It’s no secret that graphic novels are influential through all forms of media—just look at TV lineups and summer movie blockbusters. Recently, i09 hosted an open channel asking what graphic novels their commenters thought should be required reading in high schools. The idea of incorporating comics into a classroom setting in a fun, intentional way reflective of popular culture could be a catalyst for developing lifelong readers as well as providing educators with relevant, updated material in their curriculum. Graphic novels are exciting and challenging. They expand conventional ideas about storytelling. They teach readers a visual language unique to the genre, and loads of them are filled with characters, situations, and experiences that high school students can deeply relate to.
While there truly is no prescriptive set of books that all teenagers (or all of any type of person) will enjoy, CBLDF has always known that great comics are valuable literature—especially in the classroom! Our very own Dr. Meryl Jaffe has curated some excellent resources for educating with graphic novels, including Raising a Reader! How Comics & Graphic Novels Can Help Your Kids Love to Read.
Familiar titles were called out in the i09 comments, such as Watchmen and Maus, but we thought it would be fun to explore a few additional graphic novels that connect to the experiences and purpose of high school on a grade by grade basis, featuring graphic novels that enhance typical reading lists and thematically connect to currently required reading. Check out our suggestions below and let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter—what comics do you want to see included in reading lists?
9th Grade — What’s Important to You?
Freshman year is a confusing time. Many kids are starting over at a new school after completing junior high and everything from class size to peer groups is going to take some getting used to. Typical 9th grade reading lists include titles like Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Outsiders. Connections can be made between all of these books, but the one that stands out is asking readers to identify what is important to them. Loyalty? Power? Friendship? Family? To that end, the following graphic novels would be an excellent addition to help freshmen sort out what matters the most, even when so much around them is in flux.
American Born Chinese by Gene Yang
American Born Chinese explores transformation and identity. It has characters willing to take risks to figure out the duality within, confronting topics such as racism, cultural identity, bullying and, ultimately, acceptance. (Get teaching and discussion tips for American Born Chinese here.)
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Although this graphic novel would be appropriate for even younger audiences, Telgemeir’s story provides a humorous and honest take on learning to navigate new surroundings. The characters are infinitely relatable as they figure out their own confusions about homosexuality, acceptance, relationships and teamwork.
We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly
We3 is a challenging, emotional title dealing with the rights and wrongs of progress. Three pets become weaponized by the government and, once their testing is complete, face permanent decommission. The responsibility of their creators weighs heavily, and the team uses their abilities to fight for freedom. With Quietly’s gorgeous, expressive art and Morrison’s simple dialogue, this story resonates deeply, asking it’s readers to figure out what “home” is—and what you would risk to get there.
10th Grade — Who Are You Going to Be?
With the learning curve of their new environment well underway, typical sophomores have a better understanding of the expectations of high school and are beginning to sort out how they want to engage. Many 10th grade reading lists include The Joy Luck Club, Taming of the Shrew, and Fahrenheit 451–books that open a discussion about our rights as individuals to decide our paths in life. The following graphic novels incorporate similar themes, with characters figuring out who they want to be.
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
Angsty young Anya isn’t having a very good high school experience. She’s at odds with her body, her Russian heritage and her social standing among her peers. When she befriends a ghost named Emily, she thinks she’s on the right track to figuring out how to fit in—but she couldn’t be more wrong. Brosgol’s approachable graphic novel sets up an atmospheric, spooky scenario, expertly exploring the pitfalls of identity and image.
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly
Not many cape-and-cowl titles explore the weight of superpowers like this book does, with grace and consequences atypical of many hero stories. Superman is dying and he must figure out how to accomplish everything that’s important to him in his final days while keeping the news of his sudden mortality a secret. Although most high school students won’t ever have to confront death by cellular solar radiation, they can use Superman’s transition into the unknown to think about how they want to live, and how they want to be remembered.
11th Grade — Who Is Your Hero?
With high school half over, many juniors are thinking about their futures and the sort of accomplishments that have become important to them. Many 11th grade English classes are reading titles such as Speak, The Crucible, and Catcher In the Rye—titles with protagonists facing internal struggles where their own fortitude can either be their demise or their salvation. Graphic novels can be used to explore themes of independence, self-motivation and heroism.
Bone by Jeff Smith
Bone is a magical, expressive story about three cousins on a journey together after being run out of their home town. Confronting rats, talking bugs and a dark entity that threatens their entire world, Smith’s charming fantasy adventure provides a lighter exploration of bravery and heroism that is appropriate for all ages but presents different challenges to each age group.
I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura
Kelly has created a refreshing update on the girl-becomes-her-own-hero trope. Following social outcast Barbara Thorson, I Kill Giants dives into the lines between reality and fantasy, and how each of us must face our fears before we become defined by them.
Batwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka and JH Williams III
Yet another departure from typical caped crusader comics, Rucka’s Batwoman is lesbian and Jewish, creating a diverse backstory with unique motivations that feed her drive to toward heroism. The visual storytelling of Williams’ artwork is incomparable and students reading this book could treat it as both a story of what gives life meaning as well as a lesson in impressive artistry.
12th Grade — How Can I Change the World?
In their final year as a high school student, seniors are preparing to enter the world as adults with responsibilities and purpose. Even if every 12th grader isn’t college bound, they are still facing the reality of a new chapter in their life far less insulated and structured than what they’ve known. By now they have been challenged to think critically, analyze thoughtfully, and value the meaning behind their actions. Books like A Brave New World and The Metamorphosis appear on 12th grade reading lists, as if to encourage students to think about the world as they know it—and how they want to change it.
V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
In Moore’s paranoid take on a war ravaged future England, political freedom is non-existent. The population is under nearly constant, oppressive surveillance by a fascist government, overrun by corruption and greed. A masked man fights back against the powers that be, pulling a young woman under his wing. While this graphic novel questions morality, identity and freedom, it also presents challenging ideas about how an individual’s critique of the world can change it.
Invincible Iron Man: The Five Nightmares by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca
With so many superhero comics on the market, the indoctrinated reader could face obstacles in understanding where to start in a longstanding series. Although this title is part of Iron Man continuity, it’s a great standalone story that explores Tony Stark’s responsibility for the weapons empire he has helped to create. The dichotomy of his legacy versus his changing worldview creates compelling character moments and a heightened sense of accountability for his actions.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
This graphic novel was definitely well represented in the suggestions on i09, and for good reason. Satrapi’s memoir of growing up during the Islamic Revolution has been the subject of acclaim and criticism. Although this title has been removed from school libraries in the past, the power of Satrapi’s story is undeniable. (Get discussion and teaching tips for Persepolis here.)
These books are just the tip of the iceberg — there are thousands of graphic novels in print that could be used in classrooms. Several of the books listed above can be used at various age levels, and the age of the audience may figure into what they take away from the experience.
Casey Gilly is a Contributing Editor for CBLDF, a Staff Writer for Comic Book Resources and, most importantly, a cat enthusiast.