Graphic novels haven't always had the best reputation when it comes to what is considered “good literature." Comics and graphic novels are generally considered great for entertainment value or for kids, but, until recently, not really suitable for the classroom, much less deserving of that respectable designation of “literature.” But in fact, it is often in the realm of comics that you’ll find some of the most daring and inventive stories about history, society, and personal experience. And some academics seem to be starting to notice that comics have a place in the classroom.
These days, graphic novels marry art and literature in a incredible way that feels more relatable to many teenagers than do “classic” works of literature written by old, dead, white men. At the very least, graphic novels can enhance the classroom experience when considered in addition to the works of old, dead, white guys.
With so many brilliant artists and writers telling powerful and meaningful stories through the graphic novel format, it’s high-time we started adding graphic novels to school curriculums. Here are a few powerful suggestions that I hope find their way to middle school, high school, and college syllabi. Teachers, take note.
1. Bayou by Jeremy Love
U.S. history is full of unspeakable horrors and unimaginable tragedy. It can be just a little to break these horrifying parts of our history to young students. Bayou tackles some of the daily horrors inflicted on Black people in the antebellum South through a sort of magical realism that paints a beautiful and even empowering story of a young girl out for justice for her father. This graphic novel manages to tell her story without leeching this history of its ugliness.
2. I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J.M. Kim Niimura
Much as we like to keep our kids in magical play lands of fairies and kids who never grown up, we can’t protect them from everything. Unfortunately loss and bullying and sad things happen to everyone, even young people. I Kill Giants is a close look at a young girl battling giants both real and imagined and coping with life in her own unique way. It’s the kind of book that teaches compassion for the “weirdos” and lets the “weirdos” know they’re gonna be alright.
3. Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home is great. Are You My Mother? is brilliant. But before the two giants that put Bechdel on the map for a mainstream audience, Dykes to Watch Out For was infiltrating high school GSA clubs, touted by the out and proud, and being stashed under the beds of closeted teens everywhere. This radical and hilarious strip was doing something few other comics, or even books, at the time would dare to do: portraying the real daily lives and concerns of queer people. It would provide some crucial representation for students busy taking in the overwhelming amount of literature about the experiences of straight, white men on their syllabi. And before anyone goes protesting “But they talk about sex!” Take a minute to remember the syllabus staples like Toni Morrison’s Beloved that get into topics like sex with calves and selling sex for tombstone engravings within the first chapter… Just saying.
4. Aya by Marguerite Abouet
Forget all the images you see of “Africa” in the media. The real Africa is a massive continent full of vastly different countries, communities, cultures, and issues. While Aya 's joyful look at a young woman’s daily life in Cote d’Ivoire is hardly a stand-in for the entire continent, it’s at least a refreshing contrast to the one-note depictions Western media typically offers of African countries.
5. Yummy by G. Neri and Randy Duburke
Yummy is a hard book. The hardest part about it is that it’s based on a true story: the true story of an 11-year-old boy whose short life was entangled in poverty, abuse, violence, and murder. Earning his nickname because of his love for candy, Yummy is as innocent as any 11-year-old, but he's also on the run from the cops for murder... and he is eventually murdered by his own gang. Neri and Duburke take this true story and give it life beyond the mug shot of the real-life Yummy that circulated in the '90s. Yummy poses the tough questions: was this kid’s tragic fate a product of a neglected, impoverished neighborhood? Of abusive parents who were in and out of prison his whole life? Of the systematic oppression and victimization of Black youth? The book doesn't venture any simple answers, either. If we’re not teaching our kids how to wrestle with the tough questions of the society they live in, then what are we teaching them?
6. Love and Rockets Series by Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez
The Love and Rockets series is just literary gold. It should be taught in classes primarily because it’s a work of literary and artistic genius. This portrayal of the daily lives of the people in the fictional Latin American city of Palomar is at once the unique story of a small magical community and the universal story of the lives and relationships of people everywhere.
7. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
One of the biggest graphic novels to hit the scene in a long time, Persepolis got a ton of much-deserved attention as soon as it came out in English, so you’ve probably already heard of it or even read it. It’s dope, right? Well, aside from being just awesome, it’s also a great look at an Iran that we rarely see in Western media, where we usually only any Middle Eastern country’s name in headlines next to words like “war” and “terrorism.” In such a climate, it’s crucial for students to see the human stories beyond the headlines. Satrapi’s story of coming of age during the Iran-Iraq war is a powerful one to do just that.
8. American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang
This is one of those books you hand to people who think that graphic novels can’t be literature. A beautiful literary work, American Born Chinese takes a look at some of the issues that youth of Chinese descent coming of age in the U.S. may experience as they navigate two cultures, stereotypes, language, and just the everyday absurdities of school and growing up. It’d be a refreshing change to all those bildungsromans about white boys you’re forced to read freshman year of high school.
9. Skim by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
Speaking of breaking the usual mold of the high school syllabus… Skim’s queer, mixed-race, outsider protagonist certainly disrupts the status quo of the typical literature curriculum. But on top of that, it also explores issues like depression, bullying, loneliness, suicide, loss, grief — all issues that students may face outside of the classroom. It’s time we dealt with some of these issues inside the classroom as well, and Tamaki and Tamaki apply deft hands to these difficult topics through beautiful story and illustration.
10. Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White by Lila Quintero Weaver
This is the story of the Civil Rights era as you’ve never seen it before. When we think of the ‘60s and the Civil Rights Movement, we tend to think of MLK, the marches, the sit-ins, the big events. But there’s more nuance to those tense decades, and Lila Quintero Weaver delivers that nuance through her work. As an immigrant from Argentina, Lila arrived in Alabama at the height of racial tensions in the ‘60s, and her perspective as a Latina immigrant draws out details of that era that are rarely seen or discussed.
11. Nat Turner by Kyle Baker
Not only is Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner strikingly gorgeous, but it’s also a historically accurate look at the famous slave rebellions and an enthralling alternative (or supplement) to the famous, often-taught account by William Styron. The haunting visuals give a whole new gravity to the story. Or I mean, just teach it in art classes. It’s so ridiculously beautiful.
12. Incognegro by Mat Johnson
Incognegro is just really, really good. It tackles the history of lynching and racial passing while also addressing issues of implicit racism and gender. It does all this through a sort of noir-esque murder mystery guided by a light-skinned journalist who exposes the nightmares of lynching. It’s basically brilliant.