Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Comic Books in the Canon: Bringing Graphic Novels into the Classroom

Our classrooms are constantly changing; shouldn't our approaches to literature change with them?  ♦ 
I, like many other students around the country, was required to read certain books during my high school experience. While there were a few that I liked, and some that I genuinely enjoyed, there were also a number that I completely didn’t understand. With stories like Beowulf in addition to Shakespeare’s plays, I found myself struggling with the language and unable to fully understand what was going on. I found myself frustrated and discouraged.

My teachers attempted to combat this confusion by continually hashing and rehashing what was going on in the story. At times this was helpful, but more often than not I was left just as confused as I was before. Some tried to use movie adaptations (this was especially true when it came to Shakespeare) and while the visual aid was a step in the right direction, the confusing, archaic language was still a problem. I tried my best and was able to pass, but I retained little from those lessons besides a deep, irrational hatred towards Shakespeare.

So, you could imagine my dismay when I looked at the syllabus for my “Foundation of Literacy” course, a required class towards my English Education degree, and saw an entire unit full of the same titles I had spent my entire high school experience despising. I groaned audibly and thought to myself, I’m gonna have to put my future students through this too? Hasn’t anyone else written something interesting yet?

I walked into class with the same dread I’d fostered in high school, these “classic” works

The Odyssey graphic novel by Gareth Hinds
of literature ready to drain the life from me. I sat down at my desk and I was surprised to find a graphic novel titled Fahrenheit 451 sitting in front of me. Before class started, I flipped through the pages, amazed by the colorful illustrations that filled them. I looked at the other desks around me and saw titles like Homer’s The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. We spent that day comparing the graphic novel adaptations in front of us to the “classic” novels we had been fed in high school. By the end of the class, my peers and I unanimously decided that, if given the opportunity, we’d all make these adaptations available to our students in the future.

I took that copy of Fahrenheit 451 home with me that night and compared it with the one I brought with me from home. Unlike the other titles I had seen, it was the one book I had actually enjoyed reading in class. Side by side, the original story and graphic novel look completely different. Tim Hamilton’s version is filled with vibrant colors while Ray Bradbury’s has only black and white print. Hamilton’s is much newer while Bradbury’s is ripping at the edges. However, the text in Hamilton’s is drawn from directly from Bradbury’s. The key lines and important character information are still there, highlighted by illustration.

While the other titles made the information more accessible and interesting to me, Tim Hamilton’s Fahrenheit 451 brought Ray Bradbury’s story to life. I connected images to the passages I had read years ago. I was brought back to the moments I remembered from when I read the book the first time. Suddenly, I was in my living room flipping page after page and getting completely lost in Guy Montag’s life. I was reminded of the conversations I’d had inside and outside that classroom about Clarisse and Montag. Fahrenheit 451 had become more than a novel.

Romeo and Juliet adaptation

My experience with graphic novel adaptations of canonical texts is one which I believe every reader should have, student or otherwise. Graphic novels are becoming more and more popular in the English education field. The compilation of text and illustration is nothing new to science and history, yet it has so long been left out of literature. Picture books and graphic novels have mostly been viewed as children’s literature or for low-level, struggling readers. These new adaptations challenge those notions.

While there is some academic literature on graphic novels and historical picture books in the classroom, it is a new trend in education and most information is from first-hand experience from classroom teachers. However, both the academic and anecdotal literature showcase that graphic novels and historical fiction picture books are helpful tools in higher-level learning. These types of books allow students to analyze text as well as images, deepening learning beyond just literary techniques. The graphic novel adaptations of canonical texts such as Fahrenheit 451 and The Odyssey are being used more and more frequently in English curriculums to make the information more accessible to students and more interesting to struggling or reluctant readers.

This emerging genre is one to keep your eye on. Whether you are being required to read a canonical text or want to experience your favorite classic in a new way, there is a title for you. For further reading on graphic novels in educational contexts, check out this article from the National Council of Teachers of English and this interview with Gareth Hinds, the illustrator behind graphic novel adaptations of Macbeth, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet as well as other classic works.

  • About the Author
    Lauren Tjaden is a sophomore at Miami University, pursuing a degree in Integrated English/Language Arts Education from Columbus, Ohio. Alongside her studies, she holds an executive position in her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. She can often be found in a corner of Kofenya consuming more caffeine than any human should.

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