Graphic novels

Graphic novels tell a story using a comic book style –‘sequential illustrations’. Unlike comic books though they are published in book format and usually tell a story to the end.


About graphic novels
How to read a graphic novel
Using graphic novels with students
Graphic novels in the school library
Case Study: Graphic novels at Whangarei Boys' High School Library
Where to get graphic novels
Further reading

About graphic novels

Graphic novels are a format, not a genre. They are narratives, told in comic book style. They are published as a book – usually 64, 128 or 176 pages, as opposed to a collection of comic strips, which have been previously published as a periodical serial.

The term "graphic novel" was coined by Will Eisner to distinguish his book A Contract with God (1978) from collections of newspaper comic strips. He described graphic novels as consisting of “sequential art” — a series of illustrations which, when viewed in order, tell a story. Will Eisner is seen as the founder of graphic novels, and the industry award is named in his honour.

Graphic novels can be fiction or non-fiction - some libraries are calling them “graphics” rather than “graphic novels” to be more inclusive of non-fiction.

“Although today’s graphic novels are a recent phenomenon, this basic way of storytelling has been used in various forms for centuries — early cave drawings, hieroglyphics, and medieval tapestries like the famous Bayeux Tapestry can be thought of as stories told in pictures.” - Jeff Smith, creator of Bone

For some recent examples of graphic novels, select the Graphic Novels tag in our Create Readers Blog.

The value of graphic novels - in the library and classroom

Graphic novels are very popular with boys and girls and represent great reading material for ESOL students. They are an invaluable resource for teaching visual literacy skills and ideal for teens as discussed in The Truth about Graphic Novels (PDF) by Kristin Fletcher-Spear, Merideth Jenson-Benjamin, & Teresa Copeland.

"They lure teen boys, while retaining the qualities beloved by teen girls. They work for ESL students, teach visual literacy and sequencing, and, above all else, they are wildly popular with an adolescent audience." Kristin Fletcher-Spear, Merideth Jenson-Benjamin, & Teresa Copeland

How to read a graphic novel

"Graphic novels don’t work exactly the same way that traditional novels do, but they can be as demanding, creative, intelligent, compelling, and full of story as any book.” Robin Brenner

Just as graphic novels are more than fiction with pictures, reading a graphic novel is is a different experience to reading a novel. The best are not only well written but can contain compelling artwork, and innovative design. For the reader this means focusing as much on the reading as the looking by:

  • taking note of interplay of both on each page
  • the layout arrangement (placement and size) of panels
  • detail that illuminates character 
  • how narration and dialogue are arranged.

Using graphic novels with students

This Scholastic guide to using grapic novels with children and teens is an excellent starting point and provides a number of links including Robin Brenner's website No Flying, No Tights. This is a great resource with reviews of graphic novels for teens, while Sidekicks, is its sister site for children/

Graphic novels in the school library

Some areas for consideration include:

  • Location, shelving, classification and cataloguing. Usually libraries have a separate collection of "graphic novels", and if they are non-fiction they can still be catalogued with the Dewey number though shelved with other graphic novels.
  • Issuing - if the collection is small and very popular, there are advantages to keeping them "for library use only."
  • Challenges - check your school library collection statement includes reference to material in different formats, and how to handle challenges should they arise.
  • Developing a range of types of graphic novels eg Superheroes, Manga, Classics, Novels, Non-fiction

Case Study: Graphic novels at Whangarei Boys' High School Library

Dee Brooker, Librarian at Whangarei Boys' High School, became interested in graphic novels for the students back in 2002, so she decided to make it a focus for her collection development.

She secured additional funding and used the expertise of Gotham Comics in Auckland to start the collection, which has grown over the years to over 600 titles. The graphic novels are “Not for loan” and so always available - a successful draw-card for the students who come to the Library to read them, before school, at interval and lunchtime.

The broad collection includes award-winning titles such as “Maus” and “Persepolis”, super-heroes, manga, and the popular comics. The collection also includes high-interest, visual material - fiction and non-fiction, optical illusion books, how to draw cartoons, manga, Incredible Comparison series and some high-interest sophisticated picture books so they are always available for browsing. It is a separate collection in the library in a high-profile location, well displayed on face-out shelving at seating height.

They are used by a wide cross-section of the students, from Year 9 to 13, and at all reading levels from less confident to very able readers. Dee says, "They are always out of place, upside down back–to-front and looking a little tatty, so I know that they are being well used!"

Whangarei Boys' High School graphic novel collection

Whangarei Boys' High School graphic novel collection

Review sites for graphic novels

Where to get graphic novels

Visit the National Library of New Zealand catalogue to see the increasingly wide range of graphic novels available for loan.

Specialist suppliers of graphic novels in New Zealand are:

Arkham City Comics Royal Oak Mall Shop 45A/691 Manukau Rd, Royal Oak, Auckland
Phone: 09 62 JOKER, 09 62 56537

Comics Compulsion, 58 Main North Rd, papanui, Christchurch
Phone/fax: 03 379 7866; Email

Graphic, Wellington 106 Cuba Mall, Wellington
Phone: (04) 384-2691 (no fax) Email:

Heroes for sale 582 Karangahape Rd, Newton, Auckland
Ph 09 307 0682

Further information

Get Graphic A website full of resources for teachers and librarians made possible by New York State Education Department. Includes extensive list of resources and suppliers for collection development.

Graphic Novels 101 is Anastasia Betts site which provides information and resources for educators.

CCBC School of Education has a wider range of links with further information about graphic novels.

Reading lessons Graphic novels 101 by Hollis Margaret Rudiger.

Teacher Guide (PDF) about using graphic novels general - in particular 'Bone' in the classroom.

National Association of Comics Arts Educators Includes lesson plans, exercises, study guides and sample scripts.

ReadWriteThink - website of the International Reading Association and the (US) National Council of Teachers of English, has ideas and resources for lessons (search graphic novel) and also the following, Book Report Alternative: Comic Strips and Cartoon Squares

Comics in the Classroom: A Comic Site for Parents, Teachers, and Librarians

Hicksville Press provides New Zealand Comics and Graphic Novels, a 100-page directory of New Zealand cartoonists and comic creators as a free download.

  • Hajdu, David. (2008).The Ten Cent Plague: the great comic book scare and how it changed America. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Hatch, Joshua. (c2006). Comic books: from superheroes to manga. Bloomington, Minn: Red Brick Learning.
  • McCloud, Scott. (2006). Making comics: storytelling secrets of comics, manga and graphic novels. HarperCollins.
  • McCloud, Scott. (1994). Understanding comics. HarperCollins.
  • Presented in comic strip form, explores the history, symbolism, technique and content of the comic strip genre.
  • Nagatomo, Haruno. (2003). Draw your own manga: all the basics. Kodansha International.
  • Sabin, Roger. (1996). Comics, comix & graphic novels: a history of comic art. Phaidon.

Image: Boys reading graphic novels, by Jo Buchan