Using Graphic Novels in Education: I Kill Giants


I Kill Giants, by Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura, won the IGN Best of 2008, was voted one of the 10 Best Comics of 2009 by New York magazine’s Dan Kois; was a YALSA (Young Adult Library Association) 2010 Top Ten Great Graphic Novel for Teens, and won the Gold Award at the 5th International Manga Award I 2012.

Through the prose and art of I Kill Giants, Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura provide a timeless, honest rendering of a child’s reaction to critical illness as eleven-year-old Barbara struggles to face an untimely loss, first through escapism and then gradually through acceptance. With Kelly’s insightful text and Niimura’s powerful images, we feel Barbara’s pains and struggles as she faces life’s challenges.

Table of Contents


I Kill Giants is an empowering story about fifth-grader Barbara Thorson, a precocious Dungeons and Dragons player, who is currently devoting most of her time (in and out of school) to fighting giants. Barbara is a reluctant but fearless hero, and her battle with giants and titans mirror epic battles of myth. Through the text and images, we struggle along with Barbara — through her tantrums, her trips to the principal and school counselor, and her conversations with imps and faeries, and through her fights with bullies and her older sister — to her critical battle with an equally fearless titan.

Barbara prepares for battle by setting traps by her home along the beach and by carrying the Coveleski war hammer, her talisman and sure-fire giant killer, in a heart-shaped purse. In and out of home and school, we struggle with her as the “truths” she’s facing are slowly revealed and her fears are finally confronted and conquered.

As the story unfolds, we must evaluate whether Barbara is escaping into a world of fantasy, whether her quest to kill giants is just a metaphor for life, or if, in fact, she does kill giants. Kelly’s prose paired with Niimura’s bold black and white manga-style art successfully relays Barbara as a real child, a stubborn pre-teen with few friends. She is ready to fight anyone and everyone. She’s caustic, lonely and determined. And we’re all rooting for her. The story, prose, and art make this book an outstanding read for all ages.



I Kill Giants opens with Barbara — a clever, glib fifth graders who is a loner in school and seems to talk more with faeries and goblins than with friends — sitting behind a makeshift tent made from blankets and sheets and a tapestry image of a knight fighting vile monsters. We see her sewing. We aren’t sure yet what it is, but she is intently focused. We slowly see she’s embroidering a design on a heart-shaped purse, a purse we will see with her throughout most of the book. We later find out that this purse is the coveted home of her secret weapon — the Coveleski war hammer — the only effective weapon to battle and kill giants.

The next time we see Barbara, she’s sitting in the back of class, reading as parents are talking to the class about their various careers. Barbara, however, soon makes it clear to her teacher, the students, and honored classroom guests that she can’t be bothered with such mundane issues. She is a giant killer. Only she, with her legendary Coveleski war hammer, can battle the impending onslaught of giants. This of course, leads her to the principal.

Barbara is focused on preparing for her battle with giants. To her, this challenge is real and it is imminent. She must prepare. While Barbara is steely tough and determined, she is all-too vulnerable. She has no friends in school until Sophia moves in nearby and is taunted by a bully. But even to her newfound friend Sophia, Barbara warns that, “you don’t want to get too close to me, Sophia…people too close to me die.” We also see Barbara’s vulnerabilities at home. She fights with her older sister, and is so fearful of monsters upstairs in her house that she stays in the basement. Still, she has spunk and courage, and we root for her all the way through.


Barbara is a wealth of information when it comes to giants. She teaches us about the first giant, Ur, and helps us distinguish between titans and giants. And she knows just how to battle them. She tells everyone, including faeries and goblins, about her strategies. They help support her and help warn her.

Are the faeries real? Does Barbara really see them? Are they her only friends? And are there real giants threatening Barbara’s very existence or are they a metaphor for the fears she must face? Or, are they simply part of a made-up world Barbara’s created to help her escape from the fears and horrors around her? These questions are for you to explore as you read and enjoy I Kill Giants.

In short, I Kill Giants is an insightfully honest and empowering story of a girl who struggles with loss, bullying, and friendship. It is about, how, as Joe Kelly writes “we’re all stronger than we think.”

In addition to Kelly’s wonderfully nuanced central character and his sensitive rendering of facing life’s challenges, this powerfully illustrated and told story deals with:

  • the power of friendship, especially when things get tough;
  • finding the courage to deal with loss;
  • the powers and perils of escapism; and
  • the long reaching effects of bullying.



Cultural Diversity, Civic Responsibilities, and Social Issues

  • Barbara is clearly different from the other kids in her school and class. Discuss how the text and art depict her differences and how others treat her as a result. Discuss issues of social tolerance in this story and compare it to social tolerance in your own school.
  • Throughout the story, but particularly in Chapter 5, Barbara deals with the school bully. Have students visually depict Barbara’s strategies while evaluating their effectiveness. Brainstorm other strategies students might use when dealing with bullies.

Language, Literature, and Language Usage

  • Discuss how Barbara’s battle with a titan takes on mythic and epic proportions.
  • Define and discuss metaphor. Evaluate Kelly’s use of metaphor in this story.
  • Compare giants of myth (i.e. Greek Titans, the Celt’s Green Knight, the Bible’s Goliath, etc.). Discuss how Barbara’s giants and her facts on giants do or do not fit with these classic giants.
  • In Chapter 2, Barbara and Sophia are looking through a small telescope out to the sea. They notice cool cloud formations. Sophia says, “Cool! It’s like a face!” and Barbara replies, “Yeah…Harbingers of doom are ‘cool.’” In Chapter 4, Barbara is walking home from the school bus and she sees harbingers again noting, “Harbingers. They know…they know when death is on the march.” Define and discuss the language used, in particular Kelly’s use of harbingers. Have students brainstorm and describe types of harbingers (i.e. seasonal harbingers, harbingers of danger, harbingers of relief, etc.).
  • In Chapter 2 and Chapter 4, Barbara gives Sophia a lesson on giants and goes so far as to differentiate between giants and titans. Have students create a “Giant Handbook” using Barbara’s facts and researching additional ones. Suggest they research different cultural myths (Ancient Greek, Norse, Chinese myth) as well as more modern literary and cultural references.
  • In Chapter 2, Barbara is not only a source of Giant lore, she is convinced she knows how to defeat them with her own talisman: “The finest war hammer ever made, forged from a fragment of bone from the jaw of Ur himself…the thunder-maker . The light bringer…Coveleski, The Giant Slayer…” Discuss different talismans in literature and film, including who used them and how they worked (for example, King Arthur’s Excalibur, Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, Thor’s Mjölnir, etc.)
  • Discuss the hero archetype as described by Joseph Campbell (see resource below). Discuss Barbara does or does not fit the prototype.

Critical Thinking and Inferences


The authors make many inferences in this book both with language use and through imagery. You may want to discuss the following uses of inference:

  • At the end of Chapter 2, we see Barbara wearing a knight’s helmet and breastplate sitting at a bus stop and talking to some faeries. She tells them, “No one’s here. You don’t have to hide,” To which the faerie replies, “Oh really, miss tall and steely? You’re hiding.” Discuss the implications of this dialogue and what Barbara might be hiding from.
  • In Chapter 3, Barbara is talking with the school counselor who asks Barbara if her sister is “dumb.” Barbara is busy drawing a she responds, “No. She’s not dumb like other people. She’s ‘special.’” Then, in the next panel as the counselor continues by asking, “Does she make you angry like other people? What about your brother–?” at which point Barbara’s crayon snaps and breaks. Discuss what this dialogue and the snapped crayon are inferring and trying to tell us. What does Barbara think about her brother and sister?
  • In Chapters 3 and on, often when Barbara talks with the counselor or her sister, there are words that are crossed out. Discuss what those words are and why they’re crossed out. What is Kelly telling us and why is he doing it in this manner?
  • Chapter 6 contains Barbara’s epic battle with a titan. As she’s battling the Titan, Barbara tells him, “She’s going to live because I beat you…” To which the Titan responds, “Little warriorrrr….I diddd nottt come forrrr herrrrr….I came… forrrr you!” Discuss what he means.

Modes of Storytelling and Visual Literacy

In graphic novels, images are used to relay messages with and without accompanying text, adding additional dimension to the story. Compare, contrast, and discuss with students how images can be used to relay complex messages. For example:

  • Discuss how JM Ken Niimura’s art helps tell the story. In particular, discuss how and why the images at school and at home are so different. Discuss how this helps tell the story.
  • In Chapter 3, there is an incredible wordless one-panel image of the school hallway, full of kids talking, walking and interacting as Barbara moves by them. The hallway is also full of imps, faeries, and monsters. Discuss what JM Ken Niimura is trying to relay on this page.
  • In Chapter 3, we see Barbara in school wearing regular clothes (and bear ears) but after getting off the bus, we see she’s wearing her armor. Why?
  • In Chapter 4, in the school counselor’s office, there are several posters. Discuss these posters and their messages. How do they influence/ enhance the story?

Suggested Prose and Graphic Novel Pairings

For greater discussion on literary style and/or content here are some prose novels and graphic novels you may want to read with I Kill Giants:

  • page10Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse: An outstanding story told in poetic prose about a girl living in Oklahoma Dust Belt in the 1930s and how she copes with the loss of her mother.
  • Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White: A spider helps a pig evade the slaughter house, and he helps the barn animals deal with her eventual death.
  • Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume: The story of a fourteen-year-old girl whose father is shot during a robbery and how she, her mother, and her younger brother cope with his loss.
  • The Olympian Series by George O’Connor: An outstanding graphic novel series covering Greek Myth. (Note: Zeus: King of the Gods, the first of the series, has a nice section on the Titans.)
  • D’Aulaire’s Book Of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire: A classic and timeless collection of beautifully illustrated stories of the ancient Greek gods and their myths.
  • The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland: Contains thirty-two classic myths from the Viking world.
  • The Secret History of Giants by Ari Berk: A work of fiction that combines giants of new and old legends.
  • Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman, illustrations by Mark Buckingham: About a boy named Odd who runs away from home and finds himself faced with a journey to save Asgard, the city of the Norse Gods, from the Frost Giants who have invaded.
  • The Golem by Isaac Bashevis Singer: A classic Eastern European legend about a monster giant who was created by a Jewish Rabbi to protect his people.
  • Help for the Hard Times: Getting Through Loss by Earl Hipp: A guide for middle and high school students to help them understand how they experience grief and loss.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Two teens deal with and battle cancer.
  • Nana, What’s Cancer? by Beverlye Hyman Fead and Tessa Mae Hamermesh, illustrated by Shennen Bersani: An award-wining book offering loving conversations between and grandmother and granddaughter around questions about cancer.
  • What’s Up With Bridget’s Mom?Medikids Explain Breast Cancer by Dr. Kim Chilman-Blair and John Taddeo: A graphic novel explaining breast cancer.
  • What’s Up with Richard? Medikids Explain Leukemia by Dr. Kim Chilman-Blair and John Taddeo: A graphic novel explaining leukemia.
  • What’s Up With Jo? Midikidz Explain Brain Tumors by Dr. Kim Chilman-Blair and John Taddeo: A graphic novel explaining brain tumors.


While I Kill Giants is about a fifth-grader, this book is outstanding and appropriate for kids in middle school and above. It promotes critical thinking and its graphic novel format provides verbal and visual story telling that addresses multi-modal teaching, and meets Common Core State Standards. As it can be used for a range of ages and grade levels, we discuss below how it meets various Common Core Anchor standards.

  • Knowledge of Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials; demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meaning; acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking and listening at the college and career readiness level.
  • 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.
  • Integration of knowledge and ideas: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually…as well as in words; delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence; analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take
  • Range of reading and level of text complexity: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently
  • Comprehension and collaboration: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively; integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally; evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.


Teaching about Mythic Structure, Monomyth (The Hero’s Journey), and Heroes:

Background on the Golem legends:

Dealing with Death and Loss:

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

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All images (c) Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura.