WITS Talks: Engaging Young Readers with Graphic Novels with Amy Duffy

Interview by: Eleanor Dollear, Program Coordinator

Amy Duffy is the Content Curator of Youth Materials for Chicago Public Libraries. She recently led a WITS Talk for a group of volunteers, staff, and community members on the value of graphic novels and how we can support students in getting as much as possible out of them. 

Amy has worked for Chicago Public Libraries since 2001 in a variety of roles. She currently serves as Content Curator for Youth Materials, which involves selecting and adding books to the library’s youth collection.

There are many reasons why graphic novels are great for students and why parents and educators might want to introduce them into their student’s library. “Graphic novels are a way to get all sorts of kids who might not normally pick up a book engaged and excited about reading,” said Amy. “That includes reluctant readers, students who are just learning English or might have other learning challenges, and creative students who love getting to see artwork. There are many different students who might not normally pick up a regular novel, but they’re so attracted to the format of graphic novels.”

A 2014 Scholastic article agrees with Amy’s analysis, explaining that students who are not strong readers may experience lower self-esteem, which in turn can discourage their desire to read. “Graphic novels are a great way to promote literacy. Teachers and librarians do not want to give [struggling readers] picture books. Kids would reject that and deem it embarrassing. However, a comic book at a lower reading level might give kids the reading confidence they need while boosting reading and language skills.”

Graphic novels are also great for building vocabulary and basic literacy skills, according to the School Journal Library. “Reading is less daunting, with less text to decode [in graphic novels]. While vocabulary is often advanced, the concise verbiage highlights effective language usage. There is ‘smart’ but limited text, complemented by images that show what is being said, or thought.”

Furthermore, graphic novels can serve as an introduction to traditional types of books. “You have to think of it as a gateway, too,” Amy explained. For example, there are graphic novel versions of classics like Romeo and Juliet, Jane Eyre, and Dracula. Students might feel more comfortable starting with a graphic novel version of a text before diving into the original. “The quality of them has increased so much that I don’t think anyone should feel hesitant to give students graphic novels anymore,” said Amy. “They’re really starting to become so high-quality that they’re winning awards from the American Library Association and other organizations. I’m hoping to see a couple graphic novels as Newbery Award winners!”

Graphic novels are a great way for students to consider windows into other points of view different from their own. “I would recommend checking out the Reading Without Walls challenge website [which challenges students to read books with characters and topics different from themselves] and talk to students about the different criteria, like how is this character like you or not like you? If this is not a format you normally read, did you enjoy it? Would you try it again? Or try a different kind of book and you might not normally pick up, things like that.”

If you’re looking for a graphic novel for a student in your life, Amy recommends any of Dav Pilkey’s books, the HiLo series by Judd Winick, and books with popular characters like My Little Pony and Power Rangers. She’s currently reading Brave by Svetlana Chmakova, about a group of kids going through their awkward junior high years and trying to fit in at school; a book that’s very popular amongst WITS students. Furthermore, she explains, “I would just encourage everybody to check out our Best of the Best list on our CPL website, and I encourage everybody to keep exploring graphic novels because there’s a such a variety to try out there.”