What are Graphic Novels?

Graphic novels are books written and illustrated in the style of a comic book. To be considered a graphic novel, rather than a picture book or illustrated novel, the story is told using a combination of words and pictures in a sequence across the page. Graphic novels can be any genre, and tell any kind of story, just like their prose counterparts. The format is what makes the story a graphic novel, and usually includes text, images, word balloons, sound effects, and panels. Graphic novels are a subgenre of “comics,” which is a word you may also hear people use when referring to this style of book.

In the past comics in any form were generally dismissed in schools as inferior literature – “not real books”!  As a school librarian you may come across colleagues who still feel this way about them. Some parents still feel that graphic novels are not the “type of reading material” that will help their children grow as readers. At best, they regard them as something to be tolerated in the hope that eventually their child will “move on” to more “quality literature.” But graphic novels have come to be accepted by librarians and teachers as a method of storytelling on a par with novels, picture books, movies, or audiobooks. They are in fact  very diverse and offer a huge range of reading experiences that enhance rather than undermine reading skills.

The flexibility of the comic medium means that it can be used to tell stories in a simple way, without the reader appearing ‘uncool’. However, this same flexibility means that the comic can also tell phenomenally complex stories or explain difficult ideas. As this is a medium, rather than a genre, it can also be used to create texts across a range of genres. Graphic novels are generally fast paced, and the word-to-picture correlation provides an easy way to expand children’s vocabularies. The relative speed and immediate enjoyment that children receive when reading these books also helps to build great confidence in new readers. More importantly, graphic novels tend to be more engaging than other “early reader” books. Another plus: the number of titles is expanding rapidly every year, so there’s something for every child’s interests.  Last, but not least, graphic novels positively impact on children’s visual literacy skills, which are more essential than ever in a digital age.

Consequently, it is possible to build a graphic novel collection which challenges the good reader whilst supporting those less enthusiastic. This is the key strength of the graphic novel in a school library setting. They can be acquired simply to broaden current leisure reading material, while certain titles can be used to support specific areas within the curriculum. In this way graphic novels and comics have a definite educational role.

Some of the advantages of reading graphic novels include:

  • They engage those readers, particularly reluctant boys, who can read but haven’t yet been hooked!
  • Provide scaffolding for ESL students.
  • Increase reading comprehension and vocabulary.
  • Serve as a bridge between low and high levels of reading.
  • Provide an approach to reading that embraces the multimedia nature of today’s culture, as so much of the story is conveyed visually
  • Serve as an intermediary step to more difficult disciplines and concepts.
  • Present complex material in readable text.
  • Develop skills such as inference and deduction which play a vital part in the reading experience
  • Develop analytical and critical thinking skills.
  • Offer another avenue through which students can experience art.

Starting a Collection

It is notoriously difficult to choose graphic novels for school libraries but by reading reviews, seeking the advice of trusted colleagues and vendors and consulting some of the websites listed below, you will soon build a collection suitable for your young audience.

BookTrust has compiled two very useful lists entitled:  Favourite graphic novels for middle school children and Favourite graphic novels for secondary school children  

Inside the Box is a list of comics and graphic novels for all ages which was published in 2015 by the Federation of Children’s Book Groups

Forbidden Planet  is a great place to visit. It is the world’s largest and best-known science fiction, fantasy and cult entertainment retailer, and the largest UK stockist of all the latest comics and graphic novels. There are stores in London, Birmingham. Bristol, Cambridge, Coventry, Croydon, Liverpool, Newcastle and Southampton. If you cannot get to visit one of these then phone or email for advice they really know their stuff and can guide you through the graphic minefield! Forbidden Planet gives a 10% discount to all libraries. They will take a purchase order and then when payment is received will deliver to libraries free of charge.

Dave’s Comics (in Brighton) offers a great range of comics and graphic novels for all ages and  lots of helpful, friendly advice.

Browsing the graphic novel collections in book stores and your local public library will also give you ideas


Graphic novels can be integrated into fiction and nonfiction collections in libraries or collected together as a format (much as DVDs, picture books and audiobooks are often separated from books) however, most librarians recommend maintaining separate collections of graphic novels by age group, since manga for teens can contain the same sort of violence, mature themes, sexuality, or language that are found in regular novels for that age group! Where possible face-on display is best!

What is Manga?

  • A style of Japanese comic books/ graphic novels
  • Just like Western graphic novels, manga can be about anything from historical, fantasy, to superheroes. So it is a format rather than  agenre
  • Typically black and white illustrations
  • Use a very specific drawing style .e.g.  Manga characters almost always have large eyes and small mouths. They also show over exaggerated emotions e.g. when crying tears will pour out in buckets, when angry  they will have rosy cheeks and steam rolling from around their body
  • Manga is read Japanese style from top to bottom and right to left
  • Closely related to Animes – Japanese animated films/ cartoons
  • There are different kinds of Manga – as Prep School libraries we will mainly stock: Kodomo (Children’s Manga),  Shônen (Teen Boy’s Manga) and Shôjo (Teen Girl’s Manga). Shonen Manga is usually action packed and humorous, whilst Shojo Manga is often more lighthearted and involves romance. There are also different types of Manga for adults.
  • Understanding Japanese words like “shojo” and “shonen” will be helpful as you pick out the right titles for your library, but also understanding manga’s rating system will also help. In Manga, an A rating means the comic is suitable for all ages, Y is youth ages 10+, T is teens ages 13+, OT/T+ is older teens ages 16+, and M is for mature adults ages 18+

Useful websites, blogs and online resources exploring graphic novels and comics:  These will be particularly helpful to someone with little or no prior knowledge of the form..

  • The Librarian’s guide to Anime and Manga
  • Comics: a useful tool for ESL
  • Grovel is a good UK site with lots of news, reviews and articles on graphic novels, featuring classic titles and film tie-ins.
  • Titan Books is the leading publisher of graphic novels in the UK. They have a backlist of over 1000 graphic novel titles and well over six million copies sold to date. They publish a wide range of titles, using licensed characters and properties such as Batman*, Kick Ass*, The Boys*, Heroes*, Superman*, Sandman*, The Simpsons*, Star Wars*, Tank Girl, Transformers, and World of Warcraft*. New additions to the “classic strips” library list, which already features James Bond, Modesty Blaise, Charley’s War and Dan Dare, include collections of the ever-popular soccer strip Roy of the Rovers and influential war comic Battle, and Sydney Jordan’s SF Jeff Hawke series
  • Turning Japanese an introduction to Manga, offering suggestions for collection development, management events and running a Manga group
  • No Flying No Tights is an excellent website containing articles, tips, and reviews which include guidance on suitability levels for different age groups. Graphic novels are split into genres, which is useful if you are trying to build a balanced collection
  • Bloke of Steel is Paul Register, a former school librarian from Sheffield, now working as an Educational Speaker/Trainer specialising in comics, graphic novels and school libraries.  He is also the founder and organiser of the hugely successful Excelsior Award (see below) the UK’s biggest book award for graphic novels
  • Paul Gravett is a graphic novel specialist and his personal website  includes articles, book information and details of events –
  • Page 45 is the website of a  Nottingham-based online comic shop offering reviews of graphic novels and comics, and information on graphic novel creators who visit schools
  • Wordery the online bookshop has a large graphic novel and manga section
  • Classical Comics this UK publisher creates graphic novel adaptations of classic literature and offers free study guides and downloads on their website
  • Graphic novels belong in your English class – an article in Education Week: Teacher 6 March 2019
  • They don’t count as reading – a blog about comic books in the classroom
  • Graphic Novels: for the 8 -16+ Age Range by Paul Register, published by the SLA. 2016. Cost £15.00 (£11 for SLA members)
  • Chaos or Collection: Selecting and Managing Graphic Novels in Your School Library by Neena Morris, published by the SLA. 2018. Cost £13.50 (£9 for SLA members)

The  Excelsior Award: Originally called the Stan Lee Excelsior Award, this is the only nationwide book award for graphic novels and manga. Its main aim is to encourage the reading and raise the profile of graphic novels and manga among school librarians and teachers as this storytelling medium has been a largely underused resource within education for many years.  The books are chosen for their quality, popularity and variety of genre and artistic styles. Originally there was just a Senior and Junior version of the award but in 2019 The Excelsior Award was split up into four separate shortlists to cover the four different key stages

  • Excelsior Award White, for students aged 9 and over (Key Stage 2)
  • Excelsior Award Blue, for students aged 11 and over (Key Stage 3)
  • Excelsior Award Red, for students aged 14 and over (Key Stage 4)
  • Excelsior Award Black, for students aged 16 and over (Sixth Form)


(Updated by Denise Reed 24 April 2019)





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