Comic Book Girl

While I was out of town last month, our 16-year old daughter, Sarah, had a reading emergency. She told me the story over dinner when I came home, “Mom, my English teacher assigned us an independent reading project.”

I leaned in, whole body listening, “Hmm. What are the guidelines for the project?”

Once a teacher, always a teacher. I can’t help it. I wanted to know how “independent” this independent reading project was.

Sarah ticked off the requirements, “It has to be a book we haven’t read…”

We’re good so far. That’s a reasonable expectation.

She continues, “The book has to be 200 pages long.”

Whew, The Catcher in the Rye just makes the cut at 224 pages. Sorry, Of Mice and Men, you’re too short. Arbitrary rules like this one communicate to kids that teachers think students are lazy and hate to read, and they go for the shortest books they can find. What about students’ personal desires or prior reading experiences?

True, some kids might pick the shortest books they can because they hate to read. You’re their English teacher. Help them. High school isn’t too late to discover reading. Ask Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher.

locke and key cover

“And no graphic novels. She looked right at me when she said that, Mom.”

I sighed. Seriously, we’re still fighting this battle? Maus won a PULITZER in 1992. The only people who still believe that graphic novels aren’t “real” or “rigorous” reading reveal their own lack of reading experiences. Stephen Krashen and Terry Thompson put this misunderstood notion to rest long ago. Graphic novels provide reading gateways for many young readers. We’ve damaged a lot of boy readers over the years by scorning their comic book and magazine reading. Girls read comics, too. According to Market Beat, 47% percent of girls read comics. Sarah offers her idiosyncratic list of the following graphic novels and comics for your reading education:

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

Anya’s Ghost By Vera Brosgol

Babymouse and Squish by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

The Complete Maus, 25th Anniversary Edition by Art Spiegelman

El Deafo by CeCe Bell

Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks

In Real Life by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang

Locke and Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

The Olympians by George O’Connor

Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir by Liz Prince

The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore

sisters telgemeier

“Everything Raina Telgemeier has written.”

Catch up on these:




The Babysitters Club

“I read those because of RAINA, Mom. I never read those books.”

“What about Doug TenNapel? I know that you read Ghostopolis.”

“I read all of his stuff. Put him on there, too.”


Bad Island


Tommysaurus Rex


Sarah chose Libba Bray’s The Diviners for her independent reading project. All 608 glorious pages of it. Challenge accepted. Sarah’s a curious girl. She has strong opinions about things. She’s a sixteen-year-old. Don’t disdain her choices or attempt to define her. Reading or otherwise.

Yes, Sarah reads a lot of graphic novels. Sarah’s also read A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Great GatsbyWuthering Heights, The Odyssey–all the canon fodder. I think she reads every book her teachers assign her to read. Sometimes, Sarah discovers that she appreciates these books. Other times, she reads an assigned book because she respects her teachers and does what she’s told. Engagement ratings? Mixed.

Sarah gave her boyfriend a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for Christmas because he somehow, “dodged reading it in 9th grade.” For some reason, Sarah isn’t willing to let him slide on Mockingbird. I get it. Her father wouldn’t let me slide on Sandman or Watchmen, either.

to kill a mockingbird

Reading shapes and transforms who we become–both as readers and as human beings. Encouragement and opportunities to choose what they read have lasting benefits for kids. **Self-selected reading:

  • Allows children to value their decision-making ability.
  • Fosters their capacity to choose appropriate reading material.
  • Builds confidence and a feeling of ownership.
  • Improves reading achievement.
  • Encourages lifelong readers.

I understand the role that reading classic literary works plays in Sarah’s education. She’s building a social and cultural identity, but she’s developing her personal identity, too. She feeds all of her identities with the books she reads–the ones she’s assigned to read and the ones she chooses on her own. Not all of her reading influences come from school. She’s building her own canon.

Sarah is a student. She’s also a singer. A gamer. A cheese Danish and cat lover.

She’s our comic book girl.

And she’s her own girl. It’s a marvelous thing to see.

*(Johnson, D., & Blair, A., 2003)

56 responses to “Comic Book Girl

  1. I struggle with how to address the fact that the Accelerated Reader levels on graphic novels seem too low. Our students are required to read within their ZPD level, which means these books are usually too low, even for the reluctant readers who find them not so scary to read. Ideas?

    • Lexile levels for graphic novels, picture books, and informational texts disregard illustrations and text features like maps, charts, and photographs, which can provide reading ease or reading complexity in different texts. I would suspect their accuracy.

  2. I just had this conversation with a coworker who’s daughter was told they couldn’t read GN because, “it would lower her Lexile.” I was sitting nails when I read it. She asked me to put together some resources that highlights GNs to share with the teacher, which was easily done, largely in part to the Nerdy community.

  3. I have specifically added graphic novels to my classroom library over the last few years because of the way they hook in my indifferent readers. I see lots if kids gonboin them up!

  4. So sorry for the typo there! I meant to say, I see lots of kids gobbling them up!

  5. Sarah is one smart student and lucky reader. She knows how to balance her likes and interests within classroom reading guidelines. If we talk about choice and voice as educators, we have to live it.

  6. Donalyn, thank you for always saying exactly what we need to hear (and so eloquently)!
    Sarah does indeed have her own reading identity, but thanks to you and Don she’s had some amazing life mentors to show her one of this world’s greatest treasures!
    The whole Miller clan inspires–so glad you are willing to share with the rest of us.

  7. As a kid, I FEASTED on as many comic books as I could get my hands on, “true” ghost stories, weird facts and puzzle books. Can’t imagine what would have happened to my reading/writing soul if adults had told me my reading choices didn’t “count.” It was a great gift that they left me alone in my reading choices as I made one delightful discovery after the next. Keep on preachin’ it, Donalyn!

  8. As a teacher of 5th graders, I watch my students daily enjoy many of the graphic novels that are part of our classroom library, especially boys who may not always choose to read over video games. I am so excited to see as they pass new ones from student to student each day and week. This year I have boys and girls who have never read so many books in their lives, and their parents are amazed, as well. If we will just let them read, book talk new books regularly, and read the books our students would read ourselves, we can create those life-long readers.

  9. The complexity of graphic novels never fails to surprise me. I work with a couple of girls who attend a school that uses Accelerated Reader. They bring the books they are reading with them to tutoring. The good thing is that there are lots of graphic novel choices. But what baffles me is the level at which the graphic novels have been placed. The sophisticated humor is often totally over the kids’ head. Lunch Lady and Baby Mouse are on the same level as a Marley and Me picture book. Really?

  10. Vanessa Capaldo

    Thanks so much for this post. I am also tired of teachers saying that reading graphic novels is not real reading. It is! BTW – one of my favorite books is Maus…

  11. What a wonderful post and your daughter will LOVE The Diviners!!! I can’t wait for the 2nd book!

  12. Yep, folks that say graphic novels are too easy haven’t read them I think! I’m use to convincing parents that graphic novels are worthy reading choices, but I’m so tired of convincing teachers of their value. Lunch Lady has continually proven to be my gateway “book drug” for my reluctant third grade readers. It never ceases to amaze me how hard a reader will work to read and understand a book that should be too challenging and definitely NOT their correct level! When they are interested and motivated it’s just amazing and very powerful for these young readers. There is nothing like hearing a student who said he hated reading the first week of school tell you 2 months later his goal is to read all ten Lunch Lady books! Thanks for all of your wonderful writing because it both inspires and empowers me as an educator.

  13. Has Sarah read the new Star Wars Princess Leia comic? It just came out on Wednesday! I loved it…not sure if she’s into Star Wars but it’s great.

  14. Michelle Schaub

    Hear hear! Speaking of wonderful graphic novels, don’t forget Gris Grimly’s graphic version of FRANKENSTEIN!

  15. I read a lot of manga, and it’s not only proved edifying and enjoyable, but it has inspired and influenced my own writing. While I understand teachers might not like comic books because of the visual factor and the associations with superheroes, there are still valuable lessons you can get from comic books and graphic novels.

  16. As a kid i always read fiction books but as an adult i was exposed to non fiction and comic books and I’m completely obsessed with reading in general. I think if we steer people away from a genre they naturally enjoy we run the risk that they loose the love of reading all together.

  17. It’s nice to know graphic novels are gaining more stock with kids, I would definitely say they’re like a “gateway drug” to reading. Once a good story is read, you just keep going to find more. Graphic novels aren’t just “Wham! Bam! Superhero saves the day!” they’re actual stories told in a more visual form.
    Because I can’t help myself, there’s also Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Blankets by Craig Thompson which were both great and recommended by a college professor of mine.

  18. Love this post! It inspires me to get my hands on some graphic novels. I tend to stick mostly to fantasy epics, but I love branching out occasionally and reading something that isn’t necessarily my ‘style’.

  19. Christopher Corke

    Graphic novels can be a great source to the past. With the graphic novel Maus and The March (story about Selma by John Lewis) are amazing examples.

  20. Have you guys seen the comic book course on Coursera? its not running now but the talks and the comic projects and homework we got was just brilliant. Ive a degree in english, that little online course was did more for my appreciation of story telling than my university did in 3 years. It may still be up on the site but if not and you want any of the video lectures just message me – I downloaded em all. Using one or two or the project work would be great for a class of any age. @Rachel_ _Ray

  21. Graphic novels are amazing–and I had the same experience in high school 15 years ago! I was really into Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds at the time (so much more than the film), and now I’m really into Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers. Highly recommend both of them, and the English translations are very well done.

  22. Comic books (and graphic novels) are amazing. I’ve only read American Born Chinese, but I loved it. The visual and text components side-by-side were wonderful, and honestly made me crave more graphic novels. Has your daughter read Maus? I hear that’s really supposed to be really good. Just because a novel incorporates pictures into the text doesn’t mean it’s not sophisticated, or that it doesn’t have the potential to be sophisticated. I wish I’d been exposed to graphic novels *before* college. Kudos to Sarah!

  23. Sarah sounds like an awesome young lady. I always rebelled too much for my own good when I was assigned reading outside of my favorite genres. It’s awesome that she’s open-minded and actively exploring amazing literature.

  24. I would have loved it if my school’s curriculum allowed us to read comic books or graphic novels! And I read Wuthering Heights and tons of the Shakespearean and various literary classics of my own accord. There were a lot kids in my class that didn’t like reading (and not because of the lengthiness) simply because the materials didn’t appeal to them, this might have otherwise appealed to them too.

  25. This reminds me of when I was a kid. My mother always encouraged me to read whatever interested me. We didn’t have Accelerated Reader so I dodged that bullet but I’m so grateful to her and parents like you who challenge their children to read what interests them. I’m watching my brother (13) who despises reading dislike it even more dude to AR goals and silly guidelines for book report assignments. I hope changes come soon!

  26. I’m of two minds about this. I LOVE graphic novels – they’re my favourite form of reading. I’m also a college English teacher, and I frequently assign graphic novels as part of my courses. However, if I were to give an independent reading assignment, I might feel it necessary to assign arbitrary page counts and to exclude graphic novels. I can usually read even an excellent, complex graphic novel in an evening, while a 200-page novel might take considerably more than that. The reading stamina required to immerse oneself repeatedly in a novel and re-enter the world over and over is a muscle many college students have never or rarely exercised. I would also happily create an independent graphic novel reading assignment for my students, but it would be a different sort of experience and would develop different skills.

  27. I loved this post! I have been reading too many depressing rants disguised as posts lately…

    In college, (an art school) I had the pleasure of taking an English course which exclusively dealt with graphic novels. We read and had to write reports on four different graphic novels. I can’t recall the name of the first one, but we had Maus, Watchmen, and Thy Kingdom Come.

    Sure, the last two deal with super heroes, but the writing in them deals with serious and brutal issues. In “Thy Kingdom Come”, one of the main themes is humankind’s false “sense of safety”. We lock our doors at night. We can get car alarms and home surveillance. But we all know that, if a determined burglar came along and had the intention to rob us… they could do it. Our precautions really just deter the less determined and those without a plan.

    This concept extends to our senses of global safety. Do we feel safe as a country? Does it make us feel uneasy that our neighbors are stronger? Can we do anything about that? SHOULD WE do anything about that?

    Graphic novels can focus more on the image than the written word… and there are some that are written to a younger age group… but books without images can be written in the same way. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then good graphic novels can really have a LOT to say!!

  28. Wonderfully written. Smooth and empowering.

  29. I love this post as ‘always a teacher’ too. I’ve never really got into graphic novels so this is a great list to start with – thanks Sarah! I really need to extend myself. I believe it is really important to give kids a real mix of books to read from a range of genres, writers, countries etc. It broadens horizons and worldviews, a hopefully somewhere in there we can find them something they love and let them fall in love with reading too.

  30. Reblogged this on Geek At 30 and commented:
    Great post! As a teacher, and voracious reader of comics, I agree with you completely! Students of all ages need to read what they enjoy, and in turn that will make the assigned readings more bearable. I did a radio spot this year to encourage superheroes in the classroom, and graphic novels treating a myriad of topics. Such an important genre!

  31. I have a serious bone to pick with my son’s English teacher. Her only restriction for his book reports is that the book can’t have been made into a movie. Seriously. So his three book submissions of Robin Hood, Tom Sawyer, or The Three Musketeers were rejected for his historical fiction report. Her solution was to have the vice principal “suggest” a book for him. He brought home Glenn Beck’s History of George Washington. Did I mention that my son is in six grade?

    • ??? Very sad — though as an English teacher I can actually understand the requirement that they can’t have been made into movies because of students who just watch the movie instead of reading the book. That said, there are amazingly wonderful historical fiction books available that are very appropriate for 6th grade (I actually wouldn’t really consider Tom Sawyer historical fiction anyway). I’m reading one right now — Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

  32. I must admit that I have never really read a graphic novel but not because I find them “unimportant” or anything. It is simply just not very common around here, and I bet that there are probably not that many options either.

    However, to think that it is not “real” just seems like academic arrogance which a horrible thing to teach children, and probably the reason that good litteratur is always appreciated when it is too late.

    Maybe I should pick one up too but I have no idea where to begin?

    Great and thought-provoking post, really enjoyed

  33. I learned how to read in 1955 before I started first grade. My reading material was “Uncle Scrooge” comic books. I have always made A’s in English and Reading from that first year straight through college. I credit those comic books with giving me the impetus I needed to read anything and everything which was put in front of me, or assigned to me. Be it Maus or War and Peace (which one do you think I enjoyed reading the most?) reading is ALL good.

  34. I teach 7th grade English, and I’ve worked really hard to add graphic novels to my classroom library this year. I love your list and own many from it already! As much as I love graphic novels and comics, I can also understand her teacher’s POV for an independent reading project. It all depends on the project, though. As long as young readers are reading both text and graphic novels and any assigned reading, I don’t see the problem. Graphic novels are complex in their own ways. Just reading the words or just looking at the pictures wouldn’t suffice. One thing I love about graphic novels is how much they seem to appeal to those reluctant readers. I’m glad to read these comments and see that more teachers are starting to add them to their shelves. 😃

  35. At least she is reading. I have only recently got back into reading after a prolonged period I like to call video games. It is a great gateway into reading. Since theb I have moved onto books like The Wasp Factory, Terry Pratchett and Ernest Cline and my favourite Joe Abercrombie. They are definitely good reads

  36. Breton Kaiser-Shinn

    I like your post, because it is timely! I’m not a parent or teacher. However, I think that more teachers are realizing that students’ subject interests vary. I myself was a slow reader, until I found that books were my own unique journey.

  37. what a wonderful post! Thank you for sharing it. We as teachers need to give the opportunity to students to select their own readings and not set such unnecessary limits so that they can explore other possibilities. I really appreciate the way you helped your daughter (good example for parents). Concerning the identity aspect you mentioned, I agree. We’re transformed by the things we read and create our own identity, that’s why even when children or teenagers may have the chance to select what they want to read, both, teachers and parents need to be very careful about the things they’re reading. We have enough evidence of young people whose lives have been destroyed (not counting their parents and others around) because of the influence of some readings.

  38. I’m a science teacher, an avid reader, a writer, and a comic book nerd. I love my graphic novel collection with a passion and they have pride of place on my book shelves. I heartily recommend to Sarah “The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil” and “Goliath”. Both excellent reads and highly thought-provoking despite their simple illustrations. Good luck to you!

  39. Yes! I recently took an upper division English class dedicated to the study of graphic novels. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics gave an interesting new look at the graphic novel as a genre, and how it is far more complex and flexible in its form than initially thought of. We read many thought-provoking comics from all around the world, and any one of them could have sufficed as a topic for our 10-page final paper. I love classic British novels, contemporary fiction, as well as Japanese manga, and it is always encouraging to see others not scoffing at these “picture books,” and instead taking the time to really engage in this wonderful literary art form.

  40. millennialworkingwoman

    I loved your post!! I assign independent reading, but I would never stop kids from reading graphic novels and independent reading is done in class every Friday in class for 20 minutes. That way, students only have to complete the project at home and not the reading. I have found a lot of my students who less interested in our assigned texts really look forward to Friday independent reading time and I know they are still learning. Thanks for the book suggestions also. Maus is one of my favorites and I have it in my classroom library.

  41. One of the things I loved about being homeschooled was that I chose most of the classic books that I read for school. Mostly I chose them because they were on either my shelf or my parents’ and I’d never had the chance to read them before. Sure there were a few I didn’t like (couldn’t stand Walden by Henry David Thoreau or Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand), but I found a few gems in there too that I wouldn’t have read if not for school, like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I’m a big proponent of letting kids choose what they read. I also don’t think it’s necessary to stop them from reading comic books. In this day of online everything, I think it’s more important to foster a love of reading than to make sure kids are reading “the right stuff” (whatever that means).
    Great post and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  42. I gave my dad a graphic biography of Richard Feynman for Christmas. I can get the lingering anti-GN sentiment from people who don’t pay attention to publishing, but an English teacher ought to be better informed.
    I had a deal with my parents where I had to read a “real” book for every comic book I bought. Half of those wound up being Star Trek novels, but there was some Hemingway and Fitzgerald and an aborted attempt at War and Peace.

  43. Yes, yes and yes. Our 11 year old has just finished reading a graphic novel adaption of the Diary of Anne Frank and she loved it. LOVED it. Now she wants to read the book. Vote 1 graphic novels.

  44. Wow. I count myself as very lucky that I never encountered a teacher that would cut out an entire genre of reading material. I can understand needing to set a certain “standard”, but many a science/history/book geek was born while reading comics or graphic novels. Sounds like your daughter has a great head and her shoulders and values input from the adults around her. Hopefully more will merit that value.

  45. I’ve never really got into comic books or graphic novels-mostly because I’m too OCD to follow them (specifically, they don’t always “flow” like a regular book and are difficult for my brain to process). However, just because they aren’t for me, doesn’t mean they aren’t good enough for my students. Student choice is important when engaging students and building lifelong readers…limiting their choices is the quickest way to break down a reader. I believe it is really important build classroom libraries that are filled with a variety of genres, authors, ethnic titles, etc. Censorship leaves students with an inadequate and distorted picture of the ideals, values, and problems of their culture. It is not our job to dictate what our students should be reading, but rather what they could be reading.

  46. My daughter is 8, but she’s an advanced reader. I recently told her that I wouldn’t get her graphic novels, and I feel badly about it. I wasn’t allowed to read them as a child. So as an adult, I find I cannot recommend or police the genre effectively.

    I appreciate your list above. Is there another place I can go to find more that will be age appropriate for her?

  47. When I was in high school, I’d read both novels and comics like crazy. Teachers always tried to steer me away from the comics, trying to get me to stay with the “quality reading material.” The irony here is that a manga I read when I was young inspired me to end up moving to Japan and living there. If it weren’t for that comic, I don’t think I’d ever have escaped my hometown.

  48. idiocyreleased

    It’s really frustrating when I mention I read graphic novels, and people say,” Oh, I meant real books.” You ever seen how many words Death Note has?

  49. Mrs.Miller,
    I love that post! I love how you expressed the different sides of reading… I haven’t been reading as much. Such a disappointment! I REALLY miss you as a teacher and I hope that all is well!!

  50. Donalyn,

    Thank you for this. My daughter is in fourth grade and LOVES graphic novels (among other things). She has read everything written by Raina Telgemeier too!! She is in love with her. Recently, I found out that my daughter’s teacher disallows graphic novels in the classroom. He also told the class yesterday that “Dork Diaries” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” which my daughter also likes, are for “kids who don’t like reading.” This broke my heart. That is SO not who my kiddo is.

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