Here’s a special treat: We asked educator and literacy expert Peter Gutierrez to pick ten of his favorite graphic novels for classroom use. Take it away, Peter!
With so many great releases over the past year for K-12 classrooms, I don’t want to waste too much time teeing up. I do need to stress, though, that this isn’t a “Best Of” list—there are simply too many worthy books out there to stay on top of them all. Instead, please view what follows as my sharing a few titles that I’m afraid most educators aren’t aware of and probably should be.
Adventures in Cartooning. I raved about this in SLJ in September so I won’t repeat myself here. A “must” at elementary. ‘Nuff said. (Older students, and budding mangakas, will benefit from Christopher Hart’s immanently practical The Manga Artist’s Workbook, J.C. Amberlyn’s Drawing Manga Animals, Chibis, and Other Adorable Creatures, or Yishan Li’s impressively comprehensive Shoujo Art Studio, which comes with a CD.)
Assorted Bluewater Comics Bios. Have you seen these colorful and timely profiles of figures such as Hillary Clinton? They first struck me as opportunistic, but then I read a few and realized they can be quite solid and thoughtful. What’s more, scribe Neil Bailey shares reflections on his own process, which could serve as an engaging model for student writers tackling their own biographies, graphic or otherwise. Just wish Wikipedia wasn’t so often the main source that’s cited.
Dinosaur Hour! Creator Hitoshi Shioya has created an incredibly amusing anthropomorphic romp, but somehow manages never to skimp on the science—the first volume is chock full o’ fun facts and dino-stats. It’s not as if kids need more encouragement to find dinosaurs appealing, but this book is sure to be hit even with those who aren’t already T-Rex fans. (At the other end of the manga spectrum, and despite major sensitivity issues, I urge science teachers of older teens to check out the information-rich Moyasimon, about a boy who can see microbes with the naked eye. Oh, and another fascinating and data-dense manga, this time in cultural studies, is Oishinbo vol 1, about Japanese cuisine.)
The Emperor’s New Clothes. With this leveled title as well as The Jungle Book, The Princess and The Pea, and a version of The Ugly Duckling well suited to the Nickelodeon crowd, Stone Arch has added new energy and artistry to the business of adapting classics for young readers (although at fewer than 30 story pages, it’s a stretch to call them graphic “novels”). The backmatter includes discussion questions and writing prompts.
The Hundred-Dollar Robber and The Secret Ghost. These two titles in Lerner’s Math Manga Mysteries series—which is heavy on math and mystery but only marginally “manga”—are undeniable winners. And if brisk pacing and goofy humor weren’t enough, these books also feature main characters who are all students at a kung fu school.
Magneto: Testament. First serialized in ’08, this ’09 graphic novel has clear curriculum benefits at secondary. Recounting the young Magneto’s life as a Jew in Nazi Germany and Auschwitz with barely a whisper of anything related to superpowers, the story works simply as a compelling and accurate work of YA historical fiction. Kudos to Marvel, which not only loaded the book with extras, but also hired Brian Kelley, one of the top comics-and-education minds in the U.S., to contribute a lengthy teaching guide.
Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest. With these two books, Classical Comics continues its smart, differentiated approach to Shakespeare, releasing each title in original, plain, and quick text versions. But the really nice surprise is that these well-produced adaptations work wonderfully as graphic novels, looking and reading like comics that kids will actually enjoy spending time with.
Salt Water Taffy 3: The Truth About Dr. True. Series titles might be tricky to use in classrooms, but I’d make an exception for this one. Not just a great yarn, but also an excellent springboard for critical thinking, text types, exploring legend vs. fact, even geography.
The Secret Science Alliance and The Copycat Crook. Eleanor Davis strikes again, this time making science and the kids who love it seem almost unbearably cool. Endlessly inventive, this book is an equally great read for English Language Arts classes due to all the text features Davis manages to squeeze in.
The Vietnam War: A Graphic History. With its sober, straightforward black-and-white art and scarcity of word balloons, this book should be a huge disappointment to teens looking for a standard-issue “war comic.” But with its long passages of staggeringly well-researched expository text, it will be a real treat for U.S. history teachers and their students. The graphic equivalent of a PBS documentary.
Finally, I must mention Little Mouse Gets Ready by Jeff Smith and Abrams’ TOON Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics but—full disclosure—I developed teaching materials for these titles, so I’m a bit biased.
Well, that’s it. Please write to me and let me know what you think…
An Eisner-nominated comics writer, Peter Gutierrez is also a spokesman on graphic novels for the National Council of Teachers of English. He is a contributing editor to ForeWord Reviews and a long-time curriculum developer, with clients that include Abrams, TOON Books, Pearson Education, Sesame Workshop, and Scholastic. He can be reached at email@example.com.