Using Graphic Novels in Education: SideScrollers

sidescrollersWelcome to Using Graphic Novels in Education, an ongoing feature from CBLDF that is designed to allay confusion around the content of graphic novels and to help parents and teachers raise readers. In this column, we examine graphic novels, including those that have been targeted by censors, and provide teaching and discussion suggestions for the use of such books in classrooms.

In this post, Using Graphic Novels in Education takes a closer look at SideScrollers – its merits, its elements of concern, and its teaching elements, empowering educators and parents to make their own decisions.


SideScrollers by Matthew Loux (ONI Press, 2008) is one of those books that are well written but that are not appropriate for all classrooms. And while named one of the Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens in 2008 by the American Library Association, the book was pulled from a ninth grade summer reading list in Connecticut based on a compliant by a person who was not even a parent of a child in the school for “profanity and sexual references.” CBLDF sent a letter to Enfield Connecticut School District Superintendent, Dr. Jeffrey Schumann asking that it be returned to the summer reading list and “restore freedom of choice to the parents and children in their school.”

Elements of Concern

As teachers, parents, and librarians, we are always evaluating the appropriateness of materials we give our kids. Whether appraising appropriateness of reading level or of content, we are constantly juggling, selecting, and deciding. What makes this even more challenging for educators is that our schools, communities, and classrooms consist of students with different backgrounds and cultural values, different reading levels, and different levels of tolerance and understanding. Furthermore, what is meaningful for one or some is not meaningful to all. This highlights the weight and importance of choice.

Elements that may cause concern center around the fact that this is book is designated T+ for “older teens.” It contains profanity; an instance in which one character exposes himself, but readers do not see any anatomical features; and covers mature topics such as bullying, vandalism, theft, and attempted rape. Furthermore, it’s difficult to pigeonhole in which grades it might be taught. While the content is T+, the reading level itself is lower. For example, this book would make excellent paired reading with S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders — which is often taught in middle school — but SideScrollers content is not appropriate for most middle school classrooms.

While some may feel uncomfortable with SideScrollers as a classroom text or reading or may find it difficult to fit into their curriculum, SideScrollers makes an outstanding optional reading list, book club, and/or summer reading selection because of the issues it raises and because of the effective and ineffective ways the characters deal with them. We take a closer look below.


SideScrollers’ merits lie in its development of real and relatable characters and in its ability to honestly and openly address issues teens are facing in their world of cliques, social pressures, and developing sexuality. What is particularly interesting, however, is that while Matthew Loux’s characters are true-to-life, there is no real hero archetype. While the three main characters grow and change, they do not do so in the typical fictional protagonist’s way. Their greatest challenge is to get off the couch, stop playing games and get the cute new girl to see Richard (whom they mockingly call “Dick”) for his true colors. This in itself is a worth studying and discussing — be it in a class or book club. Furthermore, this is a story that promotes critical and creative thinking, as it deals with issues of identity and friendship, critiques pop culture, and provides thoughtful and entertaining verbal and visual story telling.


SideScrollers’ three protagonists are Matt, Brian, and Brad — three good guys who have just graduated from high school with no direction or prospects and who love playing video games and eating junk food. What gets them off their couch is a trip for more junk food and finding out that Amber, a new girl in town whom Matt has a crush on, is going to the concert of the century that night with Dick, the captain of the football team and high school bully. Trying to keep their gaming titles, find junk food, and save Amber, these three end up being chased by the football team (once they discover Dick’s dastardly plan for Amber) and by a vengeful troop of Girl Scouts who have been scammed by Brian.

Aside from wonderful references to pop culture and Matthew Loux’s twist on character development, the dialogue and banter between characters make them real and endearing. What they lack in direction, they make up in character. And while vandalism and petty theft go unchallenged, and the bully gets his due (albeit in questionable ways). Further, there’s a great anti-drinking message.



Plot, Theme, and Character Development

  • Have the class or group come up with a working definition of “hero.” Discuss how Brian, Brad, and Matt do/don’t fit that definition.
  • Discuss how Brian, Brad, and Matt develop over the course of the book.
  • Brian, Brad, and Matt are wonderfully real. Discuss how Matthew Loux is able to create such realistic characters.
  • There are a lot of ethical issues laced through the story — bullying, vandalism, theft, exhibitionism, and the use and misuse of alcohol, to name a few. Discuss and evaluate these issues and the rights and wrongs committed by Brad, Brian, Matt, and Richard. How might your group have handled these issues similarly and/or differently?
  • Richard tries to get Amber drunk and when that fails, exposes himself in an effort to take advantage of her, film the experience, and post it for all to see online. Discuss the inappropriateness of this behavior and how one might handle it if ever found in this all-too-real situation.

page3Critical Reading and Making Inferences

  • Create and expand your own discussion around Brad’s question to his friends (on the third page of the book): “…we all know that some of the most famous cartoon characters come from breakfast cereals. And we also know that they’re designed to appeal to children in order to sell more cereal…corporate manipulation…my question to you is: Which character would win in a big and crazy death-match fight?”
  • Brian asks Brad and Matt, “Aren’t you guys sick and tired of Dick making fools of us…It’s time we took a stand!…It’s the BMW his parents bought him for his birthday. I propose we completely fuck it up!” Matt then notes, “Ya’ know this isn’t really standing up to him.” To which Brian replies, “Who said anything about standing up? I just want to piss the asshole off.” This dialogue provides a wonderful bridge on how to effectively and ineffectively deal with bullies, separating the feelings of frustration, revenge and shame from what may be more effective and appropriate approaches.

Language, Literature and Language Usage

  • Discuss how Matthew Loux’s use of banter and dialogue help create an entertaining story while relaying very “real” characters.

Modes of Storytelling and Visual Literacy

  • Matthew Loux’s black and white art is very angular and distinct. Discuss how his figures and artistic design add to the “feel” of the storytelling.
  • Towards the beginning of the book we see Richard looking through various magazines in the Biffco Shop while anxiously looking over his shoulder. Discuss what the author may be implying here.
  • Towards the end of the book, Amber tells Richard, “I said I don’t drink beer. I’m straight edge.” Discuss the author’s use of image and what it implies.

page4Common Core State Standards Common Core State Standards (CCSS):

While this book has a middle-school reading level, its content is not appropriate for most middle-grade students, and as such is recommended for “older teens.” This, in turn makes it more challenging to use in classrooms. As noted in the introduction, however, there are no doubt, classrooms that will be well-served with the content, language and structure of this story and I will be using the Common Core Anchor Standards for College and Career Readiness for Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening to help guide interested educators.:

  • Key ideas and details: Reading closely to determine what the texts says explicitly and making logical inferences from it; citing specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text; determining central ideas or themes and analyzing their development; summarizing the key supporting details and ideas; analyzing how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of the text.
  • Craft and structure: Interpreting words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings and analyzing how specific word choices shape meaning or tone; analyzing the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger portions of the text relate to each other and the whole; Assessing how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

Meryl Jaffe, PhD teaches visual literacy and critical reading at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth OnLine Division and is the author of Raising a Reader! and Using Content-Area Graphic Texts for Learning. She used to encourage the “classics” to the exclusion comics, but with her kids’ intervention, Meryl has become an avid graphic novel fan. She now incorporates them in her work, believing that the educational process must reflect the imagination and intellectual flexibility it hopes to nurture. In this monthly feature, Meryl and CBLDF hope to empower educators and encourage an ongoing dialogue promoting kids’ right to read while utilizing the rich educational opportunities graphic novels have to offer. Please continue the dialogue with your own comments, teaching, reading, or discussion ideas at and please visit Dr. Jaffe at http://www.departingthe

Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work by making a donation or becoming a member of CBLDF!

All images (c) Matthew Loux