The Graphic Novels My Reluctant/Struggling Reader Can’t Get Enough Of

About this time last year I made three discoveries:

  1. My younger daughter Charlotte (third grade at the time) was a reluctant/struggling reader.  She’d rather spend an hour on an iPad than read — unless she was asked to read on the iPad, in which case she’d happily hand over the iPad and feign a sudden need for fresh air and exercise outside.
  2. She did, however, love picture books, illustrated fiction, and graphic novels.
  3. Her love for those types of books often needed to be explained and defended, because, after all, “she was already a 3rd grader and should be reading ‘harder’ books.”*

(*I understand the concerns over the these books because in my pre-MLIS days, I was clueless about them too.  But really, picture books, illustrated fiction, and graphic novels not only make perfect sense for ELL, reluctant, and struggling readers, but can enrich the reading experience for the rest of us as well.)

Since I already have a good collection of picture books and illustrated fiction, I started focusing on buying/borrowing graphic novels for Charlotte.  This can be tricky at times because many GNs are above her maturity level, but we are always able to find stories that are age-appropriate.  When she finds one she likes, she tends to read them over and over.  At first I find myself asking her to switch to new books (mainly so Mommy can justify buying more), but then I remembered that as an ESL reader, I used to read the same books OVER and OVER, until the different sentence structures and speech patterns became familiar, until the comprehension and decoding got easier and easier.

So I let Charlotte read as many GNs as she wants, as often as she wants, until just this week, I made another accidental discovery.

We had just gotten Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm’s Sunny Side Up from a school book order, and she had done several “picture walks” (her older sister usually rolls her eyes at this phrase) and read the book cover to cover a couple of times.  As we were sitting in bed one night, she showed me the parts she really liked, and then asked me if she could read it to me.  As much as I liked GNs, I didn’t think it’d work very well being read aloud, but I played along.  A few pages later, I realized that she had become a very different reader than the one a year ago.  She read fluently/confidently, used voices and different intonations, and asked meaningful questions about what she read.  But mostly she just ENJOYED reading to me and the fact that she got to share a story that her bookworm mom hadn’t read yet.

Maybe some of these changes have to do with the fact that she’s one year older, but I know that GNs played a huge role too.  So here are some of her favorites that you can share with your students or children.

Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

A thoughtful, semi-autobiographical story about it’s like for a child growing up around substance abuse and living with family secrets.

Charlotte and I talked about:

  • Substance abuse and addiction (alcohol, drugs, etc.)
  • What being “drunk” or “high” might look like, as depicted in the book
  • How a person’s words and actions might change because they are under the influence
  • Secrets — why some are not healthy to keep (e.g. Why did Sunny have a meltdown towards the end of the book?)
  • How there are things that could happen in a family that a kid might think it’s their fault, but it really isn’t

We also read the authors’ note together at the end of the book.

Drama by Raina Teigemeier

Callie challenges herself to create an eye-popping set for her middle-school theater production in spite of budget cutbacks, relationship troubles, and her waning confidence in her own designing and carpentry skills.  Will her efforts pay off, or will the play flop amid all the drama?

I debated for a while whether to let Charlotte read this book.  She loves Telgemeier’s other books (Smile and Sisters), but I wasn’t sure if she was ready to read about middle school crushes, kissing, dating — regardless if it’s between a boy and a girl or two boys…because as a parent, the thought of having to discuss ANY of it is kind of terrifying!  But in the end, I figured we were both big girls enough to handle any conversations that might come out of her reading this book, and not surprisingly, it’s now another one of her favorite books.

Charlotte and I talked about:

  • Crushes, kissing, dating, etc.  Honestly, the conversation wasn’t awkward at all.  As I learned from other parents — keep your answers brief, age-appropriate, and honest and you’ll do fine!
  • Same-sex relationships — I thought we’d have a more in-depth conversation about this but we didn’t.  The part where two boys kissed (during the play) brought forth the same reaction as when she sees a boy and girl kiss — that is, “Ewww, why would ANYONE want to kiss anyone else like that?!?”
  • How we are all made with different talents and capabilities.  Someone working backstage contributes just as much — just in different ways — as someone singing/acting onstage.

Sisters by Raina Teigemeier

Raina tells the story of what it’s like to grow up with a little sister.

Charlotte and I talked about:

  • How little sisters can be annoying at times (she doesn’t like this part)
  • How BIG sisters can be annoying at times (she has a lot to say here)
  • Why family relationships are hard but invaluable
  • The use of flashbacks in the book — what purposes do they serve?

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Cece Bells tells the story of growing up with hearing loss and the difficulty of navigating school and friends when you look a little different from everyone else.

Charlotte and I talked about:

  • What does it look like when someone has a hearing loss or another type of disability?
  • Why might someone with a disability feel less confident when they are in school or with friends?
  • What are some ways Cece deals with her difference?
  • What are some ways you are different than your friends?  How do you feel about these differences?  If your friends treat you differently because of these differences, what are some things you can do about it?
  • Superpowers — what are some superpowers you might like to have?  In addition to the ability to fly, disappear, run fast, etc., how about superpowers such as being kind, compassionate, helpful, a good listener, etc.

Other titles include:

Smile by Raina Teigemeier

Babysitters Club by Raina Teigemeier

Owly series by Andy Runton

Baby Mouse series by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm

Lunch Lady series by Jarrett J. Krosoczka