It’s Elementary! Graphic Novels for the K–6 Classroom

Book Links May 2008 (vol. 17, no. 5)

High-quality graphic novels can make positive literacy contributions to the lives of elementary-school students.

By William H. Teale, Jung Kim, and William Boerman-Cornell

Elementary school through middle school

We strongly believe that high-quality graphic novels (GNs) can make positive literacy contributions to the lives of elementary-school students. Reading graphic novels may be a “way in” for helping children who are difficult to reach through traditional print text. In addition, as the current work in multiliteracies shows, there are a variety of different and complex skills that occur in the meaning-making process between text and image. Some researchers are investigating the possibility that the skills used in making meaning from the combination of images and pictures in GNs may help equip students to be able to read critically other word-image texts, like Web sites or advertising.

There are certainly issues that elementary teachers should be aware of in using GNs in the classroom. First, when it comes to the reading process, reading a GN is different from reading either a chapter book or even a picture book. Thus, it may be necessary to help children learn how to understand the “grammar” of the panels in a graphic novel. Also, although the pictures in a graphic novel tell much of the story, the language level of the text of many graphic novels includes vocabulary that stretches the reader beyond what may at first appear to be the level of difficulty.

Finally, teachers should be aware of potential gender issues in graphic novels. Because of the historic trend of GN readers and buyers to be male, there is a tendency for GNs to be more geared toward this audience. However, this is changing, as series such as
Babymouse and the
Baby-Sitters Club (see below) feature female protagonists and cater more toward a female readership.

We see two especially important ways that graphic novels can profitably become part of the literacy and subject area curricula of elementary schools: first, as a source of independent reading that will help children develop word recognition, fluency, and comprehension skills; and second, as reading material for lessons in reading/language arts and social studies.

Independent reading. Bringing graphic novels into the elementary classroom means adding copies of GNs to the school library and to classroom library collections. It also means that classroom teachers and the school librarian should make graphic novels an everyday part of the titles they book talk to students. In short, students can be encouraged to read graphic novels for pleasure and as part of any reading incentive program the school or individual classroom may have.

For instruction. There are a number of opportunities for incorporating GNs into reading and content-area lessons. Book club and literature circle discussions are a natural. Graphic novels such as
To Dance or
The Courageous Princess (see below) have rich themes and characterization that provide plenty of opportunities for children to explore both issues that connect to their lives and the craft of the author and illustrator. We would not recommend a steady diet of GNs for guided reading, but there is no reason why they could not occasionally be used to add variety to guided-reading materials. You won’t be able to find GN levels like you can for guided readers, but by trying books out in the classroom, you can get a sense of the level where each one fits best.


We have evaluated everything that we could find and selected the following graphic novels as good bets for students in grades K–6. A number of selections could also work well in middle school and junior high school, so we have indicated that where appropriate. In making these recommendations, we concentrated on books of high literary quality and/or books ripe with opportunities for content-area curriculum connections. However, a few entries were included because we recognize their extreme popularity among young readers.

Amulet: Book One—The Stonekeeper. By Kazu Kibuishi. 2008. 192p. Scholastic, $21.99 (9780439846806); paper, $9.99 (9780439846813).

Gr. 4–7. After the tragic death of their father, Emily and Navin and their mother move to their deceased great-grandfather’s home. On the first night there, the children’s mother falls into the clutches of a strange, tentacled creature. Attempting to save her, Emily and Navin enter an underground world inhabited by many other extraordinary beings. The color and simple line drawings will keep children as engaged as the plot.

Artemis Fowl: The Graphic Novel. By Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin. Illus. by Giovanni Rigano and Paolo Lamanna. 2007. 112p. Hyperion, $18.99 (9780786848812); paper, $9.99 (9780786848829).

Gr. 4–7. Artemis Fowl is a master criminal with a plan to win the wealth of the secret fairy civilization. Captain Holly Short is a fairy, one who has been charged with making sure that Artemis’ plan fails. Longtime fans and newcomers alike will be pleased with Rigano and Lamanna’s high-energy color illustrations that faithfully re-create the excitement of the original novel.

Babymouse: Puppy Love. By Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm. 2007. 96p. Random, $12.99 (9780375939907); paper, $5.95 (9780375839900).

Gr. 2–5. Babymouse is a spunky grade-school mouse with a plucky attitude and a pink dress. Many of the books in the Holms’ series pit Babymouse and her faithful friend, Wilson the Weasel, against their nemesis, Felicia Furrypaws. These books are a great introduction to graphic novels. Other titles include
Queen of the World! (Random, 2005),
Our Hero (Random, 2005),
Beach Babe (Random, 2006),
Rock Star (Random, 2006),
Heartbreaker (Random, 2006),
Camp Babymouse (Random, 2007),
Skater Girl (Random, 2007), and
Monster Mash (Random, 2008).

The Baby-Sitters Club: Mary Anne Saves the Day. By Ann M. Martin. Adapted and illus. by Raina Telgemeier. 2007. 160p. Scholastic/Graphix, $8.99 (9780439885164).

Gr. 4–6. The graphic-novel versions of Martin’s hugely popular Baby-Sitters Club series feature straightforward black-and-white art with stark black details and story lines that have been trimmed a bit from the originals. Telgemeier successfully retells the original tales that feature 11- to 13-year-old girls and loads of action, comedy, and emotion. Also see the other titles in the series,
Kristy’s Great Idea and
The Truth about Stacey (both Scholastic/Graphix, 2006).

Bone: Ghost Circles. By Jeff Smith. 2008. 160p. Scholastic/Graphix, $19.99 (9780439706292); paper, $9.99 (9780439706346).

Gr. 4–8. Fone Bone, a cartoon creature who rather resembles Casper the Ghost, and his ne’er-do-well brothers Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone, leave their homeworld of Boneville and end up in a strange new land where dragons are real, a girl named Thorn turns out to be a princess, and the land is threatened by rat creatures. Appealing to boys and girls alike, Fone Bone’s adventures are beautifully rendered, gripping, and often funny. Also see the other books in the series:
Out from Boneville (Scholastic/Graphix, 2005),
The Great Cow Race (Scholastic/Graphix, 2005),
Eyes of the Storm (Scholastic/Graphix, 2006),
The Dragonslayer (Scholastic/Graphix, 2006),
Rock Jaw (Scholastic/Graphix, 2007),
Old Man’s Cave (Scholastic/Graphix, 2007), and
Treasure Hunters (Scholastic/Graphix, 2008).

The Boy, the Bear, the Baron, the Bard. By Gregory Rogers. 2004. 32p. Roaring Brook, $16.95 (9781596430099); paper, $7.95 (9781596432673).

Gr. 4–6. This wordless story looks like a picture book but works just like a graphic novel. The plot includes all the characters in the title, as a modern-day boy chases his wayward soccer ball and is transported to the times of the bard, where he experiences a series of causes and effects that are both unlikely and delightful. The GN panels range from quite small to encompassing full pages, contributing to the varying pace of the narrative.

City of Light, City of Dark. By Avi. Illus. by Brian Floca. 1993. 192p. Orchard, o.p.

Gr. 5–8. This black-and-white graphic novel is framed around a mythlike story about the change of seasons. A young boy and girl work to help save their city and discover more about themselves in the process. Strong female characters and a sprinkling of Spanish in the narration (one character is bilingual) distinguish the story. The drawing style could readily be used to discuss literary techniques like tone and mood.

Clan Apis. By Jay Hosler. 2000. 158p. Active Synapse, paper, $20 (9780967725505).

Gr. 4–7. This humorous informational narrative in black and white follows the life cycle of Nyuki the honeybee. The book includes a short glossary and an illustrated section about the author-illustrator, who happens to be an entomologist. A wonderful possibility for a science unit, Clan Apis could also be used in conjunction with teaching narrative nonfiction writing.

Coraline. By Neil Gaiman. Adapted and illus. by P. Craig Russell. July 2008. 192p. HarperCollins, paper, $18.99 (9780060825430).

Gr. 4–8. Russell’s adaptation of Gaiman’s horror novel has the right tone for upper-elementary and middle-school readers—very creepy but not terrifying. His panel designs and panel flow present a fresh and thoughtful style that will help students think about reading graphically in new ways.

The Courageous Princess. By Rod Espinosa. 2007. 240p. Dark Horse, paper, $14.95 (9781593077198).

Gr. 3–6. Mabelrose is a princess who must rescue herself from an evil dragon and return to her loving parents—not knowing that her father has left the kingdom to seek her out. Using kindness, courage, and smarts, Mabelrose is not a typical princess, as she makes friends and helps those she meets along the way. Beautifully illustrated in full color, the story carries a wonderful message of empowerment for young girls as well as universal truths about resourcefulness.

Grampa and Julie: Shark Hunters. By Jef Czekaj. 2004. 128p. Top Shelf, paper, $14.95 (9781891830525).

Gr. 3–7. Originally published in serial form in Nickelodeon magazine, this full-color comic has been reframed into a single story arc chronicling a young girl’s summer vacation with her grampa. The entertaining tale features a rapping squirrel and duck, a lost baby shark, and aliens, among other things. In the classroom, this humorous story could enhance a study of puns and figurative language.

The Hardy Boys: Undercover Brothers:
Dude Ranch o’ Death. By Scott Lobdell. Illus. by Paulo Henrique. 2008. 96p. Papercutz, $12.95 (9781597070898); paper, $7.95 (9781597070881).

Gr. 4–6. Whereas the graphic novels about Nancy Drew maintain the same spirit as the originals (see below), the Hardy Boys have gone through some changes in this series based on the original books by Franklin W. Dixon. No longer merely boy detectives, Frank and Joe now work for ATAC (American Teens against Crime), a spy agency that furnishes them with high-tech gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. In the twelfth adventure, they track down missing teenage campers out west. The books are generally well drawn and the stories often interesting enough to keep boys reading, but there isn’t much to talk about when the book is done. Note that selected titles are available in a library edition from ABDO.

The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea. By Anne Sibley O’Brien. 2006. 48p. Charlesbridge, $14.95 (9781580893022); paper, $7.95 (9781580893039).

Gr. 3–6. Though it resembles a picture book, this full-color title is indeed a graphic novel. O’Brien retells the traditional Korean folktale of Hong Kil Dong, the unrecognized servant son of a nobleman who grows up to fight for the rights of the poor. Raised in Korea, O’Brien thoroughly researched the story and uses an authentic painting style that reflects the early-seventeenth-century Korean setting. With its themes of class structures, cultural traditions, and world history, O’Brien’s book is a natural for social studies content areas.

Magic Pickle. By Scott Morse. 2008. 112p. Scholastic/Graphix, $9.99 (9780439879958).

Gr. 2–4. The result of a ­secret government experiment, a ­­­super-powered pickle (aka Weapon Kosher) must defeat a brotherhood of good veggies gone bad. Intertwined with this epic battle is young JoJo’s problem with class bully/snoot Lulu. Oh, and did we mention the cafeteria food fight? Many visual and verbal gags throughout, coupled with Morse’s great action sequences and a supplementary, tongue-very-much-in-cheek section on “How to Draw Produce,” help make this a laugh-out-loud graphic novel. Also see Morse’s chapter books about Weapon Kosher,
Magic Pickle versus the Egg Poacher and
Magic Pickle and the Planet of the Grapes (both Scholastic/Graphix, 2008).

Meanwhile . . . By Jules Feiffer. 1999. 32p. HarperTrophy/­Michael di Capua, paper, $6.99 (9780062059338).

K–Gr. 3. Raymond, who is engrossed in his comic book, ignores his mother’s calls with a comics-inspired solution: by thinking about how the word meanwhile always changes the setting. When he scrawls it on the wall, he’s transported—first to a pirate ship, then to the Wild West, and finally into outer space. In this picture book that functions just like a graphic novel, Raymond finds a way to get himself out of one precarious situation after another, right up until “The End.”

Nancy Drew: Girl Detective: Doggone Town. By Stefan Terucha and Sarah Kinney. Illus. by Sho Murase. 2008. 112p. Papercutz, $12.95 (9781597070997); paper, $7.95 (9781597070980).

Gr. 3–5. This graphic-novel series updates Carolyn Keene’s original stories by adding cell phones, laptops, and computer-generated backgrounds. The latest title involves a search first for a missing dog and then a missing town. The characters and the stories are essentially the same (but considerably more multiethnic than the originals). Though the dialogue is sometimes stilted and the exposition a little heavy-handed, these manga-style GNs are generally well-drawn and engaging. The series uses the convention of brainy George’s laptop skills to introduce factoids about animal biology, geography, and history. Note that selected titles are available in a library edition from ABDO.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. By Hayao Miyazaki. 2004. 7v. Viz Media, paper, $9.95 each.

Gr. 4–6. Nausicaä is a very strong-willed, independent young princess who has a kind and extremely just heart. Great strife has come to the Valley of the Wind, which is attempting to survive despite the ecological disaster that has befallen the planet. Nausicaä and her allies struggle to create peace between kingdoms battling for the world’s remaining natural resources. The black-and-white drawings in this seven-volume series are richly detailed, but readers who have seen the animated film may not find them as engaging as that visually stunning experience.

Owly: A Time to Be Brave. By Andy Runton. 2007. 128p. Top Shelf, paper, $10 (9781891830891).

Gr. 2–5. The latest book in this endearing black-and-white graphic-novel series relates the story of young Owly and a new visitor in the forest. Though the books use mostly signs and symbols with only rare bits of text, the pictures depict highly interesting and detailed stories. Because of their nearly wordless nature, the stories could serve as writing prompts for students to create narrative or dialogue and/or as a device for teaching literary terminology. Other titles include
The Way Home/The Bittersweet Summer (Top Shelf, 2004),
Just a Little Blue (Top Shelf, 2005),
Flying Lessons (Top Shelf, 2005), and
Tiny Tales (Top Shelf, 2008).

Pinky and Stinky. By James ­Kochalka. 2002. 208p. Top Shelf, paper, $17.95 (9781891830297).

K–Gr. 3. This blue-and-white book follows Pinky and Stinky, who are supposed to be the first pigs on Jupiter. However, there is an accident, and instead they land on the moon, where they are caught in the middle of a war between moon men and American astronauts. This endearing story about believing in oneself and doing what is right is especially strong in character development.

Redwall: The Graphic Novel. By Brian Jacques. Illus. by Bret Blevins. 2007. 148p. Philomel, paper, $12.99 (9780399244810).

Gr. 3–7. When Cluny the Scourge threatens the peaceful Redwall community of animals, it is up to a young mouse, Matthias, to take up the mantle of their ancient hero Martin the Warrior and fight to save the abbey. The use of light and shadow in the black-and-white illustrations is remarkable. The graphic-novel format nicely captures the security of Redwall and the perils presented by its enemies.

Robot Dreams. By Sara Varon. 2007. 208p. First Second, paper, $16.95 (9781596431089).

Gr. 3–8. This delightful, nearly wordless graphic novel tells the story of Dog and his relationship with a tin Robot he purchases through the mail. The real-life actions of both characters and the dreams of Robot are ingeniously presented through drawings that effectively use simple lines and colors to convey emotions. Issues of guilt, hope, and friendship come through strongly and make this a story that will give children much to talk about. This would be a great choice for literature circles or as a way to address ethical and moral issues.

Scary Godmother. By Jill Thompson. 1997. 48p. Sirius Entertainment, $19.95 (9781579890155).

Gr. 2–5. The first book in this series (which includes two titles that were made into animated films) stars a little girl named Hannah Marie who goes trick-or-treating with her cousin and ends up meeting her scary godmother. Thompson’s books tie into Halloween and also feature character-building themes. Because the series leans toward a picture-book format, it could serve as a bridge to more traditional graphic-novel formats. Other titles include
Revenge of Jimmy,
Ghoul’s Out for Summer,
The Mystery Date,
The Boo Flu,
Spooktacular Stories, and
Wild about Harry (all Sirius Entertainment).

Spiral-Bound. By Aaron Renier. 2005. 144p. Top Shelf, paper, $14.95 (9781891830501).

Gr. 4–7. During one summer week, three young animals—Turnip the elephant, Stucky the hound dog, and Ana the rabbit—explore their creative talents in sculpture and journalism while trying to solve the mystery of the monster in the town’s nearby lake. With illustrations that convey a wealth of meaning, this entertaining story is appealing for its warmth of characters as well as the intricate mystery.

To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel. By Siena Cherson Siegel. ­Illus. by Mark Siegel. 2006. 64p. Simon & Schuster/Richard Jackson, $17.95 (9780689867477); Aladdin, paper, $9.99 (9781416926870).

Gr. 4–7. This relatively short autobiographical Sibert Honor Book follows Siena from her first gymnastics and early ballet lessons through ballet school under the tutelage of the great George Balanchine. Along the way she overcomes anxieties, struggles with her parents’ divorce, and gains confidence in her own abilities. The artwork uses color washes over clearly inked lines to great effect, and though the story generally relies on text boxes to the exclusion of speech bubbles, it isn’t very noticeable and the overall effect works. A visually beautiful story of perseverance.

The Wizard of Oz: The Graphic Novel. Adapted and illus. by Michael Cavallaro. 2005. 176p. ABDO/Spotlight, $24.21 (9781599611204); Puffin, paper, $9.99 (9780142404713).

Gr. 3–6. One of a series of graphic-novel versions of classics (other titles of possible interest to elementary-school students include
Black Beauty and
Treasure Island), Cavallaro’s retelling is faithful to Frank L. Baum’s original plot. Black-and-white drawings contain lots of action and detail and have a contemporary look (jeans, sunglasses, and even a buzz saw that the Tin Woodman can project from the end of his arm).

Yotsuba&! By Kiyohiko Azuma. 8v. ADV Manga, paper, $9.99 each.

Gr. 2–4. Little Yotsuba has green hair and is the new kid in town; she is also frequently very self-centered and continually naive about everything, from what one should (and shouldn’t) say to the neighbors, to how all sorts of modern conveniences work. As a result, no one is quite sure how to take her. These factors make for funny and often puzzling adventures. Each of the eight books consists of a series of chapters that provides a continuing story.

William H. Teale
is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Jung Kim
is a doctoral candidate studying hip-hop and literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. William Boerman-Cornell
is an assistant professor of Education at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois.