Youth Advisory Council with this grant. If you’re a teen between the ages of 13 and 18 and would like to help develop the library collection, give us a call at 250-392-3351, ext. 220, or e-mail

Submitted for the Tribune‘s Reach A Reader edition.