The literary purists can howl in derision all they wish. It won’t change Tammy Horn’s conviction that graphic novels (extended comic books, essentially) are highly effective tools in the battle to improve literacy and enhance the love of reading among young people.
In fact, Horn is among the authors of an upcoming book, “Teaching the Graphic Novel,” to be published by the Modern Language Association in December. Her chapter is entitled “The Graphic Novel as A Choice of Weapon.”
The article, which offers “some pragmatic approaches” to teaching the graphic novel, stems from her experience earlier this decade teaching a “transactive writing” course for middle school teachers in EKU’s College of Education. Horn no longer teaches in the College – she is now the apiculturist (bee colony expert) in the University’s Environmental Research Institute – but she thinks the “time has come” for graphic novels to assume a rightful place in the K-12 literature curriculum, not as a replacement for the classics of Twain and Dickens but as a complement. “It doesn’t have to be either-or.”
Once derided as literary trash, the graphic novel gained legitimacy when Art Spiegelman’s illustrated quasi-fable, “Maus,” captured a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992. The novel recounts the struggle of the author’s father, a Polish Jew, to survive the Holocaust. All the human characters are presented as anthropomorphic animals – the Jews, for example, are depicted as mice.
The celebrated “Maus” prompted “a fundamental change in how academe perceived graphic novels,” said Horn, who earned her doctorate in 20th Century Literature and has taught 10 years on the college level. “The fact that the Modern Language Association is publishing a book on this subject is, in and of itself, a huge endorsement.
“The idea of visual literacy, its time has come,” Horn added. “Current educational theory suggests that learners are much better able to assimilate information when it’s in a visual form. Graphic novels provide a greater synchronicity if they are working well because they cause students to slow down and oscillate better between the images and the words.”
Horn said graphic novels are often especially effective in teaching young people about social ills such as racism, poverty and discrimination and challenging their assumptions and biases.
“Graphic novels can be a weapon in social justice pedagogy because they verbalize discrimination and then illustrate such practices in logical sequences for younger readers,” Horn said. “In this way, they replace negative images with positive (images).”
Horn said she would welcome the opportunity to discuss the matter further with any interested educators. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 859-622-6914.