On October 27, 2020, Jerry Craft, Tracy Edmunds, Grace Ellis, Talia Hurwich, Rossie Stone, and Anthony Zuiker, joined LibraryPass’ Chief Ambassador John Shableski for a lively and insightful conversation about developing empathy with comics and graphic novels.

View the full archived recording here, and scroll down for answers to additional questions from our registrants.


Q&A w/ John Shableski

Q: Why do you think comics speak so strongly to young people?

A: Due to the combination of image and text, the comics medium provides immediate context to the reader who may be completely unfamiliar with the environment, setting, or era of a specific story. This context then expedites comprehension of the story, and the characters’ actions and expressions add more levels of detail which supports retention. Images provide context which fosters engagement; engagement leads to clearer understanding and deeper comprehension of the story.

Q. What kind of questions can I ask middle school-aged students during Graphic Novel Book Club to build empathy?

A: How do you think it feels to be like [insert character]? How different would your life be in their situation? What do you think they wanted to grow up to be? Can you describe what their typical day would be like? Do they have a family? What’s their relationship with them?

Q: If you ran a Graphic Novel Book Club for 8-12 year olds, what book would you read, or activity would you do?

A: Start with the popular titles they’ve read or already heard of: Avatar, Big Nate, Dog Man, Naruto, Smile. Have them share their thoughts on specific characters, the plot, and/or the artwork. Follow their lead from there. 

Q: How are publishers responding to the need for more diverse authors across genres?

A: Most publishers tend to respond to what consumers, librarians, and teachers are buying and what wins awards. When Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese was published in 2006, it received great reviews and won major awards. More recently, Congressman John Lewis’ March trilogy and Jerry Craft’s New Kid have won major awards, proving there was an audience for more diverse stories in the comics medium. An individual title’s success can lift an entire category or subject, making publishers more likely to seek out and publish similar titles.

Q: What are your favorite Comics/Graphic Novels for introducing and/or addressing diversity for children?

A: This really depends on the age and reading interests of each child, but I would also encourage you to chose books based on subject matter rather than gender or ethnicity. Depending on their individual interests, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Jerry Craft’s New Kid, Sarah Garland’s Azzi In Between, Shanon Hale’s Real Friends, Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet, Jared Krosoczka’s Hey Kiddo, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, Jeremy Whitley’s Princeless, and Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese are all excellent titles to start with.

Q: What do you say to parents who don’t want their child reading graphic novels?

A: This often requires a great deal of tact and diplomacy. It’s an opportunity to have a conversation and understand a parent’s expectations for their children. Do they want their child to read? Do they want them to enjoy the act of reading? Which graphic novels are they familiar with? Give them a highly regarded title that you’re familiar with—like Maus or American Born Chinese—and walk them through it. Note the attention to detail, how the images and words combine to tell the story, how reading comics requires a form of literacy that’s increasingly valuable in the digital age. Parents are sometimes relying on old ideas of what comic books used to be.

Plus, it’s extremely important to remind parents that kids read a lot more when they are allowed to read books that appeal to them first. As they become more avid readers, they will eventually read anything they can get their hands on—including the books they’re “supposed” to read.

Q: What do you think of intergenerational activities using comics?

A: This is a brilliant idea! There is an ever-growing number of books that work with this concept; historical fiction and memoir are great genres to start with. Beyond that, you can incorporate basic comics creation activities where the older participant tells the story and the younger one draws it. Or vice versa. If neither can draw, they can cut out images from magazines or download images from the internet to use as graphics to tell their collaborative story.

Q: How can I convince teachers that graphic novels are a great addition to their current curriculum?

A: Understanding their main objectives is a great start. Then, like a sommelier, pair graphic novels that align with their syllabus. A potential short list would include: The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, Economix: How Our Economy Works, The Manga Guide to Calculus, and The Cartoon Guide to Physics. There are literally thousands of titles to choose from! If they need further convincing, note the major awards graphic novels have received over the years, including the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and Newbery Medal, as well as myriad NY Times Best Sellers.

Q: What strategies have you used to collaborate with teachers?

A: Find one or two key subjects they’ll be covering over the year and identify key titles to pair with them. Many publishers are now creating lesson plans for their titles, making them easier to integrate into a syllabus. As an additional hook, remind them that the comics medium provides immediate context to a reader who may be completely unfamiliar with the environment, setting, or era of a specific story. This context then expedites comprehension, and the characters’ actions and expressions add more levels of detail which supports retention. Images provide context which fosters engagement; engagement leads to clearer understanding and comprehension.

Q: How does reading graphic novels at a young age translate to higher reading ability in standardized texts?

A: The combination of text and images provides context for the reader, expediting comprehension of the story, and building confidence in their ability to process information and meanings of words. Images provide context which fosters engagement; engagement leads to clearer understanding and comprehension. As their confidence grows, they are able to tackle more sophisticated texts and subject matter.

Q: What suggestions do you have for implementing graphic novel studies within the High School Visual Arts classroom?

A: Wow, this is a great idea! There are a couple of really big opportunities here, depending on your capacity and what goals you have in mind. It could be anything from a simple study in story design to a collaborative effort along the lines of the Graphic Novel Project at Stanford University—where students audition for roles on a graphic novel project, and at the end of the semester they produce a printed copy of their story.

Starting small? I’d suggest a simple ten-page story and allow the students to incorporate images they can draw or find in magazines or on the internet. A basic introduction to comics terminology will be good as they would need an understanding of terms like gutters, splash pages, thought bubbles, captions, etc. Drawing Words and Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, as well as Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, are both excellent resources for any educator.

Q: Where and how do you catalog graphic works in the library? Everything—fiction and nonfiction—are now placed in 741.5.

A: A recent development for public libraries is to create a special cutter for the subject and place the books adjacent to the 741.5 sections in Adult, Teens, and Children’s titles. This helps with discovery as the section then becomes identified as the location for graphic novels. Interfiling according to subject can ensure a book gets lost. Even if it’s a graphic adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, interfiling causes a graphic novel to disappear. But when you have a dedicated graphic novel section in each age or audience range, circulation for the collection explodes, sometimes to the degree where your teen collection can have an incredible impact on your overall circulation.

“Genrefication” is another term that is finding its way into both public and school libraries. This is essentially setting the stacks similar to bookstores—which actually makes a lot of sense as students and public library patrons are more familiar with how bookstore shelves are organized by subject area: history, fiction, romance, etc. Graphic novel displays that follow this model can also create a long-lasting boost to overall circulation, potentially making your graphic novel collection a major draw for your library. You can further leverage that space by setting up themed promotions adjacent to it. 

Q: Are some of the graphic novels supposed to begin at the end of the story and scroll in the opposite direction from what we expect?

A: This is manga, which is an incredibly popular form of comics from Japan and other Asian countries. Manga are traditionally black and white, and read from Right to Left. Manga is often conflated or confused with Anime, which is the Japanese word for Animation. Speed Racer is one of the earliest forms of Japanese anime that you may have been exposed to, while younger readers are more familiar with modern favorites like My Hero Academia, Dragonball-Z, Naruto, Promised Neverland, Sailor Moon, Full Metal Alchemist, Berserk, and Splatoon.

Q: Do graphic novels translate as well in a digital format?

A: Yes…IF the book itself is any good to begin with! Many modern artists work on digital platforms in their creative process so the transition to digital formats for reading is relatively seamless.

Q: Are there any structured Age Ranges coming soon (like anime?) for Littles, Tweens, Teens, and Adult?

A: We have our own age-appropriate guidelines teachers and librarians can refer to, as do some wholesalers—eg, Brodart. But at the moment, the industry has yet to produce a universal set of standards for comics.