Using Graphic Novels to Get Your Kids Interested in Classic Literature

by | Apr 26, 2018

To start in a seemingly off-topic place: I like to tell my students that we study Shakespeare in an adapted format more often than we study Shakespeare in his original, intended medium.

Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed and experienced primarily as a play. His scripts were written to distribute to actors so that they could learn their lines, and over the years he made changes to plays. For example, Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy in the 1603 “Bad Quarto” opens, “To be, or not to be, aye there’s the point”; it is changed a year later to the better-known “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” It is partially this reason why the job of directing a Shakespearian play requires the director to not only decide upon stage direction, but to decide upon which script of the play to even use. Were we to study Shakespeare in the format he originally wished us to experience his works, we would not read his scripts, but see a performance.

To be upfront, there are many excellent reasons to read Shakespeare’s script before seeing the play in a theater or film. Shakespeare’s language is dense and at times difficult to decipher when simply watching it; it’s far more difficult looking at a vocabulary list as spoken dialogue is simultaneously happening. Reading a script would allow students to experience and understand his work at their own pace instead of the pace set by the director and actors. Further, students reading the script can imagine how they would stage the play. Which brings me to a larger point: using different media to teach can create different outcomes. In this post, I’ll be talking about using graphic novels to get your students interested in classic literature.

If you’re reading this, I suspect that you, like me, are an unapologetic bibliophile. At some point in your life, whether or not you explicitly remember it, you became convinced that books and literature open doors to new, somewhat strange, and perhaps magical worlds. Immersed in these settings with believable and all-too-human characters, you can begin to more deeply understand “the human condition” and imagine what a life well lived might or might not look like. In short, you believe in the power of literature.

If only all your students shared that worldview. Motivation is a fickle thing, and not all of our students are convinced that classic literature is worth their time or effort to enjoy, much less understand.

I have found in both academic research and my own teaching experiences that graphic novels are fantastic motivators. Students are more interested in reading graphic novels more than prose texts, students reported being more interested in reading prose after reading a graphic novel, and students report increased interest in a subject if presented through a graphic novel than a prose text. In my upcoming book with Dr. Meryl Jaffe, Worth a Thousand Words: Using Graphic Novels to Teach Visual and Verbal Literacy, we talk about using graphic novels to motivate students by breaking routines, appealing to students’ artistry, creating opportunities for group work, and appealing to students’ other interests and affinities through popular culture. In this post, I’ll talk about a few strategies to successfully use graphic novels to enrich your class’ interest and understanding in classic literature.

  1. Pair classic literature with a graphic novel that complements or contradicts the themes you want your class to discuss. For example you might pair:- Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” with Rep. John Lewis’ autobiographical graphic novel March
    – Avi’s girl-coming-of-age-on-the-high-seas novel The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle with Hope Larson and Rebecca Mock’s graphic novel Compass South; or
    – Art Spiegelman’s Maus with Elie Wiesel’s Night.

In these comparisons, graphic novels can be used not only as a foil for your prose texts (although it bears saying that such thematic comparisons can be done to great success), but the images found in graphic novels can be used to contextualize and enrich students’ understanding of the world of both texts. For example, March is particularly good at depicting anti-black violence that Lewis and others like MLK faced as Black Civil Rights advocates in the 1960s. For example, use the following panel from March: Book 3 to have students imagine what it must have felt for John Lewis to be arrested in Selma.

Notice how uncomfortable his hands seem in handcuffs or how close they are to being clenched as fists. Notice the tilted frame of the large image to give a reader a sense of unbalance. Notice the chaos and violence of the large panel. Then, use that conversation to introduce MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: the Reverend Dr. King just went through an experience not too different from John Lewis. How might he feel? Do those emotions show in his letter from Birmingham jail? What might MLK be trying to accomplish in that piece?

  1. Pair classic literature with a graphic novel adaptation or several graphic novel adaptations to discuss how the graphic novels interpret the original text. Graphic novelists, as they move panel to panel, slow the reader down. Certain elements of texts are harder to skim—or skip—over. If the language in the original text is tricky, breaking up a paragraph or extended piece of prose into several panels gives students images to hint at the text’s meaning, and the smaller chunks aid students’ ability to comprehend and follow along with the prose. I particularly like doing this when discussing Shakespeare. Beyond the reasons I just provided, Shakespeare wrote very little stage direction, leaving open a lot of interpretation for both the graphic novelist and the reader. This opens up conversations about the universality of Shakespearian narratives.

For example, consider the following two adaptations of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. The first is from the first graphic novel adaptation of Hamlet. The second was from Hamlet on a Rooftop, created by Will Eisner and is around half a century more recent. This comparison allows students to imagine Shakespeare’s costuming, the staging (while Eisner’s adaptation is much easier to read and piece apart, the amount of movement Hamlet is doing in such a short period of time is perhaps a bit much), the pacing (perhaps Hamlet is moving that much because he pauses to think in between each panel), and other topics. Which Hamlet is more relatable? Which Hamlet do they think is truer to Shakespeare’s text? Which adaptation do they think is overall “better” (and what does it mean to be better)?

  1. After looking at a sample graphic novel adaptation (or several), have students create their own adaptations of scenes from a classic work you’re studying. Ideally, they will pair their adaptation with a written reflection explaining what choices they made in the process of making their adaptation. In a way, this is a fairly logical extension of pairing a classic work of literature with its graphic novel adaptation. For students who enjoy drawing, this gives them an opportunity to distinguish themselves in ways generally not open to them in Language Arts or Social Studies classrooms. For those, like myself, who are not confident artists, there are several ways to engage them, more thoroughly discussed in my upcoming book. However, here’s something I created using Pixton (a website that allows individuals to create comics in an easy-to-use way), adapting the first few lines of the “Dagger” soliloquy from Macbeth Act 2, Scene 1.

Ideally, you would want students to explain the choices they made: how their comics reflect their understanding of the text. For example, looking at the final two panels of my adaptation of Macbeth, the dissonance of seeing but not being able to hold this dagger makes Macbeth reflective, and he turns to think even more deeply about this in panel 5. It is then that his thoughts return to what he was doing in the first place—attempting regicide, and he winces in Panel 6. I’m interpreting in this section of the soliloquy that Macbeth still has reservations about killing King Duncan, I believe that his attitude shifts as he continues to think and talk about this dagger.

One final point: you may reflect that I’m having fun as I’m writing this, and I am. I find critically reading graphic novels fun. Pedagogical theorizing stipulates that learning is particularly effective when students are in a state of play. Ultimately, I think that graphic novels are so affective precisely because they seem different and more playful than what is normally used in a classroom. While the classics have become, well, classic for a reason, our strict adherence to the written word may in fact be unduly slowing us down, keeping students focused on the upcoming assessment instead of playing with it. After all, if we so steadfastly believed in experiencing the classics in their intended format, why do we so regularly teach Shakespeare in adaptation?

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